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Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 22, 2017

Data shows productive, but not record, session

By James Q. Lynch, The Gazette | May 01, 2017

DES MOINES — After the ballots were counted last November, Iowa Republicans promised to use their state government trifecta to advance a big, bold, history-making agenda.

With its new majority in the Senate to go along with control of the House and the governor’s office, the GOP saw the opportunity to “kick the door in,” in the words of Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock.

While not everyone was targeting doors, Gov. Terry Branstad and legislative leaders saw prospects for enacting an agenda that had been stymied by a Democratic firewall in the Senate since the 2011 session.

They wasted little time. It took 10 days in February to reduce Iowa’s four-decade-old public employee collective bargaining law to a shell of its former self. An extensive rewrite of workers’ compensation benefits as well as expanding gun rights, enacting abortion restrictions, limiting medical malpractice awards and protecting livestock producers from lawsuits soon followed.

“We rolled our sleeves up and got to work,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.

When people look back on the session that wrapped up April 22, Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, believes “they will say that this is the year that changed Iowa forever.”

Historic or not, it was productive when measured by the numbers. Lawmakers enrolled 174 bills and resolutions in the 104-day session, reported the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency. That makes 2017 the most productive session in terms of the number of bills passed since 2010 — the last time one party had the triple crown of state government control. That year, Democrats passed 226 bills. However, lawmakers were even more productive in passing bills during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

when Democrats controlled the Legislature but Branstad was in the governor’s office.

They passed 327 bills in 1989 followed by 275 in 1990 and 1991 and 261 in 1992. Since then, productivity has been trending downward until now.

Going back no farther than 20 years, the high-water mark was when 233 bills passed the GOP-controlled Legislature in 1998, following 219 the year before.

Then in 2010, it was Democrats and Democratic Gov. Chet Culver who cooperated to pass 196 bills and resolutions.

Democrats’ four years of domination created the most productive stretch since the GOP controlled state government in 1997 and 1998.

From 2005 to 2010, Democrats passed 226, 196, 184 and 196 bills, respectively.

In November 2010, voters replaced Culver with Branstad and flipped control of the House to the GOP. What followed was the lowest legislative output in at least 20 years. In 2011, the split control Legislature passed 138 bills. In the next five years, lawmakers never passed more than 146 bills and resolutions, the agency found.

That surprised Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, who has been a legislator since 1973.

“I thought it was the opposite,” he said.

Under split control, he said, “you can’t pass any bad Democratic bills or bad Republican bills.”

In 2005 and 2006, he recalled, the Senate was evenly split at 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans with Democratic control of the House and a Democratic governor.

“It was the best we’ve ever had in terms of legislation, people getting along and doing the right thing,” Horn said. Lawmakers passed 184 and 191 bills those years.

Based on a review of Legislative Services Agency numbers, it appears the first year of one-party control produces more legislative activity than years of split control.

But numbers tell only a part of the story.

The party in control uses its new advantage to pass measures that had been stuck in limbo under split control.

In 2007, for example, Democrats’ first bill was to raise the minimum wage. That was followed by raising tobacco taxes and mandating smoke-free work places, raising teacher salaries and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, public accommodations, credit, housing and education.

When the GOP was in charge in 1997, it passed an across-the-board 10 percent income tax cut with an additional $85 million reduction the following year. Republicans banned same-sex marriage and late-term abortion and required young women to notify a family member before having an abortion.

But none of those sessions compared with what Republicans did this year, Horn said.

“No. 1, collective bargaining right off the bat. Wow,” he said. “It was like they stole legislation. (Democrats) didn’t have any input.”

Iowans shouldn’t be surprised by how quickly Republicans went about their agenda, Dix said.

“At the beginning of this session I said Iowans wanted us to change the way we do business,” he said. “This is what 15 weeks of a Senate Republican majority looked like. Not wasting time with politics — just substantive, real policies.”

Republicans will be trying to complete their agenda in 2018 when the party still has control of state government, although presumably with Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds ascending to governor.

“This is only a chapter of the legacy we hope to leave for our state as we move this state forward in a positive, fiscally responsible, economically prosperous direction,” Dix said.

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