CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | With the 2015 session looming, Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa legislative leaders have been talking about balancing the budget, raising the gasoline tax, developing a skilled workforce and expanding broadband connectivity to the state’s 36 million acres.
Those issues are sure to consume much of lawmakers’ time and effort during the 110-day session that begins Monday in Des Moines.
A handful of other hot-button issues are likely to grab headlines, too, including:
School start date
With the Department of Education saying it will enforce its rule that schools are not to begin classes until the week of Sept. 1, many lawmakers want to give their local school district more flexibility.
“I expect a discussion,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said, noting that the position of the House has changed over the years as representatives from areas with tourist attractions call for a later start date while many others want to eliminate the Sept. 1 rule.
He expects the House to take up legislation that would set parameters rather than a specific start date for school districts.
“As we expect high schools to collaborate with each other and community colleges, it would make sense to have similar calendars,” Paulsen said.
Gov. Terry Branstad said he’s willing to consider a change, “but I don’t think that we should be starting school in the early or middle part of August.”
The possibility of the Rock Island Clean Line electric transmission power line and an underground pipeline to carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois are sparking debate.
“There’s a lot of tension over those issues," Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said. He expects there will be efforts to change the law. It now grants the Iowa Utilities Board authority to use eminent domain for public utilities.
However, neither company in these cases is a public utility.
That makes Paulsen doubt the House will expand the application of eminent domain.
Branstad is somewhere in the middle. While he feels strongly about private property rights, “there are sometimes public policy reasons where you shouldn’t be able to have one person block one important project.”
Last year the Legislature basically decriminalized possession of cannabis oil for the treatment of epileptic seizures. However, families who sought the treatment said the law didn’t go far enough because Iowans must travel out of state to get the nonintoxicating cannabis oil.
The Senate is open to tweaks, Gronstal said, but Paulsen doesn’t anticipate running a bill related to legalizing marijuana – “medicinal or otherwise” – this year.
Dubuque recently adopted restrictions on sledding in public parks, and Branstad sees it as an issue that may land in lawmakers’ laps.
They’ve wrestled with the issue in the past as cities sought to limit liability for sledding accidents on public property. Trial lawyers have opposed the bills, one of which was passed by the House last year.
“It’s a delicate balance. Liability issue is a great fear to communities,” he said.
Unless the Legislature provides some liability limits, he expects to see more communities follow Dubuque’s lead.
Secretary of State Paul Pate wants the Legislature to require voters to present a photo ID to vote. Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, would go along with that in order to ensure clean elections. Gronstal called that an attempt to “solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”
An Iowa Supreme Court decision in favor of Westboro Baptist Church pickets who desecrated the American flag at funerals of fallen soldiers is likely to draw a proposal to curb such activities.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, called the activities of the Westboro demonstrators wearing, walking on and spitting on the flag while shouting gay slurs a form of “verbal domestic terrorism." He plans to introduce legislation to limit such expression that is “purposely intended to elicit violence.”
Civil liberties advocates say his proposal likely will be unconstitutional.