Iowa poised for messy ending to legislative session

DES MOINES (AP) -- The Legislature has positioned itself nicely for as messy an ending to a legislative session as can be imagined, so those with delicate sensibilities should ignore the Statehouse this week.

The daily expense payments that lawmakers receive end on Saturday, and that traditionally nudges lawmakers toward ending a session. That momentum grows even faster because of the Legislature's own budget problems.

Lawmakers may stop getting paid on Saturday, but there are a host of other expenses associated with having a session. Staffers are forced to work overtime, doorkeepers guard the entrances, lawmakers all have secretaries and there are a host of staff jobs that last only for the duration of a session.

Trying to gain the high ground in the running fight over a tight state budget, legislative leaders early on cut their own budget and running overtime could run them into the red.

That means there's an excellent chance that lawmakers will end the session this weekend, and that makes the week look grim.


There are a series of spending measures which authorize the state's $4.5 billion state budget, and not a single one has made it to Gov. Vilsack's desk.

Worse, there isn't a lot of serious negotiating going on between majority Republicans and Democrat Vilsack. The Legislature can move very fast once the deal is struck, but there aren't many signs a deal is about to be struck.

It is in no one's interest to have a train wreck over the budget, with Vilsack knocking down big hunks and pulling lawmakers back into special session to try again.

Lawmakers -- or at least 135 out of the 150 legislators -- are all running in new districts, and need badly to be back at home campaigning. Vilsack is up for election this year, and there are many better ways for him to spend his time than pinned down at the Statehouse in a nasty and partisan fight with lawmakers.

Yet both sides say that's precisely where they are headed.

The gridlock is remarkable given the basic agreement between the two sides. Both agree that a weak economy has handed the state a budget shortfall because of slowing tax collections. They even agree on the rough size of the shortfall, and neither side wants to raise taxes to solve the problem.

Essentially, Vilsack wants to dip into cash reserves further than Republicans want, and Republicans instead want to cut spending more deeply than Vilsack has proposed.

Given that this year's election will chart the state's political course for the next four years at least, one would think they'd split the difference and get on with things. Funny how logic goes away when people start playing king of the hill, when getting your way is more important than what gets done.


Giving the fix in which folks have placed themselves, some things that people wanted may start falling by the wayside in the coming few days.

Legislative leaders spent all session crafting a measure to tighten regulation of livestock confinement operations, and dropped out of their plan late last month.

Environmentalists called it toothless, while farm groups said it would drive farmers out of business. Both sides descended on the Statehouse for noisy protests, and leaders scrubbed scheduled debate and went back to the drawing boards to revamp their plan.

"They've added 30 pages and no one knows what it does," griped one well-connected lobbyist who makes it his business to know what goes on.

The chances of that issue getting sorted out in the next few days don't look very good. The best bet is a blue-ribbon commission being named to study the issue.

The Legislature is also under the gun to lower the blood-alcohol level that brings an automatic conviction for drunken driving, and if lawmakers don't act Congress will begin taking away federal highway dollars from the state.

To the uninitiated, that may sound like a pretty simple deal. Acting tough on drunk drivers in an election year, and getting more money in the process may sound like a no-brainer to people who don't understand how many politicians think.

The effort, however, is in trouble. A lot of legislators have big egos and don't like it when other politicians tell them what to do. There's a last-ditch drive underway, but it's far from certain it will prevail.


Those are only a couple of things to be ditched as lawmakers scramble to write an ending to this session. There's a growing sense that it's time for them to go, and there's some sense to that view.

This Legislature is wrapping up a 10-year stretch of lawmakers elected from districts drawn in 1991. They drew new districts last year, and the next Legislature will be far different, more urban and more suburban, reflecting the demographic realities of the state.

It's now time to begin that election battle.

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