Freshman legislators make themselves heard
5/15/2005 By DAN GEARINO, Courier Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES --- These freshmen made new friends, endured some hazing and learned to live away from home.
And while they were at it, they raised the speed limit, put curbs on the sale of cold medicine and approved more than $5 billion in state spending.
New members of the Iowa General Assembly played big roles in big issues this year, often seeking middle-of-the-road options over partisan fights. This week, as the session winds down, they reflected on what they did and what they learned.
"We were adamant about doing something different from the past," said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo.
The freshman class includes 13 Democrats and seven Republicans, all of whom are new to the Legislature except for Sen. Jim Hahn, R-Muscatine, who moved from the House to the Senate.
Outside the daily legislative business, freshmen from both parties made a point to get to know each other and work together, something unthinkable to members who had lived through years of mutual animosity.
The Northeast Iowa freshmen are Danielson, Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Waterloo, Rep. Dawn Pettengill, D-Mount Auburn, and Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington.
In the House, where Republicans hold a 51-49 edge, Kressig and Pettengill found it's difficult to get much done as a member of the minority party.
Kressig, a retired John Deere worker, focused on the areas where he could make a difference. He found some of his best work was in the small groups that review the first drafts of bills. These subcommittees helped him learn the nuts and bolts of the process.
But looking at the big picture of the House's accomplishments, Kressig is disappointed.
"It just seems to me this year that we didn't do enough for education or jobs," he said.
Veteran lawmakers helped Kressig along the way, including two other Waterloo Democrats, Rep. Don Shoultz and Sen. Bill Dotzler. "It's easy for me to go over and talk to Don, particularly about property tax issues. Don is very knowledgeable," Kressig said.
Pettengill, a corporate trainer and former mayor, realized that there were few opportunities for Democrats, much less freshman Democrats, to contribute.
Because of this, she focused on constituent services, helping people in her district who were having problems with state agencies or regulations.
"Being a voice for people who had a voice, but didn't know where to go or who to talk to, has been very rewarding," she said.
Despite Democrats' lack of influence in the House, she is proud of several bills the chamber has passed, including the limits on the sale of cold medicines that contain the drug pseudoephedrine. This bill, later signed by Gov. Tom Vilsack, is intended to limit the use of the drug in the production of methamphetamine.
In the Senate, where the parties are tied 25-25, freshmen had a chance to make an immediate contribution.
Danielson, a Cedar Falls firefighter, was the floor manager of the bill raising the speed limit on rural interstates from 65 to 70 mph, later signed by Vilsack. The bill also raised speeding fines and court fees to pay for highway patrol vehicles and court costs.
"What a lot folks won't remember years ahead is we found another $7 million for the judiciary system," Danielson said about some of the lesser-known reasons he's proud of the bill.
New senators often face hazing from their veteran colleagues. It man take the form of detailed questions when a freshman is presenting his or her first bill.
Schoenjahn, a teacher and former mayor, was ready. He was hot with questions about state rules and Senate procedure as it related to his bill. But rather than blush and say he didn't know, he had all the answers. He later revealed he had been tipped off to be ready.
Compared to his experience in city government, Schoenjahn found the Senate moves at a glacial pace.
That said, the Senate can move fast when it wants to, such as on the pseudoephedrine bill and a plan Schoenjahn co-authored to start an early childhood education initiative.
"I think this is going to go down as a landmark session. We have gotten some tremendous legislation done this year," he said.
Contact Dan Gearino at (515) 243-0138 and firstname.lastname@example.org.