DES MOINES — Monday was a mix of optimism and criticism as lawmakers convened a 2018 session with Republican promises of tax relief and Democrats bemoaning inaction in fixing a budget “mess” and addressing costly sexual harassment concerns in the Statehouse.
“The first day of the legislative session is one of my favorites as a legislator,” Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said in his opening-day remarks. “Optimism runs high, and there are smiles and laughter heard throughout the chamber as we reconnect with friends and colleagues.”
Many of the first-day activities dealt with pomp, ceremony, opening speeches, reminiscing and procedural matters as family members accompanied legislators to the Statehouse and took in the pageantry.
Senators opened the session by swearing in a new member, Sen. James Carlin, R-Sioux City, a former House member who was elected to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Bill Anderson’s resignation. Since the Legislature adjourned its last session in April, two House members — Reps. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, and Gregg Forristall, R-Macedonia — died. Monday, their successors, Reps. Phil Miller, D-Fairfield, and John Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, were sworn in for partial terms.
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said this year’s session should be about enabling “upward mobility” for Iowans seeking to improve their skills and positions, while Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said the focus will be on creating career opportunities and keeping more money in taxpayers’ pockets.
“We are more than just talking the talk, we’re here to walk the walk, or, as many of you remember, we’re here to kick the door in. And we kept our promises, ” Dix said in his speech.
“In 2017, our agenda was big and bold,” he added. “In 2018, Senate Republicans will move an agenda that will again be big and bold because this state deserves big and bold. The changes we make will move our state forward in a positive direction, felt for many generations to come.”
That message was countered by minority Democrats who called for bipartisan cooperation in addressing concerns about health care, water quality, mental health services, education and spending priorities in a time of sluggish revenue.
“Last session, the Legislature did a lot of bad things to good people. That was a mistake, but it has been a wake-up call for Iowans,” said Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines. “Let’s start the conversation with a message that unifies us instead of tearing us apart.”
Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, said it was disingenuous for Democrats to call for bipartisanship but then immediately issue a political broadside on GOP accomplishments from the past session.
During a pre-session prayer breakfast, Republican Party of Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann dismissed criticism like House Democrat Leader Mark Smith’s claim the state budget has been grossly mismanaged by the majority party as “absolutely background noise.” He exhorted GOP legislators to “make the state — and yes I’m going to say it — great again.”
Upmeyer said it was “an understatement” to call the 2017 session productive and she expected this year would build on those successes.
“We have a bold, pro-growth agenda and we are ready for this session,” she noted, while Gov. Kim Reynolds pledged that Statehouse Republicans “are not going to go backward — we’re going to keep going forward” by cutting taxes and bolstering Iowa’s skilled workforce.
During her floor speech, Petersen called on majority Republicans to address the “disgraceful” and “predatory behavior” in the Senate that led to a $1.75 million settlement paid to Kirsten Anderson, who alleged a “toxic” work environment at the Capitol while she served as the communications director for Senate Republicans.
“The internal investigation that was conducted following the verdict revealed that many staffers are still afraid to report harassment at the Capitol. That is unacceptable,” said Petersen. “But it’s not surprising when the only person fired in this whole scandal was the victim. Retaliation against a whistle blower is grounds for termination in the Senate’s handbook, but it is clear that rule is being ignored.”
Senate Republican leaders say they have asked a retired senator with human resources experience to review Senate rules and await recommendations.
“There is a reckoning in our country on the issue of harassment in the workplace,” Petersen added in her speech. “The Iowa Senate has the choice: Do something serious to address this problem, or be on the wrong side of history.”