Today appears to be the final day of the 2008 Iowa legislative session. Debate is brief as the final bills that outline much of the next state budget make their way through the Iowa House and Senate. At about 11:30 Thursday night, Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, made this observation about the state capitol. "Given the fact that this place is starting to feel like the Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina, I think it’s time for us to move this bill along and get the heck out of here," McCoy said.
A more than $6 billion state spending plan is a major part of the legislature’s work-product. A longtime legislator says the hallmark action of the 2008 session, though, is the anti-smoking law which goes into effect July 1st.
Senator Mike Connolly, a Democrat from Dubuque, isn’t seeking reelection after serving 30 years in the Iowa House and Senate. "All of our jobs are important, if you’re building a house or whatever you’re doing, but the stuff we’re doing here has wide impact and changes people’s lives," Connolly says.
According to Connolly, the ban on smoking in most public places is an example of the kind of life-changing legislation that’s developed at the statehouse. "It gets batted around. It gets boiled and usually before it gets in the book it’s in pretty good shape," Connolly says. "Not always, but most of the time this is a beautiful process and it’s a beautiful thing to have been a part of it."
Republicans are in the minority at the statehouse and they’re less enamored with the actions of the Democratic-led 2008 legislature. House Republican Leader Christopher Rants of Sioux City has a particularly harsh critique of the Democrats’ budget plan. "They just can’t stop raising taxes. We’ve got to adjourn this place before taxpayers have nothing left to give," Rants says. "We can’t keep track…They just keep spending more money."
Democrats like Senate President Jack Kibbie of Emmetsburg say the budget plan is "prudent" and lawmakers took positive steps on health care and the environment. "I think you can compare the accomplishments of this session, in a bipartisan way, with any legislature in this nation," Kibbie says. "…I mean we’re ending here in good style with so many accomplishments."
Legislators did not tackle the perplexing issue of fixing the state’s property tax system. That a disappointment to Iowa businesses according to John Gilliland of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. "Commercial property tax continues to be the white elephant when it comes to Iowa’s economic development," Gilliland says. "We’re simply out of whack when it comes to the rest of the country…and so we’re disappointed that issue just wasn’t addressed this year."
Next year, Iowans who buy a new pickup will pay a much higher fee each year to renew their plates. Pickup license fees have been set at $65, while minivan and S.U.V. drivers pay a much higher yearly fee for their plates based on the weight and value of their vehicles. As a result of a new state law that kicks in for vehicles starting in the 2010 model year, the only pickup owners who’ll pay that lower, $65 fee will be farmers and people who use their pickup for business purposes.
Senator John Putney, a Republican from Gladbrook who’s not seeking reelection, tried for years to get rid of the lower fee for pickup owners. "I really, really feel good about the fact that we have an opportunity here to get started on our infrastructure and pickup fees are obviously going to play a big role in that," Putney says. The higher fees for pickups, as well as other new vehicles, will be used to finance road construction and maintenance.
Legislators approved a bill designed to funnel more money into maintenance and construction of school buildings in rural districts. The single-largest state spending project to emerge from the 2008 legislature is a $240 million plan for a new state maximum security prison, a new state prison for women and expansion of halfway houses.
Senator Gene Fraise, a Democrat from Fort Madison, says his hometown was chosen partly because the community’s used to having a maximum security facility in its backyard. "Either that or remodel the old (prison) and to remodel the old one was like $30 (million) or $40 million more," Fraise says. "I don’t think many people would remodel an old house and pay almost double what it would cost to build a new one." Fraise says the improved design of the prison will allow the same number of guards to monitor about twice as many prisoners.
Senator Paul McKinley, a Republican from Chariton, says the unfortunate part of the whole deal is that no other site but Fort Madison was seriously considered. "From a logistical standpoint it makes a lot more sense to locate a prison in the central part of the state," McKinley says. "…We didn’t look at that and I think we should have."
Legislators should conclude the work of the 2008 session sometime later today.