DES MOINES — Democrats have sounded the alarm: Republicans are coming for public workers’ retirement funds.
Republicans have responded: That’s nothing more than political grandstanding and fear mongering.
Public employee pension reform is one of myriad of hot-button issues that could command state lawmakers’ attention throughout the legislative session that starts today at the Iowa Capitol.
Some Republicans, including former Gov. Terry Branstad, have said the state public workers retirement system requires changes in order to make the program sustainable for the long-term so workers continue to receive the benefits they expect.
Iowa’s public employee pension funds are funded at more than 80 percent, according to multiple independent studies, and that typically ranks the state’s as among the healthiest public pension funds in the nation.
Statehouse Democrats in December called a press conference to warn that Republicans may propose changes to the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, or IPERS, and that those changes would mean fewer benefits paid out for retirees.
“IPERS and Iowa’s other public pension plans are secure, strong, and sustainable. Some current legislative proposals to change IPERS could break the promise we have made to hard working Iowans since 1953,” Democratic state treasurer Michael Fitzgerald said at that December press conference. “The retirement contributions Iowa workers have made to these funds have been invested well and the benefits are reasonable. There is no need to make the type of changes Gov. Reynolds and Senate Republicans are talking about.”
Gov. Reynolds and statehouse Republican leaders, however, insist they are not talking about making changes to IPERS this session.
“I think we can chalk that up to fear mongering,” said Linda Upmeyer, the Republican Speaker of the House.
Upmeyer, Reynolds and Bill Dix, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, all said they do not expect any legislation that addresses IPERS to move during this year’s legislative session.
“They’re just trying to stir up trouble,” Dix said of Democrats’ warnings. “As we look at this session, I do not anticipate an extensive debate on the subject.”
Dix did say Senate Republicans may hold some hearings and presentations on the subject during this year’s session, and that the state’s public worker pension programs may need changes in the future.
Just not this year, Dix said.
“One thing that Iowans really should expect, especially people within the IPERS system, is that long-term you have a sustainable system there,” Dix said.
In 2017, the state made texting while driving a primary offense. In other words, police now may pull over and cite a driver simply for texting while driving. Before the change, officers could cite a driver for texting only after stopping the driver for a separate offense.
Some legislators and groups, including some in law enforcement, believe Iowa should take the next step and ban all hand-held phone use while driving, with limited exceptions.
Most leaders said they think the new law should be given more time before additional restrictions are approved.
“This has helped. This has certainly moved the needle in the right direction,” Upmeyer said of the new law. “I just think it’s a good idea to kind of let things settle a little. We’ve only had six months (of the new law). ... I really think it’s beneficial to let us get at least a year of information, and then we can contemplate what else might be prudent and necessary.”
It’s an annual debate. Is this the year changes are made to the state law that adds a 5-cent deposit on soda and beer containers as a recycling incentive, and requires grocery stores to accept and refund returned bottles?
It’s a definite maybe, leaders say.
“I do get the feeling, from what I’m hearing, that (various interested groups) are making strong inroads to a different way of handling Iowa’s recycling,” said Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines. “But I’ve served in the Legislature 18 years and I think the bottle bill has come up nearly every one of those 18 years, and no one has seemed to find a solution that works better than the bottle bill.”
The Senate in 2017 passed a bill that would require local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal officials enforcing immigration laws, and create financial sanctions for agencies that do not.
Dix said he thinks the House this year should pass that bill, which the Senate approved late in the 2017 session.
Upmeyer said she wished Congress would enact federal immigration reform, and while she questioned agencies that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, she stopped short of saying the House will pass a so-called sanctuary city bill this year.
“I don’t know how active it will be,” she said.
Some Republican senators wish to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished in Iowa roughly a half-century ago. A bill was introduced last session, and may be pushed again this year by those Senate Republicans.
“We have several individuals who definitely support us taking a look at that. ... I really don’t know at this point how broad that is in the caucus,” Dix said. “We’ll see what the process brings forward and how people feel about it.”
A pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling could open the door for states to legalize gambling on sports contests, as is only currently legal in Nevada and to a lesser degree in a few other states.
Leaders said they have not discussed the issue with their members, or that they wanted to wait for the Supreme Court ruling to determine whether Iowa should, if given the opportunity, legalize sports betting.
The state last year expanded its medical cannabis program to add more ailments and allow for the production and sale of medical cannabis in Iowa.
Advocates believe the program should add still more ailments and increase the legal amount of THC in order to provide helpful treatment from some of those conditions.
Democrats support expanding the program further, and Dix noted the Senate’s bill included more covered illnesses and a higher legal THC level. Upmeyer said the new law should be given time, and deferred to the newly established state board that oversees implementation and enforcement of the state program.
DUBUQUE — Ski instructor Beth Bonz asked Kaily Ramage about their plan for the afternoon.
Did 9-year-old Kaily want to start with a brief run on the “bunny” hill to review her past lessons, or skip ahead and ski the full hill and take the lift back?
Kaily’s eyes lit up and a grin spread across her face.
“All the way down,” she said.
That was the cue, and the pair sped down the big hill at Sundown Mountain Resort. The only brief delay came when Kaily first arrived for the day’s skiing, when Bonz had to help pop the girl’s boot-wearing, prosthetic left leg into a ski.
Kaily spent Sunday afternoon participating in an adaptive skiing event held at Sundown and organized by Clark & Associates Prosthetics and Orthotics in Waterloo.
“It’s fun,” Kaily said. “I get to go fast and it feels really easy.”
Chad Remmert, Clark’s director of business development and an organizer of the event, said about 30 patients and staff members participated.
“We’ve got seven amputees here and a couple of folks who use braces,” Remmert said.
Kaily has had a prosthetic left leg since she was a baby. The Dubuque girl was born with a club foot and missing part of her fibula. Her leg was amputated when she was 5 months old.
Kaily’s dad, Zach Ramage, said the prosthetic doesn’t slow her down much.
“She can do 95 percent of things without much difficulty,” he said. “The only problems are riding a bike — it’s sometimes hard to keep her foot on the pedal — and gymnastics — she can do a cartwheel one direction easily but the other way is a little problematic.”
Kaily said skiing is one of her favorite sports. She has been using adaptive equipment to ski for a few years.
“She does very well,” Bonz said. “Every year, she’s gotten progressively better.”
Andy Steele is a co-owner of Clark and a certified prosthetist and orthotist who serves patients at offices in Dubuque and Waterloo. He also has a prosthetic, having lost a leg in a farm accident when he was 12 years old.
“Our motto is to focus on everybody’s ability,” Steele said, as he waited his turn to ski and watched others with prosthetics heading down the slope. “It’s incredible to see people getting back to doing something that they love or get back to trying new things. I think sometimes, when people have an amputation or a disability, they think they will be limited with the things they can do. But really, I think the only limit is when you are limiting yourself.”
Adam Weber, a Dubuque native living in Waterloo, lost the lower part of his left leg in 2015 after a motorcycle crash. He began snowboarding with a few adaptive modifications in 2017.
“They have a piece of foam in my boot, and a different bracket allows my prosthetic to be bent,” Weber said.
Weber participated in Sunday’s adaptive skiing event, but said he really wanted to keep an eye on the inspirational young skiers, such as Kaily.
“Amputees that start as kids are part of the future of winter sports,” Weber said. “They show that the sky’s the limit.”
Kaily kept grinning during time on the slope.
“The best thing about it is that she doesn’t have to put in extra effort that some of the other sports require,” said her dad Zach. “She’s having a blast.”
DES MOINES — Majority Republicans return today to the statehouse ready to deliver “chapter two” of a conservative agenda that Senate leader Bill Dix said would “change Iowa for the best” by creating an environment with tax cuts and other enticements for more investment and growth.
The first year of the 87th Iowa General Assembly saw the GOP enact significant changes in workplace rules, possession of firearms and fireworks, election laws, abortion restrictions and public safety. Dix, a Shell Rock Republican, assured his backers “we are not done” as the new session convenes.
“We need to keep the momentum going in 2018,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, as Republicans who hold majorities of 58-41 in the Iowa House and 29-20-1 in the Iowa Senate continue to push “common-sense conservative legislation” during a two-year run that began when they took control of the Statehouse in the 2016 election. “What a difference one election can make,” she noted.
Iowans saw a change in command at the top of state government during the interim when former Gov. Terry Branstad stepped down in May to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to China and his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds, was sworn as Iowa’s first female governor.
Reynolds has indicated her priorities for the upcoming session will include making the state’s tax code simpler, fairer and more competitive; training Iowans so they have the skills needed for successful careers; educating the state’s children to meet the demands of modern employment; and further developing the state’s energy plan to continue to maximize renewable energy sources such as wind and biofuels.
Legislative Republicans say much of their focus will be on tax relief and reform and dealing with a current budget shortfall projected at more than $36 million before formulating a new fiscal 2019 spending plan.
Other issues that could get attention this session, scheduled for 100 days, include expanding school choice for parents, further restricting access to abortion, reinstating the death penalty and requiring local authorities to cooperate with federal officials on immigration laws.
Democrats who are in the minority in both legislative chambers say they are bracing for another volatile session.
“I don’t know how it could get more politically charged or more politically divisive or polarized than last year,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines. “What you saw last year will continue on into this year and I think you’re going to see very deep polarization and I think you’re going to see very strong ideological positions on both the left and the right, and I think that very little is going to be accomplished that’s in a bipartisan, consensus manner.”
The fact that Republicans are calling 2018 “chapter two” of the General Assembly’s biennium “makes me very nervous,” McCoy added.
“But, frankly, I think that kind of kicking the door in on government is going to backfire on them because I think Iowans were pretty disgusted with what happened in last legislative session,” he said, “and I think if they repeat that prior to an election, I think that that’s a bad move on their part.”
Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, sees it very differently.
He said Republicans are very proud of what they accomplished last year — calling it the most historic and productive session in decades — and he believes they are energized “to keep pushing forward” this year.
“So we expect to have some bold ideas and continue to do big things,” he noted.
One change took place over the interim: Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson, left the Iowa Senate to take a full-time job leading the Cherokee County economic development effort, and was replaced in a special Senate District 3 election by Rep. James Carlin, R-Sioux City. A special election is slated Jan. 16 in House District 6 to fill the seat vacated when Carlin moved across the Statehouse rotunda from the House to the Senate.