The 2011 session of the Iowa Legislature got underway this week, as state lawmakers began their work January 10 at the State Capitol in Des Moines. State legislators and new Republican Governor Terry Branstad will have to deal with an austere financial situation as a result of the economic recession. They will have to make cuts in spending to balance the state's budget.
Many state legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, are emphasizing the need to put Iowans back to work. They know that's what the recent election was all about, as Republicans gained seats in the Iowa House and Senate and took back the office of governor from incumbent Chet Culver, a Democrat.
Branstad is talking about the state budget and the need for economic development and job creation. He says his main goals include bringing 200,000 new jobs to the state, reducing the cost of state government by 15% and improving education. He's also talked about reducing the regulatory burden on businesses and agriculture, and about reducing the commercial property tax.
How will changes taking place at State Capitol affect farmers?
How will the changes taking place under the golden dome of the State Capitol affect farmers? Branstad has warned that because farmland values have risen dramatically the past few years, property taxes on ag land will eventually rise. Presently, residential and farmland taxes are linked and can grow no more than 4% per year by law. Branstad has said he would consider limiting farmland tax growth to 2% or 3% per year.
Branstad and his lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, a former state senator and also a Republican, haven't said whether such a move might mean changing the amount of tax credits used in the state or the level of funding for those credits.
Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, is the new speaker of the Iowa House. He says the focus of the legislature will be on jobs and the economy. Recent tax revenue estimates show the Iowa economy is improving and indicate that the state budget is showing a surplus. However, Paulsen says that is misleading because some state programs have been funded with federal stimulus money or other one-time appropriation funds. Lawmakers should assume those federal funds will not be there this time around.
Renewable fuels, food safety issues also likely to be discussed
The Iowa Senate still has a Democrat majority, but Republicans did gain some seats in the senate in the last election. The chairman of the Iowa Senate Ag Committee is a veterinarian, Joe Seng, a Democrat from Davenport.
He says the state should look more closely at concerns related to food safety and also issues related to animal diseases. There may be a push for eradication of some animal diseases. And, he notes, the food safety issue was raised this past summer when a salmonella outbreak on a large Iowa egg farm resulted in a massive recall of eggs. That gave the Iowa egg industry a black eye nationally, which is significant because Iowa leads all states in egg production.
David Johnson, ranking Republican on the senate ag committee, is a farmer from Ocheyedan. He and Seng both say renewable fuels will be a topic for discussion. Leaders of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association will push to get more E15 or 15% ethanol blend sold in Iowa, moving up from the E10 or 10% blend that is sold statewide today. The IRFA wants to work on ways to promote the existing ethanol production industry in Iowa because Iowa drivers use mostly E10, and the state exports much of its ethanol to other states. Perhaps the state of Iowa could put more financial incentives into expanding the availability of blender pumps, making them more available at gas stations statewide, says Johnson.
Regulatory matters, taxes will be key ag-related topics this session
Legislators in 2011 will also likely discuss regulatory issues, including regulations that pertain to Iowa's livestock industry. Four members of the state Environmental Protection Commission have terms that will be expiring this spring, and Governor Branstad will be appointing their replacements.
However, most of the discussion in the legislative session this year will have to do with budget cutting, taxes and economic development. Any proposals that require new spending may not go anywhere this session and some existing programs may be facing the budget axe. Paulsen has even said he will look at possibly introducing a "de-funding" bill early in the session to take money away from some programs during the present fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2011.
What about Branstad's proposals to phase out some commercial property taxes? Or to limit property tax growth to only 2% to 3% per year for agricultural land? Legislators will listen to new ideas, says Iowa Senate Minority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Democrat from Council Bluffs. But reducing property taxes for some taxpayers usually means increasing them on another set of taxpayers, he says.
The 84th Iowa General Assembly is scheduled to last 110 days
The 84th Iowa General Assembly which began it's work on Jan. 10, 2011 is scheduled to last 110 days, making Friday April 29 the last day for legislators to receive compensation for their service. March 11 will be the first "funnel" day, which is the final date for Senate and House bills to be reported out of their respective committees. April 8 is the second "funnel" day or the final day for Senate bills to be reported out of House committees and for House bills to be reported out of Senate committees.