Leader of the Iowa Legislature opened their 2014 session by looking back.
“I don’t know about what your experiences during the interim were, but I have never been thanked for the Legislature’s work as much as I have been this last eight months,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, told his 99 House colleagues Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, opened that chamber’s planned 100-day session Jan. 13 by asking lawmakers to reflect on the accomplishments of the 2013 session.
“Often, we don’t appreciate the positive impact that our decisions as legislators have on Iowans across this great state,” he said before offering three examples of Iowans who “who got a ticket to a better life” as a result of legislation last year.
The retrospective was appropriate, perhaps, because Legislature leaders see 2013 as a watershed session and because they have limited expectations for this year.
House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, encouraged lawmakers to “build upon the strong foundation that we have laid.”
Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, cautioned lawmakers not to rest on their laurels.
“We can do even better,” he said and rejected the suggestion that 2014 may be a do-little session.
Gronstal agreed there is plenty to do.
“Last year, we did the right thing by investing in community colleges, freezing tuition at our public universities, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit,” he said. “But when it comes to our local schools, our record of bipartisan accomplishment is decidedly more mixed.
“Last year, we finally approved reforms designed to improve Iowa schools by increasing our support and training for teacher,” Gronstal said. But many Iowans “are skeptical that the Legislature and governor will make good on our promises on education.”
In looking ahead, leaders spent much of their time talking about ideas that seem as unlikely to win approval this year.
Invoking President John Kennedy’s “a rising tide lifts all boats” rhetoric, Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, called for raising the state’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage because “a rising tide of wages will lift all boats.”
“Higher wages will keep more money in the Iowa economy, money that would otherwise pile up in overflowing corporate bank accounts located out-of-state or out of the country,” she said.
Paulsen and Dix called for a different approach to raising wages – lowering taxes to make Iowa more inviting for businesses and job creation.
Republicans, Paulsen said, will promote policies to encourage investment in the state and workforce, make regulations less burdensome and provide the educational opportunities Iowans need in the 21st Century workplace.
Likewise, Dix called for income tax reform – also seen as unlikely -- “to put more money back in Iowans’ pockets, as well as make Iowa more appealing for businesses.”
“Significant tax relief emboldens businesses and leads to job creation,” he said.
Those jobs would be better if they paid more, according to House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, who said “many Iowa parents are working one or two low-wage jobs trying to put food on the table and pay the bills.”
“We owe it to Iowans to raise that minimum wage, perhaps $1 an hour now and more in the future,” he said.
Leaders of both parties emphasized the need in an election year to set aside partisan differences and, in Paulsen’s words, “focus on what is achievable.”
“Instead of concentrating on political tensions and campaigns, let’s find common ground,” Paulsen said. “Instead of imposing policies that pit one group of Iowans against another, let’s work on behalf of all Iowans.”
Opening day of the session, Smith said, “is not a day of conclusions, but a day of beginnings. Will this be a session of Washington-style gridlock or will this be a session of collaboration, mutual respect, and positive decisions for Iowans?”
As they move forward, Upmeyer said, lawmakers “should focus on policies that increase opportunities for low-income Iowans to find high-paying careers … on producing a world-class workforce … make a college degree more affordable … skills training more accessible … make technology and high-speed internet more available.”
“We should make the dream of upward mobility and opportunity a more likely one for all Iowans,” she said.
Harkening back to the accomplishments of 2013, Gronstal added his voice to the spirit of bipartisanship.“Let’s again show Iowans we can work together to put their top priorities ahead of party politics,” Gronstal said.