The Ottumwa Courier

March 6, 2013

A ‘do nothing’ Legislature? Majority party controls the agenda, minority party controls the clock, state senator says

CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Area legislators are worried that political maneuvering and solid party lines will result in little getting accomplished this session.

State. Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, had concerns last week that this year’s Iowa Legislature could be considered a “do-nothing” session, as legislators push through their first funnel week and have not debated larger bills, such as education reform or commercial property tax reduction.

Friday marks the Iowa Legislature’s first funnel date, when legislation must pass out of committee in order to be considered for the rest of the session.

Last week, the Legislature passed seven non-controversial bills, Hanson said.

“I’m concerned that this is the seventh week of session and we seem to have done very little,” he said. “Unless things start to change, this session may go down in history as a ‘do-nothing’ session.”

In Hanson’s committees this week, he said only minor and no controversial bills have come up for discussion.

“If we’re trying to get out of here and do things in a timely manner, why aren’t we working a little harder?” he said.

State Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, said this session echoes those of the past two years. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal “controls” the Iowa Senate with a narrow majority, as does Republican Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer.

“Neither have the drive to do anything bold,” Chelgren said. “Both sides are basically creating their own poker chips at the end to negotiate for a few things.”

Another issue: State Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, underwent heart bypass surgery on Feb. 28 and is recovering before returning to his seat in Des Moines.

“Because he had heart [surgery], he is not available to vote with the Democrats, so they can’t get anything accomplished anyway for four to six weeks,” Chelgren said. “Because they don’t have that ability, they’re basically just sitting around doing very little.”

An Iowa Senate bill requires 26 votes to pass, and without Courtney’s 26th vote, Democrats are holding out for his return.

Once Courtney returns, bills will come flooding into senators’ laps.

“The majority party can come and put a flood of bills through so we don’t have enough time to fully research and respond to the bills,” Chelgren said. “Then the minority party’s job is to stall long enough to read everything. The majority party controls the agenda; the minority party controls the clock. The majority party is going to make it hard on the minority party, so they do nothing and by the time they’re ready to control the clock, there’s not enough time left.”

The party lines have already been drawn on allowable growth, Chelgren said.

“If you have an ‘R’ next to your name, you’re expected to do one thing; if you have a ‘D,’ you’re expected to do something else,” he said.

Iowa Senate Democrats previously approved 4 percent allowable growth this year, though House Republicans shot down the measure, instead offering 2 percent.

Democrats have argued that the Legislature did not fulfill its duties to set allowable growth within 30 days after the session began. That deadline bypassed legislators on Friday. Gov. Terry Branstad has argued that an education reform package must pass before any allowable growth legislation can be considered.

“It’s something we needed to do, and we violated our own rules and didn’t follow through on what we said we were going to do,” Hanson said of the deadline.

On the other side of the argument sits state Rep. Larry Sheets, R-Moulton, who said he doesn’t believe this year’s legislative process is slow-going.

“There’s 100 people there that have to agree to something, followed up by another 50 that has to agree, and all sub-committees and committees before we get to anything,” Sheets said. “It’s a process that guarantees that bills are correct that makes it seem slow. I don’t think democracy is fast, but it’s the best we’ve got.”

The most important bills legislators need to tackle are education and commercial property tax reform, Hanson said, which have seen little movement.

The Legislature has not yet tackled property tax reform, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get accomplished, Sheets said.

“We’re not done. We have a lot of things to get done this week in committee,” he said.

There’s a reluctance among some legislators to “have any government rules or regulations,” Hanson said. Some issues are considered and re-considered so much that at some point, “they’re over-thought.”

During a funnel week, if bills don’t make it out of committee, it’s hard to bring them forward later on in the session, though they can be by “extraordinary means,” he said.

“In good government, we want everything as transparent as possible, and I don’t think our wish is to move bills forward in extraordinary ways,” he said. “I think when we have a chance to discuss, talk to committees and get input from local people, that’s the best way to move bills forward, rather than doing it in an unconventional manner.”

But Chelgren said the only bills that actually have to be accomplished are appropriations bills, which include budgetary and other line items.

Last week, House Republicans came out with their proposed budget of $6.4 billion, while Senate Democrats proposed a $6.9 billion budget and Branstad proposed his $6.5 billion budget.

“Where the fights are coming is over how much money we’ll spend in each of those categories,” Chelgren said. “That’s where you have your chips at the end. I’ll give you this policy change if you give us this money here, or vice versa. Right now, nothing’s really getting done. Everything is just maneuvering for the end.”

The other ingredient in the molasses-like session: publicity. Chelgren said many bills are put forth not because legislators want them accomplished, but because they “want to have the publicity for that week’s news cycle.”

“If the Democrats want to talk about education to make sure teachers and schools get the money they need, they’ll get a bill so they control the news cycle that week,” he said. “The next week Republicans will talk about lowering taxes so we get businesses located in Iowa. All they want are the talking points to put pressure on their opponent.”

Chelgren said he’s disappointed that a process does not exist whereby members of opposing parties sit down and negotiate through Iowa’s problems.

“Instead we have a caucus, a two-party system,” he said. “We’re isolated and more polarized than is necessary.”