Limited Capitol action planned

Governor, legislative leaders expect ‘focused and efficient’ session based on consensus

Jan. 8, 2014 11:33 PM   |
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Iowa leaders preview new legislative session
Iowa leaders preview new legislative session: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and leaders from the House and Senate describe top issues and priorities for the legislative session that begins next Monday.
Written by
Jason Noble
and William Petroski
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Gov. Terry Branstad speaks beside Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds during a discussion about legislative priorities Wednesday at the Statehouse. / Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press photos

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Gov. Terry Branstad and lawmakers from both parties are predicting a 2014 session of the Iowa Legislature defined more by its brevity and efficiency than by its partisanship or the changes it enacts on state government.

Branstad, a Republican, said he would offer a modest state budget with few new spending measures. He will also propose new policies relating to bullying prevention, broadband Internet expansion, and job training and recruitment in his annual Condition of the State address next week.

Leaders from the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-led House indicated they shared those priorities, and said more wide-ranging or partisan proposals would be unlikely to gain traction.

It’s a limited agenda, the governor and lawmakers acknowledged at a Statehouse forum with journalists from around the state on Wednesday, reflecting the major accomplishments achieved last year and a superheated election season ahead this year.

“If you don’t have consensus on an issue fairly early in this session, its likelihood (of passage) drops considerably,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “I think this will probably be a very focused and efficient session.”

In separate hourlong question-and-answer sessions, Branstad and the legislative leaders addressed a variety of issues that may or may not come up during the session.

Here are a few of them:

• ETHICS: The House and Senate are likely to review ethics rules this year following the national attention focused on former state Sen. Kent Sorenson and his resignation related to work for two presidential campaigns.

Currently, Senate rules forbid sitting lawmakers from receiving payment from political campaigns, while House rules are silent on the issue.

Sorenson, R-Milo, was the subject of an investigation last year into his work for the presidential campaigns of Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul in the 2012 election cycle. An independent investigator raised several questions about payments he apparently received from the campaigns, leading to his resignation last fall.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said the chamber’s Ethics Committee may review its rules in light of the Sorenson affair, although he stressed the rules would not be loosened in any way.

On the House side, Paulsen said his chamber’s Ethics Committee is likely to rewrite its rules as well. But rather than banning employment with political campaigns, it most likely will increase disclosure requirements.

• GAS TAX: It appears unlikely the Legislature will approve an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax.

Iowa’s road construction lobby has pushed for a 10-cent hike in gasoline and diesel taxes that would generate an additional $230 million to meet critical needs on state, county and city roads.

Branstad said he sees two reasons why an increase in motor fuel taxes is doubtful: One is strong public opposition, as shown over the years by The Des Moines Register’s statewide Iowa Polls. A second is that fuel taxes offer a diminishing source of future revenue because of the development of hybrid vehicles and those using alternative fuels, such as propane.

Gronstal said he personally favors increasing the fuel tax, because it taxes out-of-state motorists driving on Iowa roads as well as Iowans. Alternatives put forward by the Department of Transportation would place the burden only on Iowans.

“That is not a great equation,” he said.

• POLYGAMY: Iowa has had same-sex marriage since it was legalized by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2009, but the state’s top elected officials have no interest in legalizing polygamy.

Branstad and legislative leaders said they don’t expect a legislative debate over polygamy to surface this year. They were asked about the issue in light of a recent U.S. District Court ruling that struck down part of Utah’s bigamy law, which had the effect of decriminalizing polygamy.

Branstad remarked, “I am opposed to polygamy. Let me make that clear. I am a believer in marriage between one man and one woman.”

Since the Iowa Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Republicans in the Legislature have repeatedly sought a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman. But Gronstal has blocked those efforts.

Gronstal, when asked Wednesday about possible discussion during the upcoming legislative session of allowing polygamy, simply said, “No.”

Paulsen likewise replied, “Authorizing it? No.”

• MARIJUANA: Don’t look for Iowa to follow Colorado’s lead in legalizing recreational marijuana, Branstad and legislative leaders agreed.

While there could be further discussion of legalizing pot for medical purposes during the 2014 session, it’s very unlikely that marijuana will be legalized in Iowa for either medical or recreational purposes this year, they said.

Gronstal predicted there is “zero chance” of state lawmakers authorizing recreational marijuana, and he described any possibility of legalizing medical marijuana as a long shot.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock agreed with Gronstal, saying: “I think there is no interest in that whatsoever.”

Colorado this week became the first state in the nation where marijuana can be legally sold for recreational use.

“No, I don’t want to embark on an experiment like that,” Branstad said. “I think it would be damning to the health and welfare of the citizens of our state.”

• E-CIGARETTES: Branstad offered no opinion on whether increasingly popular electronic cigarettes should be taxed the same as traditional smokable tobacco, but he said the issue deserves scrutiny.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize a liquid containing nicotine, the key ingredient in tobacco. Smokers inhale the vapor in the same manner as a cigarette, but do not exhale tobacco smoke.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has called for stricter restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes and suggested they should be added to the state law barring smoking inside public buildings and workplaces.

Miller also asked lawmakers to review whether they should be taxed in the same manner as other tobacco products. Currently, they’re taxed only at the standard 6 percent sales tax rate.

Branstad said he recognized the devices’ growing popularity and said a review would be appropriate.

“I understand that we’re seeing the advent of these e-cigarettes and there’s questions about the way that’s going to be managed, both in terms of where they’re going to be sold and under what circumstances, and the issue of taxation,” he said. “It’s a new development and one that I think needs to be approached in a very thoughtful and careful manner.”

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