The Iowa House and Senate convened today to begin the 2014 legislative session. All of the opening remarks reflected on key achievements of the 2013 session, such as compromise bills on commercial property tax cuts, education reform, and providing health care to low-income Iowans. All of the speeches called for more bipartisan work this year, and all stressed "pocketbook" issues such as improving education and building the middle class rather than social issues. But Republican and Democratic leaders take different priorities into the 2014 session.
I've summarized below the key points Iowa House and Senate majority and minority leaders raised today. I also enclosed lengthy excerpts and in some cases the full texts of their opening day speeches.
Click here for a tentative schedule of key dates during the 2014 legislative session. Lawmakers tend to finish their work earlier in election years than in odd-numbered years, but I highly doubt they will be ready to adjourn by March 30, as House Speaker Paulsen hopes. They will be lucky to finish work on the state budget by April 22, when lawmakers stop receiving per diem payments.
As has been the case for the past three years, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer said nothing during their opening remarks about key Republican platform issues for social conservatives, such as banning abortion or ending marriage equality. Instead, Paulsen emphasized cutting income taxes, training for a skilled workforce, and a tuition freeze at state universities. Upmeyer hailed Iowa's unemployment rate falling to a five-year low and called for a "job-growth agenda" including more skills training and better access for Iowans to technology such as high-speed internet. Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix has long been a protege of anti-tax advocates. Not surprisingly, today he focused on income tax cuts and other "reforms" to "make Iowa more appealing for businesses" and relieve the alleged burden of "new federal taxes" on the middle class.
Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal shared stories about a few people who benefited from programs legislators approved last year. After hailing the bipartisan cooperation and good intentions on both sides of the aisle, Gronstal criticized House Republicans and Governor Terry Branstad for "sending mixed messages when it comes to supporting our local schools." He mentioned the failure to abide by a state law on setting school funding a year in advance as well as differences over the level of "allowable growth school funding." Gronstal closed with a plea for "investing in our schools again" in light of the "record-high amounts in our reserve funds."
Senate President Pam Jochum repeatedly alluded to the President John F. Kennedy's metaphor of a rising tide lifting all boats. After talking about successful government policies of the past, she called for expanding "access to universal, high quality preschool" and steps to reduce the number of Iowans and especially children who live in poverty. Embracing Branstad's stated "goal of reducing the number of Iowans who currently have to rely on public assistance programs," Jochum said it's time to raise the minimum wage again so that workers don't need to rely on public programs to provide food, shelter, health care, and child care. She noted that during his past tenure, Branstad signed legislation raising the minimum wage.
Iowa House Minority Leader Mark Smith emphasized the need to invest in education by fully funding state universities and freezing tuition. He also called for more job training programs beyond high school, saying "it should be Iowa's long-term goal to change our K-12 system to a Pre-K/14 system, where we guarantee first-rate pre-school opportunities for every child, and we guarantee two years of additional training and study for every high school graduate." Like Jochum, he advocated raising the minimum wage to improve the standard of living for working Iowans. Smith was the only speaker to mention environmental issues including soil conservation, clean water protection, and renewable energy. Finally, he called for better broadband access and other services for rural Iowa.
Excerpts from opening remarks by Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, January 13 (view his speech on YouTube here):
I'm happy to welcome you all to the second session of the 85th General Assembly.
I don't know about what your experiences during the interim were, but I have never been thanked for the legislature's work as much as I have been this last eight months. To be clear I don't think all of a sudden we were smarter or harder working, I think it was that the 150 members of the general assembly and Governor Branstad decided to have what ended up being an exceptional focus on Iowans and advancing public policy that advanced our state.
And while we may have been rigid in maintaining our principles, we were flexible and committed to finding resolution within them. The product ended up being something that all Iowans could be proud of. [...]
As a parent, there's a principle that I've tried to instill in my children- a simple idea in regards to the resources they have. Save some, spend some and give some back. With that in mind, we should continue to focus on spending less than we collect, paying off past debts and commitments, and sending the rest back to the hardworking taxpayers who sent the state their money in the first place.
We also have an opportunity to create certainty for Iowans. Those who create jobs and employ our friends and neighbors and the folks who fill those jobs with an honest day's work deserve to know they can count on stability from their state government.
With the constant overreach, intrusion and insecurity made by the federal government, we need to be especially aware of the challenges facing Iowa employers and workers and lessen the burdens we ask them to shoulder at the state level.
We must continue to send the message across the country that Iowa is a great place to do business and House Republicans believe this is a great time to look at our income tax code and find opportunities to leave more money in the pockets of all Iowans.
Working hand in hand with employers, we must continue to advance policies that encourage investment in our state and workforce, and make sure our regulatory environment is not burdensome. Additionally, we need the education opportunities for Iowans to ensure they can get the training they need to take advantage of these jobs.
Last year, through the skilled worker initiative we invested significant resources in job opportunities and growth designed to cultivate future economic health for hardworking Iowans. This year we will continue our collaboration with community colleges on workforce training and job creation.
Iowa needs more people trained for the jobs that employers need to fill. Many of those jobs do not require a four-year degree. Iowa employers need skilled workers like: welders, computer techs, nurses, and many others. We need to continue the investments that train Iowans for these jobs and we need a bipartisan commitment to encourage Iowans to pursue these fields.
Too often, political rhetoric in this building focuses on the extremes. Today, I instead choose to put a stronger focus on the middle. Those Iowans who "play by the rules" - have a job, a few kids, a house or a car - who want to be left alone to raise their families and enjoy their communities. How can we make their lives easier?
Are we offering them relief from the squeeze of federal, state and local taxes? Are we looking for ways to make it easier for them to send their kids to college? Are we removing barricades that stop them from improving their own financial health? House Republicans are focused on tearing down obstacles for these Iowans.
We will once again look for ways to freeze tuition at the state universities to make college affordable for Iowa families. Across the country institutions are routinely raising tuition on students, putting a quality four year education out of reach for many. The work that our Regents institutions are doing with us to hold this line is important. And while we look forward to seeing the results of their efficiency strategies and studies, we also challenge them to find the greatest amount of savings possible - going through their budgets line by line, just as we have done here at the statehouse.
Excerpts from opening remarks by Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, January 13 (view her speech on YouTube here):
After spending time with Iowans as I travel around the state, there is something on their minds that I would challenge the legislature to give serious consideration. There is increasing concern that gridlock has taken hold in Washington D.C. What was once an effective legislative process has instead devolved into crisis management, unable to escape a campaign mentality.
The relevance of this dysfunction is clear when you consider how much of the work we do in this building is in some way tied to federal programs. My challenge to you is to carefully consider whether there are opportunities for us to better serve Iowans by cutting some of the federal strings that have attached themselves to our efforts here.
We must focus on how to best serve Iowans. As congress and federal agencies become too inflexible and unresponsive, perhaps it is best that we take a more state-based approach.
With public confidence in the federal government at an all time low, it is a credit to the work done by the Iowa House, Senate and Governor Branstad that Iowans do have confidence in their state government.
In Iowa, we still put people before politics. We still come together and get our work done. We still hold ourselves accountable. When we say that we are going to let Iowa taxpayers keep more of their money, we do it. When we commit to common sense budget principles, we follow them. We work hard to deliver on our promises.
We must continue this tradition. We must continue to provide the example of leadership that Iowans expect and that Washington, D.C. so desperately needs.
The 2013 session saw the passage of significant legislation. Property tax reform, transforming our education model, and innovating how we provide health care for needy Iowans are all noteworthy accomplishments and certain to be part of the legacy of the 85th General Assembly.
Each one of these pieces of legislation has tasked public and private institutions to invest time and resources to implement them. Our challenge now, is to make sure these bipartisan initiatives have a chance to succeed. We must resist the temptation to change course midstream and create uncertainty. If we remain resolved, I am excited about the long-term positive effects these initiatives will have on Iowa.
This year we must build upon the strong foundation that we have laid. Let's identify our common goals and go about the business of finding solutions that work best for Iowa.
We have done an extraordinary job of changing the culture that surrounds the appropriation process. As a result, our spending is a healthy reflection of revenue. We are among the most financially secure states in the nation and there is once again confidence that we will honor the commitments we have made.
Vigilance is needed to maintain this fiscal health going forward. It only takes one undisciplined budget to destroy the progress that we have made. If we continue to adhere to the common sense budgeting principles we have set out, Iowa will continue to be prepared for whatever lays ahead.
I am encouraged that the unemployment rate in Iowa has dropped to a five-year low and that it is among the lowest in the nation. Thanks to the hardworking nature of Iowans, we are recovering from the fiscal crisis.
As we move forward, we should focus on policies that increase opportunities for low-income Iowans to find high-paying careers. Let's continue a focus on producing a world-class workforce. Let's make a college degree more affordable. Let's make skills training more accessible. Let's make technology and high-speed internet more available.
That is a job-growth agenda. It is an agenda that will promote a strong middle class.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And thank you to House Democrats who have given me this opportunity to serve as your leader.
Last week, I celebrated living on this earth for 62 years and all of those 62 years have been in Iowa.
This is the land that my ancestors selected. Earhart Lentz, from whom I descend, founded the Decatur County town of Woodland, which is in Representative Fry's district. Another ancestor, David Newton Danner, placed his wife and children on a ferry crossing the Mississippi River and then began to swim his horses across the river. They wouldn't move until he swam out in front of them, so he swam the Mississippi, with his horses following, to come to this great state.
Like so many of you, the value I place on this state is deeply steeped in tradition. The traditions of Iowa have been progressive and forward thinking - in education, in equality, in agriculture, in manufacturing - all because of the quality of people who call Iowa their home. These, the working men and women of Iowa, are the people that my caucus is committed to aid. This is the land that our caucus is committed to protect.
Mr. Speaker, in my hand is a block of wood. It is a receiver for when your gavel comes down. This receiver is made of Iowa hickory wood and is a gift from one wood worker to another. Because one of the founders of the Democratic Party was called "Old Hickory," I thought it was a fitting gift. When you are angry with the Democrats, you may strike it with gusto.
And make no mistake - there will be times when we disagree. Democrats will stay strong in our commitment to what we feel are the best policies for the good, hardworking people of our state. But it is better when we work together toward common goals. When we listen to each other and cooperate and compromise, we usually find success. You need look no further than the property tax reductions, health care initiatives, and education reforms we passed last year as examples. So let this block be a symbol of our friendship and willingness to work together in the months ahead.
In these next few months, let's continue to build on Iowa's established strengths as we lay the groundwork for the next generation. A generation of Iowans who whose rights to opportunity should be without regard to gender, ethnicity, color, or sexual orientation.
It starts with education, and it always has. The covered wagons were barely unloaded and the sod barely plowed when Iowans established country schools so their children could learn. It was just fifty-nine days after Iowa became a state that we established our first state university, and private colleges sprang up among the many religious communities that settled here.
Today, our children need to know how to make machines and other products and to deliver services. At the same time, they need an education that allows them to ask "why" as well as "how."
Personally, I think it should be Iowa's long-term goal to change our K-12 system to a Pre-K/14 system, where we guarantee first-rate pre-school opportunities for every child, and we guarantee two years of additional training and study for every high school graduate.
After graduation, we know that 50% of Iowa jobs require more training than a high school diploma, yet only about 33% of Iowans have certification beyond a high school diploma.
Our greatest challenge as legislators is to stimulate job growth, and the biggest obstacle to that is our skilled worker shortage. Competitive taxes, quality of life - there are many factors in creating jobs. But by far the most important factor is a highly-skilled workforce.
We need to make sure Iowa students have opportunities for the higher training better-paying jobs demand. It also means making higher education more affordable, which is why we should freeze tuition at state universities and fully fund the universities' demonstrated needs. Integrating a system of training beyond high school-involving community colleges, apprenticeship programs, and other job trainings is a must for Iowa to compete in a global economy.
Good jobs mean economic security for middle class families. They allow workers to take pride in what they accomplish while giving them the time, health, and ability to be part of vibrant communities. Today, many Iowa parents are working one or two low-wage jobs trying to put food on the table and pay the bills. The minimum wage is supporting Iowa families, not just Iowa teenagers.
We owe it to Iowans to raise that minimum wage, perhaps a dollar an hour now and more in the future. Our experience in Iowa has shown that raising the minimum wage has little effect on businesses, but gives working Iowans hope of a better future.
And while we are grateful that Iowa's rate of unemployment is far below the national average, we need to do more to offer employment opportunities to minorities whose rate of unemployment is higher than the national average.
Twenty-five years ago this legislature created a groundbreaking program called REAP. REAP continues to stand as a shining example of our commitment to proper natural resource stewardship. Our REAP achievements should steel our resolve to conserve our soil, protect our water, and embrace new technology and research in renewable energy like wind, solar, and biofuels.
I am reminded that when government comes collecting taxes, there is not a question about where Iowans live. However, when it comes to service delivery, too often government says "you are not living in the right area." We need to pay more attention to the needs of rural Iowa, where easy access to broadband and Wi-Fi and even emergency medical services is not the norm.
In conclusion, let me remind this body that today is not a day of conclusions, but a day of beginnings. Will this be a session of Washington style gridlock or will this be a session of collaboration, mutual respect, and positive decisions for Iowans? We, on this side of the aisle offer our willingness for it to be the latter and we shall see.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Opening day remarks by Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal:
Before I talk about what I hope we can accomplish THIS session, I want all of us to reflect for a moment on some of the good things we did for our constituents LAST session.
Often, we don't appreciate the positive impact that our decisions as legislators have on Iowans across this great state.
So, let me start this session by talking about three Iowans who got a ticket to a better life because of our bipartisan efforts during the 2013 session.
Donald Katterhenry is from Mason City. Thanks to the GAP Tuition Program we funded last year, he has earned his Commercial Driver's License at North Iowa Community College and is now employed by TMC Transportation.
A couple of years ago, Constancia Hansen was a dietary aide at the Stratford nursing home, struggling to earn enough to support her two-year-old son.
Thanks to our investment in workforce training, she earned her GED and completed non-credit classes to become a Certified Nurses Aid at Iowa Central Community College.
Constancia is now a CNA at the Stratford nursing home, can now support herself and her son, has her own place and car, and is thinking about earning a nursing degree.
Jade Johnson lives in Council Bluffs. After years working late nights as a bartender, Jade recently completed the Certified Medical Coding Class at Iowa Western Community College-thanks in part to the GAP tuition assistance program.
Today, Jade is earning more to support her family, and she is there with her kids at night when they go to bed, and on the weekends.
We should be proud of Donald, Constancia, Jade and many, many other Iowans like them.
With a little bit of help, they improved their skills and qualified for career opportunities in high demand in our state. They are building a better life for themselves and their families AND ALSO helping the Iowa economy grow.
They are just three examples of our on-going effort to expand and strengthen Iowa's middle class.
I'm proud that even though Iowa has divided government, the Legislature and Governor Branstad delivered for the people we represent and the state we love.
We find common ground, because, if we don't, nothing gets done.
And I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that each and every Democratic and Republican member of the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate, and Republican Governor Branstad WANTS to do something to help our state move forward.
Strengthening and expanding Iowa's middle class is what each of us should be thinking about from the moment we walk into this building in the morning, to the time the doors close behind us at night.
Last year, we did the right thing by investing in community colleges, freezing tuition at our public universities, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.
But when it comes to our local schools, our record of bipartisan accomplishment is decidedly more mixed.
Last year, we finally approved reforms designed to improve Iowa schools by increasing our support and training for teachers.
But there are still many parents, teachers, school board members, business leaders and community volunteers who are skeptical that the Legislature and Governor will make good on our promises on education.
I DON'T blame them.
Iowa's Democratic Senate, Republican-controlled House, and Republican Governor Branstad are sending mixed messages when it comes to supporting our local schools.
On the one hand, Iowa law has long required the Legislature to give local school funding high priority treatment, ahead of most other issues.
In 1995, the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate passed and Republican Governor Terry Branstad signed legislation to REQUIRE that within 30 days of the governor's budget being unveiled, the Legislature MUST let local schools know how much they will have to work with for the school year that starts the following year.
Since Democrats and Republicans started sharing control of Iowa's state government in 2011, the Senate has followed the law on school funding and the House has ignored the law.
This is bad news for Iowa schools.
Even worse, the Republican-controlled House insisted during the 2011 session on no increase in state funding. That was the LOWEST increase since the allowable growth school funding system was created in 1973!
The next year, Republicans insisted on only a 2 percent increase.
Last year, again after months of contentious debate, the House Republicans missed the deadline again, creating havoc with local school budgets. In the end, Democrats and Republicans agreed to something that could be called a 4% increase, if you squint hard enough.
The bottom line is that divided government in the Iowa Statehouse is failing to adequately fund our schools.
The Democratic leadership of the Iowa Senate will, as we have the last three years, follow state law by approving a modest increase in funding for local schools within the one month deadline.
The Republican leadership of the Iowa House and Iowa's Republican Governor Branstad should, unlike previous years, also follow state law.
After several lean years, it is time to start investing in our schools again.
Our budget is balanced and we have record-high amounts in our reserve funds.
Tomorrow, Governor Branstad should step up and lead by proposing a modest increase in basic state funding for Iowa schools.
Let's again show Iowans we can work together to put their top priorities ahead of party politics.
Let's show Iowans that Republicans and Democrats agree that there is nothing more important to Iowa's economy and our bipartisan goal of expanding the middle class than our children's education.
Welcome to the 2014 session of the 85th GA of the Iowa Legislature.
Let's give a special welcome to our newest member, Julien Garrett.
In 1963, President John Kennedy defended his economic policies by saying that "a rising tide lifts all boats."
By helping people at the bottom, Kennedy and Johnson created a rising tide that lifted everyone up, making every American more secure.
Take Medicare, government guaranteed health insurance for seniors, passed in 1965.
Before Medicare, it was common for seniors to fall into abject poverty-and an early grave-due to medical bills and lack of care.
Medicare helps everyone. After all, you, like me, hope to be become a senior. Perhaps you, like me, have helped care for an aging parent or a person with a disability.
Medicare was a rising tide that lifted all boats. It helped seniors, their families, and the economy, which benefited from the creation of millions of American jobs.
Iowa got off to a great start by creating our own rising tide to lift all boats.
Before Iowa legislators built this amazing building, they laid the foundations of Iowa's local public and private schools, the junior colleges that became our community colleges, and our public and private universities and colleges.
Unlike leaders in some other states, the leaders who built our state were determined to provide every Iowan with access to educational opportunity, regardless of WHERE they lived or HOW MUCH their parents earned.
The result was a highly educated state with productive, innovative people. A prosperous state. Other states took notice, followed our example and some are now ahead of us.
Now a bipartisan generation of Iowa legislators are doing our part to support a rising tide of Iowa education achievement that will lift all boats.
That's why Democrats and Republicans froze university tuition last year.
That's why Democratic and Republican lawmakers expanded workforce training opportunities across the state last year.
AND THAT'S WHY THIS YEAR we should eliminate the waiting lists preventing every Iowa family from having access to universal, high quality preschool.
When Democrats and Republicans increased the Earned Income Tax Credit last year, we helped thousands of low wage workers make ends meet.
When Democrats and Republicans created and passed the Iowa Health and Wellness Plan we provided health security and peace of mind to 150,000 working Iowans, reduced the $1 billion in uncompensated care at our hospitals, protected families from bankruptcy if a parent, or spouse, or child becomes ill, and put Iowa on a path to become the healthiest state in the nation.
There are still too many Iowans, especially children, who have been left behind.
Over the last 30 years, American workers have led the world in productivity gains. Despite working harder and producing more with less and with lower costs, the vast majority of Iowans have not seen much real wage growth. That's happened even as Iowa workers have become better educated and more skilled.
As a result, 44 percent of Iowa children under the age of 5 live in homes that cannot meet their basic needs of food, shelter, child care.
That is shameful. It is shameful. As state leaders, we should be embarrassed and deeply concerned about those children.
The effects of so many Iowa children growing up in poverty will have a profoundly negative impact on the social and economic well-being of our state.
That's why I share Governor Branstad's goal of reducing the number of Iowans who currently have to rely on public assistance programs to meet their basic needs.
It should be our number one goal. We must expand Iowa's middle class. We must help more Iowans earn enough to provide for themselves and their family.
It is time to raise the Iowa minimum wage again.
Iowa Republicans and Iowa Democrats are already asking why national corporations tell their own employees to seek out food banks, free medical clinics, and other public services INSTEAD of paying them a living wage.
Iowa Republicans and Iowa Democrats are already asking why taxpayers should have to subsidize the low wages paid by profitable corporations.
I think we can find bipartisan agreement that every employer should pay a wage that supports their employees' most basic needs of food, shelter, health care, and child care.
Governor Branstad signed legislation to increase the minimum wage in the past. It's time for him to do so again.
A rising tide of wages will lift all boats. Higher wages will keep more money in the Iowa economy, money that would otherwise pile up in overflowing corporate bank accounts located out of state or out of the country.
As with the creation of health care for seniors in the 1960s, and the creation of Iowa's schools before that, raising the minimum wage will help everyone by helping Iowa's lowest paid workers.
A rising tide lifts all boats. In America and in Iowa, we count on the middle class to be our engine of prosperity.
Let this session be known as a time that reflected all that is good about Iowa-our strong sense of community and duty to each other. A session that is worthy of our rich history for civil rights and opportunity for all Iowans.
Let's get to work.
Opening remarks by Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix:
I am proud and honored to stand here today and address my fellow legislators and Iowans.
The 2013 Legislative session proved very productive as we made great strides in property tax and education reforms. However, it is important not to rest on our laurels. The people entrusted us to make our great state stronger, and be attentive in creating an Iowa where everyone prospers. We can do even better.
Since adjourning in May, many of us have spent the past seven months talking with our constituents and neighbors. It is through these conversations around kitchen tables across Iowa, we have learned more about the issues facing families and our state.
Iowans worry about making ends meet. They want us to remain steadfast in creating an environment where jobs are as plentiful as the crops Iowans produce to feed the world. They share their stories and concerns about easing the tax burdens and limiting the scope of government. Senate Republicans are listening.
While we are all proud of the accomplishments of the 2013 Legislative session, President Thomas Jefferson said it best, "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." We must be mindful of the issues impacting Iowa families, and act responsibly in 2014 with sensible legislation to strengthen our economy, foster job creation and provide Iowans a world-class education.
New federal taxes passed by Congress are looming on the horizon to fund such things as Obamacare, among other government programs. At the end of the day, these new taxes will burden the middle class and many Iowa families. It is up to us - as state lawmakers - to help ease that burden.
We must explore income tax reform to put more money back in Iowans' pockets, as well as make Iowa more appealing for businesses looking to expand or relocate in our great state.
With our state growing stronger, Iowa is in a great position to achieve economic success. Senate Republicans know we must remain focused on providing substantial tax relief which empowers hard-working Iowans. Significant tax relief emboldens businesses and leads to job creation.
A strong Iowa has a business climate that is as rich as the soil where our farmers flourish. We must reduce the regulatory and tax burdens on those who create jobs, because those who work hard to earn their money tend to spend it more wisely than those who collect it through tax levies.
With the reform packages passed in 2013, it is vital we maintain fiscally responsible budgeting practices. We need to ensure that commitments we made to Iowans in regard to education and property tax reform are met in the coming years without burdening Iowans by raising taxes.
Though our coffers are full, it is important to stay focused on minding the store. We, as legislators, must exhibit bold leadership by insisting that we return some of the overpayment in tax money back to the people. After all, it is their money; it does not belong to us, or to the government that we comprise.
There are many who believe that the 2014 Legislative session may not be as productive as last year. I disagree. There is a lot of work still to be done on behalf of Iowans, and Senate Republicans give you our assurance we will not give up on that fight. That is the government you expect, the representation you deserve and the leadership you elected us to provide.
It is through hard work, dedication and determination we will create a legacy of opportunity for Iowa's future. Let's make it Happen!