The Iowa Legislature is now entering its final month of session, with key legislators saying they still hope to wrap things up by Easter (April 20). Last Friday (March 14) was the second and final legislative "funnel" deadline. By this date, House Files must have been voted out of Senate Committees, and Senate Files had to be voted out of House Committees. Anything left in committee after March 14 is no longer eligible for debate, and is officially dead. However, three committees are exempt from this deadline, so bills coming out of the Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Government Oversight Committees are alive until the session ends for the year.
Our bill tracker has been updated with the status as of today, so any bills that didn't make the funnel deadline will only appear on the "inactive" list. You can find our custom Bill Tracker here.
Over the past two weeks, the Legislature has cleared a lot of non-controversial bills off the deck as they prepare for the final push toward adjournment. It's their own version of "spring cleaning" - cleaning off their desks with the easy stuff, and rolling up their sleeves to dig deep into the harder or more complicated things. So you should continue to see lawmakers spending a lot of time on the floor in debate.
Did you know you can now watch bills being debated from your computer, tablet, or smart phone? For the last several years, Iowans could watch their elected officials debate bills in real time, as the debate happened. But you had to know when those bills would be debated, or you missed it. With frequent delays and caucuses, it's tough for legislators themselves to predict exactly when a bill will be debated.
That has changed! Every day, the Iowa House of Representatives and the Iowa Senate archives their debates, so you can go the legislative website at any time and watch an entire day's debate, or just watch debate on a specific bill! So if you missed debate on a bill you really care about, just follow the links below and you can watch it now! Even if you aren't watching any specific bills, it's a good way to watch the legislative process in action!
NOTE: The Senate Bill Archives will show Senate Debates on a bill, both House Files and Senate Files. The House Bill Archives will show House Debates on a bill, both House Files and Senate Files. So if you want to watch debate on a Senate File, make sure you check both House and Senate archives, because both chambers must vote on the bill before it can go to the Governor.
It may not seem like a big accomplishment, but it was big news when the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House announced they had reached an agreement on how much money to spend in the next year on state government operations and services. It's been a long time since there were joint targets. It's hard to do a budget when you don't have agreement on how much to spend, let along how to spend it. You can argue with your kids about the merits of a trip to Disneyland versus a trip to the Omaha Zoo, but you can't make that decision until you know how much money you have to spend on a vacation.
There are eleven budgets that the Legislature must pass to fund state government. Of those eleven budgets, the Transportation, Judiciary, Justice Systems, Agriculture/Natural Resources, and Administration/Regulation Budgets have advanced out of subcommittee or committee. We are still waiting to see the other six in writing: Education, Health/Human
Services, Rebuild Iowa's Infrastructure Fund (RIIF), Economic Development, Standings and a catch-all bill that is being referred to as the Debt Reduction Initiative (because part of this bill will pay off part of the state's debts, called bonds). We anticipate seeing three or four of those six bills by the end of this coming week. As always, it appears the Health/Human Services Budget, which is starting in the House this year, will be one of the final ones negotiated. You can see details of these bills as they become available here.
On Thursday, one hurdle to the swift passage of the budget bills was removed when the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) announced their March budget projections. The reason Iowa is always ranked high in "good budget practices" is that the Legislature and Governor are only allowed to spend 99% of what they expect to take in each year in revenues (from taxes, fees, fines). So unlike other states, we do not spend more than we have in the bank, and we actually set aside a little each year to put into a savings (rainy day) fund. To make sure the Legislature doesn't exceed the 99% spending rule, the Legislature established a REC made up of economists who predict how much money the state will take in that year, based on guesses and on how much has been taken in to date.
So the REC met this week, and looked at how things are going, and basically said things are looking good, and may be even better than expected. If the REC announcement had made a large adjustment, that could have slowed the Legislature's budget process considerably. The House said they would definitely cut budget targets if revenues had fallen. If revenues had increased, the Governor's office and both chambers would have felt increased pressure to invest more in some priorities.
So the REC basically gave the Legislature and Governor the green light to move forward on with their current budget targets, clearing the way and most likely picking up the pace of budget negotiations.
The Health and Human Services Budget Subcommittee met last week to allow all members to express their priorities for the budget. Throughout the session, legislators on this subcommittee heard testimony from various groups on programs and services funded in this budget area. But this was the first time lawmakers told each other which things they felt should be priorities in funding. Here is a very quick review of what each legislator said was their priority:
The Health and Human Services Budget will begin in the House, with Rep. Dave Heaton being the point person on that budget. This budget subcommittee was given one of the most challenging tasks of all budgets. The Governor's budget underfunded Medicaid by about $41 million, and was $11 million under the lowest estimate of need. The joint target is nearly $1 million below the Governor's budget. That means this budget subcommittee must cut $12 million in funding and shift those funds over to Medicaid before passing their budget. As you can see, these legislators have a very big task ahead.
You can see the Governor's budget recommendations here. Check back - we'll post updates on this budget on our Facebook page and on our website as we learn more.
Now is the time to let your legislators know about your budget priorities. Just remember that your legislators have to balance their budgets, and they know that the need is far greater than the money available. So please make sure to stay positive, and just explain why your priorities are important! You can contact your legislators using our Grassroots Action Center, by visiting with them at a public forum, or by contacting them directly. You can also call them during the week at 515/281-3221 (House) or 515/281-3371 (Senate).
Another big event occurred last week that was weighing on the minds of a lot of legislators - candidate filing deadlines were Friday, March 14. Now, all legislators know if they have an opponent in both the the June 3rd primary and the November 4th general election, and and who those opponents are. If you would like to know who will be running in primary elections all across the state, the complete 70-page list is available online at http://sos.iowa.gov/elections/pdf/2014/primary/candlist.pdf.
Of the 25 Iowa Senate seats up this November, 11 are currently held by Republicans and 14 are held by Democrats. (Only half of the Senate is up for election every 2 years, since Senate terms are 4 years in length.) There are contested races in 7 of the seats held by Republicans and 9 of the seats held by Democrats. There are primary races in a total of 12 Senate races (though in most of those, the incumbent is unchallenged in the primary).
All 100 of the Iowa House seats are up this year, but exactly half of current legislators have no opponent in the primary or general election (29 Democrats and 21 Republicans). There are contested races in 29 seats currently held by Republicans, and in 14 seats currently held by Democrats.
Perhaps we jinxed this bill, after getting excited over the strong advocacy that helped breathe life into a bill that most had thought was long dead. The bill that is now referred to as the "Refueling Assistance Bill" (Senate File 2284). would have required gas stations to offer refueling assistance to customers with disabilities upon request, requires signs be posted letting customers know the assistance is available, and require a call button be installed. The bill included a $500 tax credit to help businesses comply with this and other requirements in the bill. Some small businesses (two or fewer pumps) and unstaffed sites would be exempt.
Unfortunately the bill died after it passed the Senate 32-14 on March 11. The bill didn't make it to the House in time to beat the funnel, and it did not pass out of the House Agriculture Committee by the March 14 deadline. You can see how your Senator voted here. You can watch the Senate debate on the bill here.
Sen. Rita Hart was the bill's floor manager, and chief champion. She said that the bill "makes a practical change" to help Iowa's gas stations come into compliance with the ADA. As with any advocacy, it's a team effort. Since our first article, more advocates have come forward to talk about the work they did to move this bill forward. One hosted a group of legislators on his local access TV show to discuss the challenges experienced with refueling his vehicle while another worked with his state senator to shape the language in the legislative bill. Both are shining examples of the difference that advocates can make when they organize for change.
If you or people you know are advocating on an issue, and want to share what you are doing with others, please let us know! Add us to your Action Alerts that you send out, and let us know what you are doing! Others can learn from your work, and you may get others to join in on your effort! You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 866-432-2846.
Bills that survived the funnel include the bill making clarifying changes made last year to the Consumer Directed Attendant Care (CDAC) program, a bill moving the state forward in the development of mental health crisis stabilization programs, the MH/DS redesign technical bill, and anti-bullying legislation.
Check out these and other disability-related bills that survived the funnel - click here to go to our Bill Tracker.
Status has been updated - all bills that didn't make the second and final funnel deadline have been made "inactive." You can still look at these "inactive bills" in our bill tracker. Status is updated daily, so come back often!
Most legislators hold public forums and town hall meetings when they are back in their districts on Fridays and Saturdays. These are ways they keep in touch with their constituents. Some of them (like Council Bluffs) are so well-attended, they have been moved to larger venues. Others are small, with only a handful attending. But they are all excellent opportunities for you to meet your legislators, learn from them, and educate them on your priorities. Try one out - a full schedlue is available here.