The 2006 Iowa Legislature opens for business today amid the pressures of an election year, demands for higher teacher salaries and a controversy over the new Iowa Lottery TouchPlay machines. The state teachers union is asking legislators to spend 172-million dollars over the next three years to raise the average teacher salary in Iowa from 41st in the nation to the national average. About two-hundred teachers were in Des Moines this past weekend, trying to press their message. But the controversy over the Lottery’s TouchPlay machines, which critics say are just like slot machines, means the 2006 Legislature has a big “mess” on its hands, according to Republican House Speaker Christopher Rants of Sioux City.

“If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have a single one of those machines out there,” Rants says. But Rants says the reality is there’s now a lot of private sector money “tied up” in the machines, and it’ll be tough to find a solution. “I think the Lottery has put the General Assembly and the rest of state in a very uncomfortable and difficult position,” Rants says.

Rants has never seen minors playing the machines, but he has seen the machines in action. Rants says the people playing the machines don’t see any difference between the TouchPlay machines and slot machines. Lottery officials say there is a difference and cite cases in which judges have ruled that the machines are substantially different than slot machines because of the way you win the games. Rants says it isn’t workable to enforce a temporary moratorium on placing more of the machines in Iowa stores, bars and restaurants until legislators figure out what to do. “You’ve got a convenience store on both sides of the street. One has (TouchPlay machines). One’s got an order for a machine. Are you now not going to let them put it in so the state has picked a winner and a loser…has created an unfair playing field,” Rants says. “A moratorium is problematic because of that.”

As for the problem of teacher salaries, Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, is asking lawmakers to provide more money to raise teacher pay, but he’s not asking for as much money as the teachers union wants. In 2001, the Iowa Legislature and Governor Vilsack enacted reforms which called for more accountability from schools and teachers, and promised higher teacher pay. “We started several years ago and have made some inroads,” Vilsack says. “But we obviously need to do a lot more work in that regard.”

The governor says the average teacher pay in Iowa can’t be raised to the national average in a single year, but policymakers like himself and legislators can take steps in that direction.” Rants, the Republican leader of the House, says with tight state finances, it would be better not to raise the salaries of all teachers but to only put more state taxdollars toward the salaries of science and math teachers. Rants says schools are finding it difficult to recruit math and science teachers, but there’s a glut of teachers for other subjects like English and social studies.

These kinds of debates must be resolved between the two political parties in an election year. Governor Tom Vilsack, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, says he doesn’t expect partisan rancor to rule the 2006 Legislative session. “We’re here to do the people’s business and the politics can wait until the fall,” Vilsack says