DES MOINES | The 85th General Assembly adjourned Thursday morning capping off a 109-day session that lived up to the modest expectations set out in January.
Absent were the sweeping efforts which characterized the first half of the two-year session when education reform and tax policy took center stage.
Instead, Gov. Terry Branstad set out a limited vision for this election-year session asking the politically-split General Assembly to expand broadband service, pass anti-bullying legislation, create a redevelopment incentive for abandoned public buildings and pass tax credits for veterans.
The General Assembly gave him two-out-of-four.
Members also introduced bills on medical marijuana legislation, two versions of a fuel tax increase and a bill which would allow police to pull someone over for texting while driving.
The session also defied early expectations of wrapping up before the 100-day mark which it passed last week.
“I think we did a little more work than we expected coming in,” said State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton. “I also think it’s a product of split government. When you have one party in control in one chamber and another party in the other chamber, it’s going to take longer to get some things done.”
Chris Larimer, a political science professor from the University of Northern Iowa noted the state is relatively sound fiscal shape with a nearly $1 billion budget surplus.
“Sometimes there’s more debate when you have a surplus then when you don’t have enough,” he said.
Here’s how some of the key issues identified at the start of the session have fared this year.
The issue: Fuel Tax
Where it was at the start: Raising money for the state’s infrastructure was expected to be one of the most hotly-debated topics of the year. A fuel tax bill introduced last year was never brought to the floor, but its sponsor promised to try again in 2014. Over the summer, the Iowa Department of Transportation drew up a list alternatives to a fuel tax increase in an effort to raise money for the roads.
Where it is now: None of the DOTs alternatives made it into legislation. A 10-cents-per-gallon hike died in the House as did a hybrid tax swap that lowered the per-gallon tax but added a 5 percent wholesale tax.
The issue: Bullying
Where it was at the start: After the failure of his 2013 anti-bullying bill, Gov. Terry Branstad convened his second statewide anti-bullying summit this fall and introduced legislation early this session.
Where it stands now: A key provision that would have allowed school officials to enforce anti-bully statute for incidents occurring off school grounds was struck in the House, but the bill otherwise remains intact. The practical effect schools now must notify parents when bullying occurs. The Senate didn’t agree with the strike-out and the bill died.
The issue: Medical Marijuana
Where it was at the start: Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, admits that a bill he introduced this session to allow medical marijuana was a “laugh line” and the issue quickly was dismissed as dead for the 2014 legislative session. However, a tenacious group of parents with children suffering from severe epilepsy turned the tide unexpectedly by convincing lawmakers to allow them access to a cannabis oil derived from marijuana that has aided in treating their pain.
Where it is now: A bill legalizing the possession and medical use of cannabidiol for epilepsy patients passed the Senate and House during the early morning hours of May 1. It requires patients, or their caregivers, to obtain a state-issued registration card to possess the drug and have a neurologist’s recommendation to obtain the license.
The issue: Regulating drones
Where it was at the start: Lawmakers entered the 2014 session wanting to create parameters for the use of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles that generally are remote-controlled flying machines outfitted with cameras and other surveillance equipment that have become strikingly cheaper and more prevalent in recent years.
Where it is now: The bill sent to Gov. Terry Bransatd, says evidence obtained by law enforcement using an unmanned aerial vehicle is not admissible in a criminal or civil trial unless it was obtained legally pursuant to a search warrant or in a manner that is consistent with state and federal law. The bill also directs the state Department of Public Safety, in consultation with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, state and local agencies, and other interested organizations to examine whether the Iowa criminal code should be modified to regulate misuse of unmanned aerial vehicles. The study group also was directed to develop model guidelines for law enforcement's use of unmanned aerial vehicles and report its findings to the Legislature by Dec. 31.
The issue: Texting while driving
Where it was at the start: Iowa law currently bans all cellphone usage for teenagers while driving under restricted or intermediate licenses including instructional or school permits. The 2010 law also bars all vehicle operators from writing, sending or receiving text messages while driving. However, a texting violation is considered a secondary offense, which means law officers cannot pull over a driver suspected of texting without having broken another driving violation. Law officers say distractions are becoming a growing problem for Iowa drivers and the state’s texting law is not strong enough.
Where it is now: A broader effort to discourage drivers from using hand-held electronic communication devices while operating their vehicles was passed by the Iowa Senate but died in the House due to ineligibility rules.
The issue: Whether to ban traffic cameras along roadways and streets in Iowa
Where it was at the start: How to address automated traffic enforcement devices to monitor speed and red-light compliance has been a contentious issue in the Legislature for several years. Although Gov. Terry Branstad said he would be willing to consider such a ban, the issue has repeated stalled in the process en route to his desk.
Where it is now: Legislative efforts failed again this year. The Department of Transportation, however, adopted regulations for traffic enforcement cameras used to monitor red-light and speeding violations along state highways passing through Iowa cities or counties. Those DOT rules are the subject of a legal challenge filed by Sioux City officials.
The issue: Tuition Freeze
Where it was at the start: Everyone – the Iowa Board of Regents, Senate Democrats, House Republicans and Gov. Terry Branstad – entered the 2014 legislative session pledging to freeze tuition for in-state undergraduates at Iowa’s three state universities for a second straight year.
Where it is now: Both the Senate and House passed a $986 million education budget bill that includes the requested 4 percent increase for the three regent universities and an extra $2.625 million for UNI in fiscal 2015. Although the UNI piece was under the request, regent officials said they expected provisions of Senate File 2347 would allow for a second consecutive tuition freeze for undergraduate in-state students.
The issue: Telemed abortions
Where it was at the start: Last year the Iowa Board of Medicine voted 8-2 to ban the practice of doctors prescribing abortion-inducing drugs from remote locations using a two-way video link. The board position to require doctors to be physically present with a patient when they prescribe abortion-causing medication was challenged in court by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland currently is the subject of a temporary stay order under until the court case is resolved.
Where it is now: The Republican-led House voted 55-42 to approve House File 2175, a bill that would ban the so-called “webcam” abortions but the issue was sidelined due to a procedural requirement. A group of Republican senators called on majority-party Democrats to resurrect the ineligible House-passed bill banning telemedicine abortions but Democrats who control the Senate by a 26-24 edge declined to do so since the matter is before the court.
The issue: Attracting/keeping military veterans
Where it was at the start: Gov. Terry Branstad called for a Home Base Iowa initiative as part of his Jan. 11 Condition of the State address to follow previous legislative action completing 10 of 10 soldier-friendly recommendations from the U.S. Department of Defense
Where it is now: The House and Senate sent Senate File 303 to Branstad for his expected signature. The wide-ranging bill includes provisions to exempt military pensions (including surviving spouses) from state income tax; direct Iowa’s occupational licensing boards to adopt rules allowing credit for military training and experience in the licensing process; allow private sector employers to grant a preference in hiring and promoting veterans; eliminate the special plate issuance fees charged for plates associated with military service; and require community colleges and universities to file reports on the amount of credits they are giving veterans for their service in the military.
The issue: Balanced fiscal 2015 state budget
Where it was at the start: On the second day of the 2014 session, Gov. Terry Branstad proposed a $7 billion budget plan that called for a $508.7 million increase in general fund over current levels. The overall increase was 7.8 percent, but the number shrunks to 5.7 percent when the money to “backfill” local governments for potentially lost revenue due to property tax reductions was taken into account. Other highlights included $170 million to fund a 4 percent increase in K-12 state foundation aid, $108.3 million for Medicaid/human services, $54 million to implement education reform and $26.1 million for regent universities to help funds tuition freeze for instate undergraduates for a second straight year.
Where it is now: The split-control Legislature took the rare step of agreeing to joint budget targets of $6.972 billion for fiscal 2015 at the start of the budgeting process and stuck to that number throughout the negotiating process. Before adjourning, lawmakers agreed to a debt reduction/one-time spending measure that totaled $139.8 million – split between 43 percent for bond defeasance and 57 percent for supplemental spending yet this fiscal year. The effect was to lower the current year ending balance, or surplus, from a projected $882 million to $742 million by June 30. Under the state’s spending limitation law, legislators could spend up to 99 percent of available revenue but the $6.972 billion target represented under 91 percent of that potential amount.