Iowa Legislature leaders seek consensus despite divisions on guns, Medicaid expansion

2013 legislative session opens Jan. 14

James Q. Lynch
Published: January 9 2013 | 11:00 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 9:48 am in
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DES MOINES – Five days before lawmakers open their 2013 session, majority and minority legislative leaders said they are trying to keep as many options on the table as possible.

Except when it comes to gun legislation.

Proposals to relax or tighten gun legislation are the “ultimate dog whistle for the base on the left and right,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, told reporters at a pre-session press conference in Des Moines Jan. 9. “Dog whistle” refers to political speech using coded language that appears to mean one thing, but has a different meaning for a targeted audience.

“It’s hard to have a calm conversation” about gun laws,” he said.

That's because “guns are important to Iowans,” said Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City.

And while school is important to Iowans, too, leaders see little likelihood that authorization for armed school guards will be approved in the legislative session that opens Jan. 14.

Without mentioning the cost of putting an armed guard in each of Iowa’s 1,409 public school buildings, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, seemed to dismiss the idea.

“Every building is different,” Paulsen said. “For the Legislature to come up with something prescriptive that applies to all of them doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Gronstal called for strengthening the state’s mental health system, which is subject of a multi-year legislative redesign effort.

“I expect that will be where we find the most consensus,” he said.

Paulsen and Gronstal promised to seek consensus on a variety of issues. However, it was clear that may be a challenge when it comes to expansion of Medicaid as part of the federal health care reform.

“It’s real important we set aside the partisan rhetoric and look for common ground,” Gronstal said, specifically referring to Democratic proposals to extend Medicaid benefits to another 150,000 Iowans as part of federal health care reform. About 400,000 Iowans are on Medicaid now, according to Gov. Terry Branstad’s office, which estimated a cost increase of 129 percent if Medicaid is expanded.

The federal government will pay for the expansion for three years before the state has to pick up a share of the cost.

To Gronstal that’s a bargain compared to the price Iowans with health insurance pay for the care hospitals provide to uninsured patients.

“It’s a pretty good deal” for Iowa to expand Medicaid services if the federal government is picking up the tab, Gronstal said.

Paulsen called for a go-slow approach, waiting until the dust settles on the implementation of ObamaCare.

Without saying “no” to expanding Medicaid, Paulsen predicted his House GOP caucus would “be slow to warm up to that.”

“I’m not taking things off the table … but it would be extremely difficult,” Paulsen said.

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