Abortion issue deadlock holds up Legislature’s adjournment
DES MOINES – State lawmakers continue to wrestle with a 2011 session that won’t end.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats who share split-control of the General Assembly put themselves in a position to adjourn on Thursday with a midnight deadline looming to finalize a fiscal 2012 budget before a new year arrives on Friday – averting the potential that government services could be jeopardized without an authorized spending plan to finance operations.
One Statehouse lobbyist likened the 2011 session to “a hang-over that won’t go away.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, started Wednesday saying adjournment was “likely, not guaranteed.” That guarantee proved to have a limited shelf life when House-Senate members of a human services budget subcommittee were unable to resolve a dispute over a provision dealing with Medicaid-funded abortions that has been part of session law since 1978, prompting the Senate to shut down shortly before 9 p.m. and the House followed suit a short time later.
“Thursday morning we will come back,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, with plans to finish work on two final bills – the deadlocked health and human services budget bill and a special measure to temporarily fund state programs during the 30-day period that Gov. Terry Branstad will have to review late-arriving budget bills and consider using his item-veto power to strip appropriation measures of provisions he does not like.
The Senate is scheduled to start the session’s 172nd day at 8 a.m. Thursday, while the House plans to convene at 8:30 a.m.
On the abortion issue, Republicans initially sought to restrict publicly funded abortions performed at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City to situations where a troubled pregnancy put a woman’s life in danger – ending other exceptions for rape, incest, fetal abnormalities or miscarriages. They later modified the proposed change to require women to view an ultrasound before having an abortion in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities and to receive “informed consent” material on options that included adoption, carrying the pregnancy to term and terminating the pregnancy.
Democrats were willing to consider the GOP proposal if the ultrasounds were voluntary rather than required, said Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines. But, the final $1.5 billion piece of the $5.999 billion general fund spending plan held up the march to adjournment as House Republicans struggled with internal differences over life issues that have divided the 60-member caucus at times this session.
Chuck Hurley and Danny Carroll, former GOP House members who now work for the pro-life Family Leader organization, issued an email to their members urging them to call House Republicans not to “give in to Senate Democrat demands that the draconian abortion language be restored, meaning that you will be funding abortion through your tax dollars.”
“Conservative Pro-life voters helped to give the Republican Party the Governor’s office and a 60-seat strong majority in the House. In addition, they took 5 Senate seats away from the Democrats. If the Republicans give in on these 11th hour negotiations, they will be walking away from this session completely empty-handed, even though they control the House and Governor’s office,” they noted in their joint email.
Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the health and human services budget impasse could push final budget passage into Thursday, but he said “it certainly will be done before the close of the fiscal year is my expectation.”
Lawmakers crafted language to temporarily fund state programs during the 30-day period the governor now has to review late-arriving budget bills and consider using his item-veto power to strip appropriation measures of provisions he does not like. They expected to approve the measure on Thursday.
While the budget stalemate was destined to be resolved, legislative leaders were less hopeful for finding common ground on delivering commercial property tax relief this session.
While holding out hope to the end, legislative leaders conceded the session likely would adjourn without an agreement. All sides expressed disappointment that they appeared unable to reach consensus on providing tax relief for commercial property owners, and some hoped the governor would call lawmakers back in special session to resolve their differences.
Branstad proposed that commercial property taxes, which currently are taxed at 100 percent of assessed value, be gradually lowered to 60 percent over five years at a cost of $250 million. New business ventures would get the 60 percent break immediately. He also proposed agricultural and residential property tax increases be capped at 2 percent. House Republicans approved a tax rate phase-down to 75 percent for commercial property and limits on spending growth by local governments.
Senate Democrats said they passed a bipartisan plan to provide $50 million in yearly tax credits to ease property tax burdens for small and Main Street businesses without hurting local governments, but Branstad and legislative Republicans insisted on an approach that Democrats believed would tilt benefits too heavily to out-of-state corporations.
“It’s not an issue that’s going away. There’s a commitment to deal with this issue,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who suggested a House-Senate panel of Ways and Means Committee members be convened to seek middle ground. She noted that lawmakers will be back at the Capitol in a little over six months due to this year’s overtime work.
Senate GOP Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton said he would not rule out a special session to keeping working on an issue that dogged lawmakers all session.
“People will not stand for property taxes to continue to go up,” he said. “We will see property taxes dramatically increase and we know where to affix the blame.”
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor “continues to believe that inaction is unacceptable.”
“Iowa’s commercial property taxes are the highest in the nation, making our state wildly uncompetitive with other states and nations in attracting good jobs,” Albrecht said in a statement Wednesday. “Should the Legislature fail to advance the governor’s plan, and allow property taxes to rise at this unsustainable level, we will in the future continue to pursue Gov. Branstad’s common-sense solution that he crafted on behalf of Iowa’s taxpayers.”
Lawmakers did vote to approve a $2.7 billion standings appropriation that froze K-12 allowable growth in fiscal 2012 while “backfilling” $215 million to address property taxes and local reserves tapped to cover past shortfalls in state aid commitments. Sen. Tom Bowman, D-Maquoketa, noted that regardless of the amount, there was “no one new penny” in state aid that went to schools because the GOP approach invested money in property tax relief rather than school children’s futures.
Legislator also approved $58 million for preschool programs next fiscal year and 2 percent allowable growth for K-12 schools in fiscal 2013. Community colleges would receive a $5 million general funding increase under the education budget bill passed Wednesday, while regent universities were pared back by $20 million.
With adjournment finally in sight, Senate and House members voted to approve a transition from the current state Department of Economic Development to a new public-private economic development strategy that Branstad proposed to guide the state business development, marketing and job-creation efforts. The newly created Partnership for Economic Prosperity would include a state authority, an 11-member authority board, a nonprofit corporation, a small business division and a director appointed by the governor for a four-year term.
Legislators made changes to increase transparency and accountability but nixed a separate compensation system for “key” personnel and required that contracts between the authority and the corporation would not span more than two years and would have timely disclosure on donations.
“Privatizing economic development won’t create jobs, it will just funnel more community wealth to big-moneyed corporations,” said Judy Lonning, a retired teacher and Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) board member from Des Moines. “This bill lets Branstad and the private sector pick economic winners and losers and pad the pockets of CEOs and shareholders with taxpayer money that should be going to rebuild our public infrastructure and maintain our vital public services.”
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