DES MOINES — Iowa voters gave Republicans full control of the state’s lawmaking process, and the GOP has taken full advantage.
But for as much as Statehouse Republicans have accomplished during the legislative session that began in mid-January, several big-ticket items remain to be completed as lawmakers wind down their work for the year.
Republicans, who came out of the 2016 elections with majorities in the Iowa House and Senate and control of the governor’s office, used their newfound lawmaking authority this year to pass significant laws in their conservative mold: a dramatic reduction in collective bargaining rights for public employees, a requirement for voters to show identification at the polls, reduced firearm regulations and lawsuit reform that limits damages.
Other significant bills, such as a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the women’s health care provider that also provides abortions, are well on their way to becoming law.
Yet at least a half-dozen key issues remain on legislators’ agenda as the 2017 session nears its end.
Work on the coming year’s state budget is well under way, and legislators could finish their work on the 2017 session as early as this week.
If the session’s days are, indeed, numbered and if action is going to be taken on these remaining issues, it is going to have to happen quickly.
State lawmakers have been unable to make much headway the past few years in terms of generating new money for water quality programs. With the state budget in a very tight pinch, lawmakers once again find themselves challenged to fund water quality projects.
Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, the chairman of the House budget committee and a farmer, said despite the budget’s bleak picture, he hopes to find a way to add funding for water quality programs. He said lawmakers are still working through the various options.
One proposal would enact a sales tax of three-eighths of 1 percent to fund water quality and other conservation programs, with corresponding tax relief to offset the sales tax increase. Other proposals would move funds from some existing revenue streams to water quality programs.
“There’s an expectation that we continue to work toward these things,” Grassley said. “I think everyone is mindful of the budget situation, and we just have to try to balance those things. Not to say water quality is not a priority, because it is. But also we have to put an overall budget together that balances.”
Lawmakers who want to expand the state’s current, limited program are making a last-ditch effort in the session’s final days.
The current law permits Iowans to use cannabidiol only to treat epileptic seizures, but a new bill would legalize more forms of medical cannabis, add roughly a dozen ailments eligible for treatment, permit the growth and sale of medical cannabis in the state and reclassify marijuana, which would make the drug eligible for more research.
Senators in support of the bill said they expect to pass it, but the proposal was given a much chillier reception in the House.
“Some time three days after hell freezes over, that bill will pass in the House,” said Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, a key House committee chairman.
Key House members, including Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said they remain open to some form of expansion, just not as much as what’s in the latest Senate proposal.
Leaders have said that if they are unable to reach an agreement on expansion, they will at the very least extend the current program, which is set to expire at the end of June.
Many who do or could make use of the current program, however, say it is largely ineffective because it provides no way for Iowans to obtain medical cannabis legally.
Some legislators want to make more consumer-grade fireworks legal for home display in Iowa, which is one of just seven states that does not allow some or all types of consumer fireworks, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.
The Senate passed legislation legalizing consumer fireworks; the House is yet to vote on the proposal. Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said he has been told Democrats will not support the bill, so he is working to get support from at least 51 House Republicans and said he is “on the razor’s edge.”
The House passed in near-unanimous fashion a bill that provides several updates to Iowa’s alcohol regulations, including a measure that would allow small distilleries to sell their product on site, similar to what is permitted for craft breweries and wineries.
The proposal was the result of multiple years of work and a compromise among beer, wine and spirits producers and beer wholesalers who previously opposed similar changes.
After sailing through the House, the bill has stalled in the Senate because of an issue regarding the three-tier system — the separation of alcohol producers and retailers — that needs to be ironed out, according to Sen. Randy Feenstra, chairman of the committee through which the bill must pass. But Feenstra, R-Hull, said he expects the bill to be approved and sent to the governor’s desk.
“That bill will definitely move this session. We plan to move it early (this) week,” Feenstra said. “It’s a significant bill, and we definitely plan to get it moved and signed by the governor this session.”
An effort to legalize wagering on fantasy sports, including online daily fantasy sports games such as DraftKings and FanDuel, appears to be stuck in the legislative mud.
Windschitl said he supports the proposal, but enough opposition remains that he does not think it will pass the House this session.
Windschitl said the primary concerns raised are with the expansion of gambling and a desire for any such expansion to be controlled by the state’s casinos.
The Senate has passed a proposal to add strict regulation of traffic cameras, but the bill has not yet been moved to the full House, where some lawmakers want to implement a complete ban on the devices.
The Senate-approved proposal would require state approval for traffic cameras, which could be placed only in high-crash locations, and any revenue from fines would be required to be put toward road and public safety projects.
Republicans have long sought to reform the state’s tax code, but they are hamstrung this year by the tight state budget. Any legislative action, including tax reform, that would reduce revenue coming into the state could have even further consequences on the state budget.
Late last week, Feenstra introduced Senate Republicans’ tax reform proposal but said he is recommending they not implement the program until next year at the earliest.
The proposal would reduce the number of state income tax brackets from nine to three, phase out federal deductibility to cut rates and provide at least $500 million in relief to Iowa taxpayers by 2022.
(Rod Boshart contributed to this story.)