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Iowa GOP readies second year of advancing conservative agenda

Iowa Statehouse

For the second consecutive legislative session, Republican leaders at the Statehouse hope to unite the party behind a clear and conservative agenda. Doing so would virtually guarantee limitless power in turning key platforms into Iowa law. The GOP controls the Iowa House, Senate and claims the Governor's seat. Without no filibuster in state politics, there is little Democrats can do to stop Republican plans for 2018 other than try and create fractures from within.

That effort was largely unsuccessful in 2017 as Republicans quickly pushed through a number of initiatives including cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, limiting collective bargaining rights for more than 180,000 public workers, eliminated local minimum wage ordinance in Linn, Johnson and other counties, cut workers' compensation benefits, enacted a 'stand your ground' law and legalized the sale and use of fireworks.

With little power, democrats had little to show for their efforts in 2017. One bipartisan accomplishment came after years of protests over the tight restrictions on the use of cannabis oil from marijuana for medical use. After failing earlier in the session, lawmakers approved a plan to expand the use of cannabidiol and set of a regulatory system to permit the manufacture, distribution and sale of the drug to licensed patients.

One thing that hasn't changed in 2018 is Iowa's budget crisis. Once again, lawmakers will likely be forced to make cuts to an already tight budget to make up for an estimated $37 million shortfall. The issue is further compounded because Governor Branstad and Reynolds chose to dip into the state's emergency fund to make up for shortfalls last year. That money will need to be paid back over the next two years.

With cuts last year, educators are already bracing for the worst. Without knowing how lawmakers in Des Moines will repair the budget, the Iowa Board of Regents has chosen to hold off setting tuition rates for the fall until they know what if any state funding will be lost. All three state universities are bracing for sizable tuition hikes once funding levels are set. Last week, Republicans vowed to protect current funding levels of K-12 education in Iowa. But groups across the state say the current level is already inadequate, and falling further behind what districts need to meet the needs of their students.

Besides balancing the budget, Governor Kim Reynolds hopes to tackle tax reform. Following in the Trump Administration's footsteps, Governor Reynolds is reportedly planning to propose cutting the number of tax brackets in Iowa, and reducing tax rates on nearly every Iowa, with the more 9,000 people who earn more than a million dollars a year benefiting the most. There are also reports the proposal could include a state internet sales and services tax, which would apply to all online purchases and evening streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and others.

Governor Reynolds has also admitted the privatization of Medicaid, which serves more than 600,000 Iowans, did not happen without mistakes. Of the three providers chosen to operate Iowa's system, one has left, another can't take anymore customers, and a third is struggling to take on the most complex patients. As a result, more than 200,000 Iowans are left without a choice in their coverage, and thousands more were forced to return to a state-run system.

Also, new figures show the state saved less than $50 million in operating costs by turning control of the system to private companies. That figure is just 20% of what Governors Brandstad and Reynolds promised taxpayers when the system launched nearly two years ago. The Governor's office calls it a simple miscalculation. But critics say it is another example of why the system should never have been turned over to the private sector.

Both Republicans and Democrats say they are ready to discuss reforms to the current Medicaid system, but differ greatly on how to modify the program.

All of this, and a host of other key issues, comes as many State Senators, all House members and Governor Reynolds herself prepare for an election year. Despite succeeding the longest serving Governor in Iowa history, Kim Reynolds must first face a challenge from within her own party. Former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Boone Councilman Steven Ray are also seeking the GOP nomination. Seven Democrats are also running, with State Senator Nate Boulton and Businessman Fred Hubbell leading in early polling.

Whatever happens in this legislative sessions, the first and only sessions under Governor Kim Reynolds before election day, could have a significant impact on the June Primaries and the November Election. In 2016, when Republicans won control of the statehouse, they rode a wave of support for President Trump, who won Iowa be nearly 10 points. Now, with support for the President sliding in the Hawkeye State, it's unclear if Republicans can enjoy the same support, especially in a midterm election that often features lower turnout. No matter what, this will be a consequential session not only for Iowans, but the lawmakers who will then turn to the citizens of this state and ask them for another term.

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