Themes from the Iowa legislature's opening day in 2013

The Iowa House and Senate began their 2013 session yesterday with the usual welcoming speeches from legislative leaders and the ritual of choosing desks for each lawmaker in the chambers. Judging from this photo, returning legislators get first dibs.

As was the case in 2012, social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage were absent from the opening-day speeches. Republican leaders emphasized the need to cut both property and income taxes. Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen also claimed credit on behalf of Republicans for Iowa’s improving fiscal condition. House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer spent a fair amount of time criticizing Congress before calling for state action to improve education and cut taxes. House Speaker Pro Tem Steve Olson repeated some themes of last year’s election campaign and quoted U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Similarly, Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix concentrated on tax reforms.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal focused on education and workforce training programs to address “Iowa’s skill shortage.” Senate President Pam Jochum focused on health-related issues: improve mental health services, helping elderly people stay in their own homes, and expanding Medicaid, which she described as “the biggest opportunity for this session to make a positive difference for Iowans.” Iowa House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy emphasized the need for bipartisan work on a range of issues: education, mental health care delivery, the transition to a new maximum security prison, and protecting natural resources.

Follow me after the jump for excerpts from the opening-day speeches by legislative leaders (as prepared for delivery). I included the full text of Jochum’s remarks, because her personal journey says a lot about who she is. Jochum also paid a lovely tribute to former Republican State Senator Pat Ward, who died last year.  

Excerpt from remarks by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal:

In recent years, we’ve kept the focus on bread-and-butter issues that matter most to Iowans: jobs, education, and health care.

As the Senate Majority Leader, I will work to continue that focus. It’s the best way to expand Iowa’s middle class, and it’s the best way to bring long-term prosperity to our state.

I will highlight just one policy proposal today.

My top priority for the 2013 session is addressing Iowa’s skill shortage.

We’ve all read reports showing that Iowa businesses can’t find the workers they need to expand.

Let’s remember that Iowa actually DOES NOT have a shortage of workers; we have a shortage of SKILLED workers.

That’s why this session we should do more to help Iowa workers upgrade their skills.

I recently met with educators, business leaders, and community college students in Sioux City, Mason City, Newton, Fort Dodge and Council Bluffs.

At one of those meetings, an Iowan told me a story that I’d like to share with you. He said that just a couple of months ago, he was working for the minimum wage, struggling to support his family.

Then, he got one of the Kibbie Grants we created last year. That made it possible for him to enroll at his local community college for a month long class in commercial driving.

He completed the class, got his CDL, and he was quickly hired for a much better job as truck driver.

That was good news for his family, for the business that hired him and for the Iowa economy as a whole.

And it was all possible because Democrats and Republicans in the Iowa Legislature found common ground.

Last year, we took one step forward. This year, we should take several more.

Adult basic education is for adults that-for whatever reason-didn’t get a high school diplomat. And Iowa is one of just three states that provide almost no support to adult basic education.

Let’s listen to Iowans and expand our definition of adult education.

Let’s increase our investment in improving the skills of workers at all levels; everything from non-degree programs like those that help you earn a Commercial Drivers License, to one- or two-year associate degrees, to four-year and post-graduate degrees.

Why shouldn’t Iowa become the best state in the nation when it comes to workforce training?

I want to be able to tell businesses: “We can help train workers so they have whatever skills you need to succeed.”

This can be the common ground that unites all four caucuses and the executive branch. Investing in workers is the best way to grow our economy and help Governor Branstad reach his goal of increasing Iowa family income by 25 percent.

Full text of the speech by Senate President Pam Jochum:

Welcome to the 85th General Assembly of the Iowa Legislature.

I am honored to serve as the President of the Senate.

As the Senate’s presiding officer, I will be inspired by my predecessors, including the irreplaceable Jack Kibbie of Emmetsburg, the godfather of Iowa’s community colleges.

We’ve all traveled our own paths to this day. I want to especially welcome the 11 new members of the Senate and their families.

Congratulations on the commitment to public service that brought you here today.

My own journey to this podium is grounded in my experiences as a lifelong resident of Dubuque.

Both my parents grew up in Dubuque. After serving in the Navy, my dad started out working on the line at a family owned business, the Dubuque Packing Company. He eventually worked his way up to becoming a company vice president.

My mother managed our household and guided six children to successful adulthood. In her “spare” time, she volunteered to prepare and serve the breakfast and lunch program at the neighborhood grade school.

My parents brought their children up to be involved in our community, and to give something back in return for all that had been given to us.

There was one other group of people who influenced me. As you may know, the Dubuque area is home to five women religious orders.

The good sisters instilled a passion for justice in me. They taught with their words and actions that all persons are created equal.

And they taught us that to fail to speak up and do what’s right is to fail to do your duty as a citizen.

Democracy, equality, justice were not just words we learned in school. The sisters taught us they were ideals that we should seek to advance in our personal and public lives.

Years later, as a young mother, I encountered discrimination that brought that passion for justice to life.

At the time, “Area Residential Care,” a local group that helped adults with intellectual disabilities, hoped to build a group home in an upscale Dubuque neighborhood.

One particular individual was quite vocal in his opposition to the home. He told me that he didn’t like the way “they” looked. He worried the presence of people like them would lower property values.

Despite the opposition, the city council granted the building permit.

There are now some two dozen similar group homes in Dubuque. Adults with intellectual disabilities and their families are more integrated into our community than ever before. And Dubuque is more beautiful and a better place to live because of it.

That was my first experience with the discrimination that my daughter, Sarah, faces simply for being who she is. It helped convince me to run for public office.

In 1992 I became the first woman to represent the City of Dubuque in the Iowa Legislature.

I arrived in Des Moines ready to pass legislation to improve the lives of Iowa families and make our state more prosperous. I’m sure many of you walked in the Statehouse today with the same goals.

However, my ambitious plans collided with a harsh political reality.

As a Democratic member of the Iowa House, I would spend the next 14 years in the minority.

Pat Ward, our former colleague, knew how to accomplish things for Iowans even while in the minority. With patience, persistent good will, and hard work, Pat helped improve the lives of Iowans.

In the last few years, I was honored to work with her to give young people involved in the juvenile justice system a second chance.

Pat knew how to put good government ahead of good politics, and we all miss her.

Today, Iowa is one of only three states with a divided legislature. To be successful, we must all work together.

The troubling questions confronting us do not have a Democratic answer, or a Republican answer, or an urban answer, or a rural answer.

They can only have human answers for they are the questions that ask what kind of life we want to live together.

One of those troubling questions is how to ease the serious health care worries many Iowa families have.

Fortunately, on this important issue, legislators from both parties have already listened to Iowans and already worked successfully together.

Several non-partisan health care commissions made up of health care providers, insurers, business advocates, and consumers have pointed us in the right direction.

Former Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack and then-former Governor Terry Branstad co-chaired one of those commissions.

One result is that Iowa Republicans and Democrats worked together to expand Hawk-i, the Healthy and Well-Kids of Iowa insurance program.

That bipartisan effort is why Iowa’s children are now among the healthiest in the nation.

And that’s why Governor Branstad was absolutely right to set his sights on making Iowa the healthiest state in the nation.

Today, Iowa is well positioned to lead the nation in solving tough health care problems for families and businesses alike.

We can do it by showing the nation how to put lasting progress ahead of short-term partisanship.

This session, let’s continue our bipartisan effort to improve mental health services across the state.

This session, let’s keep investing in the services that allow our older citizens to stay in their own homes.

And here’s the biggest opportunity for this session to make a positive difference for Iowans.

Right now, too many Iowa families risk the loss of their home and bankruptcy if a parent or spouse or child becomes ill.

Right now, our local hospitals and health care providers are burdened with roughly one billion dollars each year in uncompensated care.

Right now, that uncompensated care drives up up insurance costs for every Iowa business and every family with health insurance.

We can fix this problem, and we can do it right now.

Last month, I listened Iowa’s health care leaders from across the state.

The people who know Iowa health care issue best are speaking with one voice. They are urging us to expand Medicaid.

They point out that expanding Medicaid will make affordable health insurance available to all Iowans; expanding Medicaid will make Iowa’s health care system financially secure; and expanding Medicaid slow rising health care costs for Iowa families and Iowa businesses.

By expanding Medicaid, we will bring health insurance to 80,000 currently uninsured Iowans and preserve health care for 70,000 Iowans currently on IowaCare.

Iowans look at the mess divided government in Washington D.C. has produced and they shake their heads.

Iowans expect better from their state legislature, and we have delivered in previous sessions.

Early in this session, let’s show Iowans that rather than engaging in senseless partisanship, we will again listen to them and do what’s right.

I strongly encourage you to talk with the hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and other health care providers in your districts.

I did.

, and I’m convinced that expanding affordable health insurance is one of the best things we can do for Iowa families and to help grow the Iowa economy.

When our children and grandchildren look back, I hope they will remember this session as a time when Iowa’s common sense and Iowa’s sense of community rose up to meet the challenge of our times.

At the close of the convention that drafted the United States Constitution, Ben Franklin asked this question: “Is it a rising or a setting sun?” Each generation since 1787 has answered that question. Once again, the answer rests with us.

Thank you.

Excerpt from remarks by Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen:

Coming off an election cycle, we have all spent a great deal of time meeting with Iowans in our districts, getting their thoughts and making commitments to them. Two of the most prevalent issues Iowans heard from the campaigns this summer revolve around state spending and comprehensive tax relief. Republicans and Democrats alike ran on these issues and Iowans expect action.

Two years ago, the state faced a $900 million budget shortfall. Today, we have an ending balance of $688 million and our budget reserves are full. Plain and simple, we are in the current budget situation due to the fiscal discipline insisted upon by this chamber and the leadership shown by Governor Branstad over the last two sessions.

This is a fundamental change in legislative decision making, driven not by us, but by Iowans. This is a significant departure from how government operated in the past where every dollar was spent, even some we didn’t have.

Our 99 percent expenditure limitation law has served us well. However, this law allows the Legislature and the governor to spend more than the state collects. This loophole is one House Republicans will not exploit. The only way to ensure sustainable and responsible state spending is to spend no more than we have – that is to say we must balance ongoing revenue with ongoing expenses.

House Republicans have instilled a fundamental culture change and we must not, we will not, retreat now.

This chamber must stick to the principles used to get our fiscal house in order:

• We will not spend more money than the state takes in;

• We will not use one-time money to pay for on-going expenses;

• We will not intentionally underfund entitlement programs to balance the state’s budget;

• We will return unused tax dollars to Iowa’s taxpayers.

There are some who see the state’s ending balance as a giant pot of money, and they have already begun devising ways to spend it. If we were to spend everything we were allowed to under law, the state would need to see nine percent growth in 2014 revenues just to maintain that level of funding. This is unsustainable and should caution everyone making spending plans.

Let me be very clear – the ending balance is an overpayment by the hardworking taxpayers of Iowa. It is their money and they should get it back. In order to continue on the path of sound budgeting we must not back up from this pledge. We must not use this overpayment to feed government’s appetite for growth.

Representative Soderberg -Iowans look forward to your committee bringing us a budget that conforms to these principles.

Most, if not all of us in this chamber have also said we need to go to work on reducing taxes, specifically property taxes. I would say that time is long since overdue.

A while back I received an email from Patty, a small business owner in my hometown of Hiawatha. This business has been locally owned and operated for more than 25 years. Patty stated, “I think your message that Iowa is open for business sounds great, but is questionable. Last year our property taxes went up over 14 percent. This should be illegal. It has become difficult for our small business to continue to compete in such a climate. We need new equipment and more employees.”

Our job creators want to hire, they want to invest in our communities. They are being stifled and burdened by our government and their taxes. It’s up to us to change this.

Now is the time for action, not more lip service. Iowans grow weary of campaign promises during election summers that turn into roadblocks and partisan bickering during session winters.

Some talk about giving one group of people this credit and another group that credit. This is neither comprehensive nor predictable tax relief and reform. It is arbitrary, restrictive, and unreliable. We need comprehensive reform, reform for ALL Iowans.

Additionally, local governments are projected to collect more in property taxes than ever before. The rollback has turned into the roll up and homeowners are paying the price in a big way. From Fiscal Year 2012 to 2013 alone, local governments will take an ADDITIONAL $100 million from Iowans. We must act to address this rapid growth in government spending. If we do not, the hardworking taxpayers are again getting the short end of the stick.

During the previous General Assembly, this chamber came together with Governor Branstad and passed four property tax reform bills in a bipartisan manner only to watch them die in the Senate. The 85th General Assembly must do better.

I say again, House Republicans are not dug in on any one plan – we are open to any suggestion, but it must deliver significant and real property tax savings and include all classes of property. The focus cannot be on protecting and maximizing government revenues.

Representative Sands, Iowans look forward to your committee bringing us a property tax reform and relief bill that includes all classifications of property, that moves us away from having the third highest commercial property taxes in the nation and the 16th highest residential property taxes in the nation. Taxpayers need relief they can count on.

All of the proposals we work on must be directed at creating a stronger Iowa – a strong economy, strong budget leadership and strong schools and communities.

House Republicans will:

• Offer meaningful, inclusive, and reliable property tax relief and reforms.

• Eliminate job-killing red tape, burdensome regulations and declare dead any bills that threaten economic growth such as repealing Right to Work.

• Advance education reforms that offer accountability, innovation and choice for parents. We are not interested in simply throwing more money at a system that drives us to mediocrity. We are interested in identifying creative solutions that raise student achievement, empower teachers and better prepare young Iowans to compete in a global marketplace. These ideas must be helpful to teachers – not just another bureaucratic burden.

• Create a one-stop shop for business startups using existing departments to streamline the process and encourage entrepreneurship.

• Allow hardworking Iowa taxpayers to keep more of their money. We will streamline Iowa’s income tax system and lower rates and continue to put any overpayment of tax dollars into the Taxpayer Trust Fund and return it directly to the pockets of Iowans.

Excerpt from remarks by Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer:

Each and every one of you should be proud of the responsibility your constituents have entrusted you with. Do not let the hectic nature of session days obscure your purpose.

I am afraid that our leaders in Washington may have lost that focus. People in Iowa and around the country are losing their faith in government. They are losing faith in the ability of good men and women to tackle issues head on.

They see a Congress afraid to debate issues openly or operate transparently by passing a budget. They see runaway spending as the nation’s debt burden reaches nearly inconceivable levels. They watch health care costs skyrocket yet no reforms to slow it.

They see lip service paid to the burden of overregulation only to watch onerous rules continue to proliferate under overzealous agencies. Our farmers are busy feeding the world and yet doubt is cast over their industry because of the failure to pass a farm bill.

The so-called “fiscal cliff” epitomized why so many are losing faith. Allegedly, Washington was finally forced to confront its own fiscal crisis. The result? More taxes, MORE debt, and they kicked as many cans down the road as they could.

If you feel anything like me then you are probably ready to tell them to get out of our way and let the states handle it!

It is my hope that the 85th General Assembly of Iowa may serve as an example of the best in public service. Iowans can be proud that we do not have the same problems that plague Washington.

In fact, we have the opportunity to show Washington what happens when we focus not on our differences, but on our common goals. Let’s work together to identify the problems we face and focus on solutions.

An area where we should be able to come together is educating our youth. There was a time when the education system in Iowa evoked pride. Today however, it raises mostly concern.

We are concerned about the quality and rigor of the education our children are receiving. We are concerned that students are not graduating with the mastery necessary to succeed in college. We are concerned that our students are not graduating with the skills needed to enter the workforce and that increasingly our students must compete with not just those from other states, but other nations.

We must be resolved to address our education system. We should be open to new approaches and focused on measureable results. If we continue to fall behind, our children will find it difficult to compete and our employers will be left to look elsewhere for a skilled workforce.

Revitalizing our education system is one of the great opportunities of this General Assembly.

The citizens of Iowa have told us they are unhappy with the unsustainable growth of property taxes. If we continue to do nothing, our commercial rates will continue to drive away business, and homeowners will bear the burden of historic increases thanks to the roll up. Most of us in the room recognized that and campaigned on addressing it.

It is time for the campaign rhetoric to become action. As we do so, we must acknowledge our own poor record of funding property tax credits. We must also appreciate concerns that property tax cuts could shift the burden to other classes of property.

Property tax relief and reform can take many forms. We should be open to many ideas. However, as recognition of our own shortcomings we should ensure that it is significant, predictable and avoids any shift while benefitting all classes of property.

President Ronald Reagan is famous for saying “the problem is not that people are taxed too little, the problem is that government spends too much.” I think we can update that for Iowa in 2013. The problem is not that the state spends too little, the problem is that we collect too much!

We worked hard over the last two years to implement some common sense principles into the budgeting process. Thanks to the hard work of Iowans and these sound budgeting practices, we find the state’s finances in a healthy position.

This is tenuous however, so we must be vigilant. This starts by sticking to our budgeting principles of not spending more than we take in, not balancing the budget by intentionally underfunding obligations and not using one time funds to pay for ongoing expenses.

We can build on our success by adding another principle. We should return unused tax dollars back to the taxpayers of Iowa. The state is funding its obligations. Bipartisan budgets over the last two years have ensured that. Yet we have an ending balance.

Rather than looking for ways to spend that money, we should give it back to whom it belongs. It is the hard-working taxpayers of Iowa who earned that money and it is they who can best invest it back into our state. Please resist the urge to grow government with that money, it might not always be there.

At a time when the federal government is fighting over how to take more money, I look forward to spending our time on how to return it. Which is why I think Iowa is positioned to be a leader in the nation and to provide a shining example of the best in public service.

Excerpt from remarks by Iowa House Speaker Pro Tem Steve Olson:

Last fall, together with Governor Branstad and the Senate Republicans, House Republicans presented an action plan. An action plan to promote a durable and prosperous Iowa – that action plan is called Iowa Strong. It is an ambitious agenda – one that is about the big issues and this session must center on the big issues:

-We must continue to work on keeping the Iowa economy moving forward by:

-Promoting job creation through tax relief and reform for Iowa families and businesses

-Ending job killing red tape and burdensome regulations on Iowa farmers and businesses

-Continuing to adopt a budget that spends less than we take in

-Moving forward education reforms that will strengthen our schools and communities

Last November, Senator Marco Rubio visited our great state. He offered an astute observation on the American people, “The social and moral well-being of people is directly linked to their economic well-being.” These words ring true – so when we begin the people’s business here in this chamber and in committee meetings, we must continually keep in mind the most important issue that faces us – our economy.

Today, we have the nation’s third highest property tax on businesses – this means all business large and small. We cannot afford to over burden the small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the large-scale job creators. But not just that – we need to lower income taxes for Iowa families and put more money in their pockets.

Excerpt from remarks by Iowa House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy:

Two years ago, I issued a statement during our opening day ceremony.  Today, two years later, I’d like to paraphrase that statement now:  

House Democrats are ready to work with you in a bi-partisan way to move this great state forward.  We are ready to focus on the important issues such as education, health care, public safety and a clean environment.  Each and every day that House Democrats show up to work and find that the majority party is ready to work with us in a bi-partisan way on these and other important issues, then Mr. Speaker, you will receive a helping hand from us.  But be mindful, however, if a day comes when House Democrats show up to work and instead find that the House ship has steered into stormy waters— then House Democrats will attempt to steer that ship out of those stormy waters, away from the extreme.back to the mainstream.  

In my opinion.far too many of those days occurred over the past two years.  

Now, today, let’s turn the page.  

In a legislative publication I was reading yesterday, I learned that Iowa is one of only 3 states that has a legislature that is under divided control.  Clearly, Iowans expect us to work together.  Does anyone really believe anymore that Iowa is a so-called red state or a blue state?  Looking at the results of the last several elections, it is clear that Iowa is the “purpleist” of purple states.  Iowans expect us to work together.  I think most would also agree that while Iowans would not expect us to forsake our principles, they would expect us, when needed, to find common ground and to moderate.  

Let’s work together this year in a spirit of compromise and common ground.  

Next week, on Tuesday, a special election will occur to replace Representative Brian Quirk.  After the votes are tallied and a winner is declared, the winner will come to Des Moines to be sworn-in.  That swearing-in will occur many days after the pomp and circumstance and lofty speeches of our opening week.  As that new legislator begins his committee work, let’s let him be surprised at the level of bi-partisanship and civility he finds.  That it is real. and was not merely buzzwords in our opening day speeches.  Let’s work together this year so that when the session is over we have not stories of partisan red meat to deliver to our political partisans back home, but instead stories of substantive success.  

To that end, House Democrats pledge to work in a bipartisan way with the majority party and Governor Branstad to strengthen our educational system.  Let us pass something in this regard we can all be proud of.  Let us also work together to strengthen our mental health delivery system so that the most vulnerable amongst us are properly cared for and treated.  Let us ensure that the transition between our pre-civil war prison to our new maximum security facility is done as smoothly as possible and in a way that ensures public safety.  Also,  let us work together to ensure clean air and clean water and fully fund the programs that maintain our trails, watersheds, and maintain our state parks.  

Excerpt from remarks by Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix:

Regardless of the hat, we know the recent years have presented great challenges that require difficult decisions to be made by families across Iowa. Belts have been tightened and budgets have been cut. Much like our family budgets, the state has been living within its means with solid success. We can and will continue to do this with sound fiscal leadership and smart planning.

Our state coffers are full, full with dollars that have come from family budgets. As legislators, we must realize and appreciate this is not our money. It’s not the state’s money. It’s yours, and yours, and yours!

Every decision we make this year must be firmly rooted in our accountability to the hard working people of Iowa who pay their own bills and the bills of government. We owe them a budget that continues to spend less than we take in and protects our state in the event of a “rainy day,” while allowing them to keep more of their own money.

As we work to enact meaningful legislation this year, it is important to keep in mind that we are all Iowans, working toward a better life in the state we love. Part of that better life is a lower tax burden. Not simply a shuffling of burden, but a real reduction of their tax burden that empowers Iowans to grow small businesses, educate their children, and save

for their future. We all trust and believe in the quality of the character of Iowans and know that empowering them is how we best serve them all.

Providing a top-tier education system is vital to our future growth and success as a state. As legislators we hear from Iowa’s largest employers, our small business owners, the heads of our Universities, parents, from every sector of our state, they all want to make certain we do everything we can to improve Iowa’s education system. To prepare Iowa students to not simply go to good schools, or the best in the Midwest, or even in our country. We need to have the best schools anywhere so Iowa graduates and Iowa employers can compete in the global marketplace.

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