POLITICS: Campaigns

Iowa lawmakers set modest goals for legislative session as campaigns loom

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Politics,Associated Press,Iowa,Campaigns

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa lawmakers are set to return to the state Capitol on Monday for the 2014 legislative session, but their focus may already be on the campaign trail, as many will be seeking re-election or higher office this year.

The fact that it's an election year means many legislators will want to work on approving a budget as quickly as possible so they can shift over to campaigning. That sentiment seems to be shared by Gov. Terry Branstad, who is expected to soon announce a bid for a sixth term.

Branstad has announced a list of modest policy goals, which legislative leaders have generally endorsed, including expanding Internet access, supporting veterans and cracking down on school bullying.

"I believe we have a very focused agenda and one that can generate bipartisan support in both houses. I'm hopeful we can have another productive session," Branstad said.

Although this is shaping up a light year to enact major public policy, that doesn't mean there won't be activity worth watching from Branstad or the Republican-controlled House or Democratic-majority Senate. All of the House members and half the senators are up for re-election in 2014. With lawmakers seeking re-election and a number pursuing higher office, there will be plenty of jockeying for attention.

Among the candidates are Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, who is running for governor and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, who is running for U.S. Senate. Several more lawmakers in the House and Senate are running or considering bids for the two open seats representing U.S. House districts in Iowa.

Democrats are likely to push proposals to boost the state minimum wage, currently at $7.25, while Republicans may pursue tax cut proposals. Given the divided control of the Legislature, neither item is expected to become law, but it gives lawmakers an opportunity to promote their agendas. The two sides will also debate how to use a projected $900 million budget surplus, though Branstad has cautioned that most of that money is needed to fund policies approved last year, such as a property tax cut.

Republican lobbyist Craig Schoenfeld said the session would likely be limited on major policy, but would provide political opportunities.

"It does provide an opportunity for campaign fodder. If Sen. Hatch wants to make minimum wage an issue, you'll see a venue for him to advance that," Schoenfeld said.

As Branstad gears up to announce plans for re-election, Republican political consultant Doug Gross, a longtime adviser to Branstad, said the governor was taking the right approach to the legislative session.

"I think he's going to talk about small bore things he can get done," Gross said. "There's no point in laying out campaign themes to a partisan legislature. You don't want to get rejected before you are elected."

Branstad said he didn't see a path for some bigger items this session, like further tax cuts, but he might focus attention during his campaign on some bigger topics to show what he wants to accomplish in the next term.

Lawmakers are returning to Des Moines after one of the most productive sessions in recent memory. In 2013 they approved major bipartisan deals on education spending, property tax reductions and low-income health care expansion. Legislative leaders acknowledged that they are not expecting such a policy heavy session this year.

"It would be hard for any legislature... to accomplish as much as we accomplished last session," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, of Council Bluffs. "It's probably safe to say it won't be as robust as last year."

Gronstal also noted that the legislative calendar is designed with the election cycle in mind. This year the session is 100 days long, compared with 110 last year.

"For approaching 40 years, the legislature has recognized that election years do have some distractions and that legislators would like to get on the campaign trail," he said.

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