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Gridlock in Iowa Legislature over education, job creation

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/07/MahurinPolitics_Thumb1.jpgFrustrations are running high on Iowa’s Capitol Hill. The 2011 Legislative session inched into the 130-day range this week, and lawmakers are reluctant to give an end date as Republicans and Democrats continue to battle job creation tactics, education funding and budget and property tax relief issues.

The split Legislature — a Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate — have been embroiled on these topics since the session commenced in January, while reporting little progress. Hosts of bills have been passed in one chamber, only to die in the other.

Tensions came to a head Tuesday, when Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs), announced that “people in this building are not listening,” and Democratic leadership planned to meet constituents and encourage them to call Gov. Terry Branstad as a way to sway negotiations.

“The only way we’re going to break this impasse is not among the players up here,” Gronstal said, referring to legislators. “We’re in the 130th day of the session, and it’s not going to be broken inside this building; it’s going to be broken by Iowans stepping up to the plate, calling the Governor and telling him zero percent for local schools is unacceptable.”

Split Legislatures have come together on decisive and hot-button issues in the past, lawmakers noted. This year, however, the atmosphere is different under the golden dome.

“In those (past) years, there were people that were committed to education and job creation in this state,” Gronstal said Tuesday. “This is why we’re asking Iowans to make these phone calls to Gov. Branstad, because that commitment doesn’t seem to be there.”

House Majority Leader Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) has been more reluctant to pinpoint a reason, though he remains optimistic that the session will end with handshakes across the aisle.

“This legislative session has been — well, it doesn’t feel like it has that sense of urgency the others have,” he said last week. “For whatever reason we’re moving through it a little bit slower.”

With one side optimistic and the other side warning of government shutdown, why does the gridlock persist?

The answer is easy, and it has little to do with hot-button issues, prominent Des Moines attorney Steve Roberts, a Republican and former Republican Party of Iowa chairman, said: Legislative gridlock has not been broken because there’s no incentive to break it.

“There’s no pressure felt to come to an agreement,” Roberts said. “There’s no incentive to compromise.”

Roberts, who is also a former Republican National Committee member, said one distinct difference with this Legislative session compared to past split Legislatures is attendance. In past sessions, lawmakers were required to stay in the capital city, even after the last scheduled day passed, which meant paying out of their own pockets for meals and lodging. This year, lawmakers have been largely absent from the Statehouse.

“There was that economic pressure,” Roberts said of past sessions. “This (session) is a test of wills.”

Gordon Gibson, a Democrat and retired attorney in Marion who is involved in Democratic politics, says polarization of the two main political parties over time have “solidified positions on issues, so there is no room to compromise.”

“It’s become this, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” he said.

Still, this Legislature wants to appear eager to reach agreements on budgets, property tax relief and social issues, such as abortion laws. Both sides have appealed to voters in hopes one side will be able to sway the other into compromise, a tactic that is not unusual.

Only months ago, Democrats were dispatched into their Districts in an attempt to garner support for their two-percent allowable growth stance with the budget. The move “won the argument with lots of people, but we didn’t win it with any of the people in this building,” Gronstal acknowledged.

Paulsen seems unfazed by Democratic efforts.

“By the sounds of it, they’re going out and meeting people, and the House Republicans have been doing that since day one,” he told The Iowa Independent this week. “We have a good idea of what people want, and that is not government spending more than we take in. Democrats want to talk about stalemates and impasses, but I’m not using those words.”

Gibson believes the efforts will ultimately be rendered ineffective.

“I won’t change Terry Branstad’s opinion on anything if I call him up and try to do so, and it wouldn’t matter if I was a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or whatever,” he said.

Democratic leaders have hinted that a state government shutdown could be a consequence if the chambers fail to act, though a shutdown is not why the session has stalled. Such ideas have been rebuffed by Republicans, including Branstad and the Iowa Department of Management.

Additionally, Gronstal said Tuesday, this legislative “session is not stalled because of social issues or two-year budget gimmicks;” however, social issues are still very much at the forefront of the agenda.

Monday, the Iowa Senate sent a newly-approved abortion bill to the House, after rejecting to debate a House bill that would prohibit nearly all abortions after 20 weeks gestation and define life as beginning at fertilization. The Senate’s action does nothing but continue to hold up business, Sen. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa) said during debate.

Chelgren’s frustration and disappointment over the deadlock between the legislative bodies could be sensed as he attempted multiple times to convince Gronstal to reconsider the House Republicans’ abortion bill.

“(Senate File 534) is going to — you can vote it unanimously — to pass to the House like a ship in the night, and nothing will happen, just like House File 657 passed like a ship in the night here. The reality is we’re going to have an abortion clinic here because we failed to come together to get anything done again,” Chelgren said.

The bill is likely to be added to the pile of issues that have yet to see compromise.

Tuesday afternoon, Paulsen told The Iowa Independent that he needed to read the legislation a second time, but indicated it probably does not have a good chance for passage in the Iowa House.

“I don’t know if it says what kinds of abortions can happen and where, but if all it does is formalize the process of opening a clinic … well, House Republicans aren’t interested in allowing that,” he said.

Gronstal deflected questions Tuesday about how the Senate’s new abortion bill contributes to the political deadlock, saying the bill had been sent to the Iowa House for consideration and “I have no idea what the House is going to do.”

He added, “That’s up to the House.”

In 1992, the Legislative session ran until June 25; Branstad was also sitting in the Governor’s Office during that session. Sessions have a deadline of July 1.

“Personally, I thought the session would have been over by May 5,” Roberts said, adding a typical Legislative session will last a week past the last scheduled day.

“However, Governor Branstad is supposed to be leaving on his trade trip to China mid-June. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

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