DES MOINES — What will Iowa Republicans do for an encore?
Given complete control by voters in the 2016 elections, Republicans used the 2017 session of the Legislature to enact significant, conservative laws.
Over the course of roughly four months, Republicans dramatically reshaped gun and abortion regulations, distracted driving enforcement, the amount of compensation workers can receive from lawsuits and the way public employees bargain for wages and benefits.
But Republicans aren’t done yet.
They will return to the Legislature in 2018 with more on their conservative agenda and at least one more year of unfettered control, albeit likely with a new governor.
Statehouse Republicans seem to agree the top priority will be to lower taxes, most likely on working Iowans’ incomes.
“I think probably, realistically, the next step to continue to make Iowa competitive is comprehensive tax reform,” said Kim Reynolds, who for now is Iowa’s lieutenant governor but soon will step into the chief executive’s role when Gov. Terry Branstad resigns to become the U.S. ambassador to China.
“I think that really needs to be the next thing that we need to look at to keep Iowa competitive,” she said.
Republicans wanted to tackle tax reform immediately, but the state budget did not cooperate. Lawmakers were forced to cut the current fiscal year’s spending and wound up with less money than previously expected for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Any tax cut would have removed revenue from an already-shrinking budget pie.
“To me, the biggest disappointment is we weren’t able to do major tax reform,” said Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny. “... I’m hopeful that we can put forward a really good plan and come back next session and really make a big difference on taxes in this state.”
Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, chairman of the Senate’s tax policy committee, has unveiled a plan to cut taxes $500 million over the next five years, reduce the number of income brackets and phase out federal deductibility.
Feenstra acknowledged money is too tight to implement his proposal now, but he hopes it gets a chance next year.
“We believe that how you grow the economy is to lower rates,” Feenstra said. “So, that is the whole goal. I fully believe that next year is the best opportunity to go down that path of comprehensive tax reform.”
“Everything is going to depend on the revenue picture, and that is totally unpredictable at this point,” said Rep. Guy Vander Linden, R-Oskaloosa, chairman of the House’s tax policy committee.
There also may be debate about tax credits and incentives. Democrats say tax relief programs are causing most of the state’s budget problems. Although Republicans do not agree, they may examine those programs.
Republicans say they also will try in 2018 to tackle another conservative priority: school choice.
Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, chairman of the House education committee, plans to study allowing parents to use taxpayer funds to enroll children at nonpublic schools.
“Over the interim, that’s one of the things I want to do, is dig gown deeper into educational savings accounts: Is it really a beneficial thing for states to try?” Rogers said. “That will guide me on how much I come back next year with a will to do something.”
Democrats generally oppose school choice programs from, fearing they take away money from public schools.
Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, nonetheless said he thinks it is time Iowa expands school choice.
“If we don’t set up the funding next year, at the least, we need to set up the infrastructure that puts Iowa on course for education spending accounts. It’s time,” Bertrand said.
Any new school choice program also will require new funding. A healthier state budget will be a necessity.
The same is true for proposed changes to Iowa’s complicated formula for funding K-12 public schools. For years, school districts have complained the formula is antiquated and needs an update.
The Senate this year passed a proposed solution, but it was not considered by the House in large part because of the funding it required.
Rogers said school funding is another issue legislators will attempt to address next year.
“All of those things are going to be on the table,” Rogers said, “if there’s any revenue to play with.”
Republicans landed a big conservative victory by passing legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks and requires an ultrasound and three-day waiting period before an abortion is performed. But some hope to pass even stronger anti-abortion regulations in 2018.
Bertrand supports proposals to either define life as beginning at fertilization — a so-called personhood measure — or banning abortions just one week after fertilization.
He said the latter would make exceptions for artificial fertilization techniques, life-threatening issues for the mother and pregnancies that are the result of incest or rape.
Bertrand acknowledged opponents likely would challenge such a law in the courts but said he is ready to see that legal debate play out.
“We are in a position that we can challenge the courts,” Bertrand said. “No doubt about it, this one-week (proposal) is about saving babies, but it’s also about sending this back to the (U.S.) Supreme Court where this horrific thing started. ... Because I think when you have the trifecta (of lawmaking power at the state Capitol), if not now, when?”
Other issues that may return to majority Republicans’ legislative plate in 2018:
Traffic enforcement cameras: The Senate passed a package of new restrictions, but the House did not take up the bill in part because some Republicans will be satisfied only with a total ban.
Fantasy sports: This is another issue that has dragged out over many years. Vander Linden said he thought a proposal to legalize fantasy sports wagering, sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel, had support to pass this year. Ultimately, it did not, and Vander Linden last week expressed frustration.
Constitutional carry: Gun rights advocates scored a huge victory with passage of sweeping legislation that loosened gun restrictions and implemented a so-called “stand your ground” measure in Iowa. Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said he will explore the possibility of eliminating the requirement that gun owners possess a permit.