Lawmakers feel change in atmosphere at Statehouse By CHARLOTTE EBY
A tide has swept the Iowa Statehouse as Democrats took over from the long-reigning GOP last week.
And the new leadership has infused the place with an energy and a philosophy that hasn't been seen since the last time Democrats held the majority in the chamber more than a decade ago.
Where tax cuts and accountability had been the buzz words in a GOP-dominated House and Senate, the talk has now turned to diversity and helping out working families.
The first bill filed in both chambers would raise Iowa's minimum wage to $7.25 by 2008. Democrats have pledged to make it the first piece of legislation they pass this year, and Democratic Gov. Chet Culver has said he will sign it.
Outgoing Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, helped set the tone early in the week during his Condition of the State speech when he called for universal health care and universal preschool in Iowa. He urged lawmakers to force schools to adopt anti-bullying policies.
He even stepped into the debate over the Iraq war, calling on lawmakers to approve a resolution against sending more troops.
Democrats jumped headlong into trying to initiate many of the proposals Vilsack laid out that have been thwarted during the GOP years.
They unveiled a universal health care proposal on Wednesday, an idea that would have been scotched immediately if Republicans were in charge.
New Speaker Pro-Tem Polly Bukta, a Democrat from Clinton, hailed the new makeup of the Legislature and the fact it now looks more like the face of Iowa.
A record 28 women are serving in the Iowa House.
The Legislature now has its first Muslim, Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad of Des Moines. And the House, with four black members, has more than ever before, including Waterloo's Deborah Berry of Waterloo.
"There is a different feel," Berry said of the atmosphere at the Statehouse this year.
She's still adjusting to life in the majority.
"I don't feel that I've changed at all," she said. "You know, my attitude is the same as before --- let's work, let's try to make things happen together. But I don't always get the friendliness back."
Berry is looking forward to her legislative ideas getting a better chance with her party in charge.
She introduced a bill last year that would have helped advocates for foster children check up on the kids in the home more frequently. The bill was killed by the GOP. Now that Democrats are back in charge, she's introduced it again this year.
It's the same story for Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls.
He says he as if he has more of a part of the process now that his party is in charge.
Kressig is pushing a bill that would help various law enforcement and public safety agencies to communicate more effectively among each other in case of disasters or emergencies, called "interoperability."
Currently Iowa first responders from different agencies have a difficult time coordinating responses to emergencies through their radio communications. Kressig's bill would set up a board to study the process and make recommendations.
"It's an important thing for Iowa to have," Kressig said.
Kressig tried to push the bill last year, but it went nowhere under the GOP majority.
"I was basically walking around this chamber and not too many people were listening," Kressig said.
To be sure, a lot of new ideas will be getting a fair shake they wouldn't have in the past.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, found something else remarkable this week with his party in the majority.
"When I walked through the Rotunda, I had a lot more people saying hi to me," he said.