Vilsack, GOP priorities differ as legislative session opens

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack were singing different tunes, with widely different priorities, as they gaveled in this year's 100-day session on Monday.

"This session is very much the same song, second verse," said House Speaker Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City. "Our focus being on the business climate we have in the state and ensuring every Iowan looking for a job can find a job."

Senate President Mary Kramer, R-Clive, gaveled in the session at 10 a.m. In the House, two new members were sworn in after a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, then it was straight to work, with speeches from leaders about their hopes for the session.

Business regulations and economic development issues top the priorities of Republicans, who hope to maintain comfortable majorities in the House and Senate in the November general election.

"Those items are certainly political priorities for them," said Vilsack, who is in the middle of his final four-year term and facing no re-election pressures. "This is an election year and naturally they will focus on political priorities, but that is not what the people's priorities are."

Vilsack said budget hearings he attended across the state revealed that Iowans aren't talking about business regulations.

"They want to make sure the schools are good. They want to make sure the health care systems are accessible and affordable. They want to make sure that they're safe," he said.

Those are the issues Vilsack said he will outline in his Condition of the State message to be delivered Tuesday to lawmakers.

Lawmakers found a letter from Vilsack on their desks as they arrived at the Capitol Monday morning, accompanied by a budget draft that offers no increases over the current year.

He told lawmakers that the 2005 budget appropriates $68.1 million less than the amount allocated in the current year.

"With no new revenue, this budget does not fund prior commitments that have been made, or the education, health and safety priorities of Iowans," Vilsack said in the letter.

Vilsack outlined the impact of budget shortfalls on education, saying funding would be reduced for every student by $139. He said 3,900 teachers would be eliminated and schools would not get new textbooks.

He said community colleges and Regents universities would be forced to cut course offerings, thousands of elderly adults and children would not have access to health care and public safety will be at risk.

"The lives of citizens, including peace officers and firefighters, will be jeopardized," Vilsack said. "After three consecutive years of cuts in services critical to Iowans, this budget will sacrifice Iowa's national standing in education and Iowa's distinction as the best place to raise a child," Vilsack said.

Rants said improving the business climate must be a priority if the state is to boost employment and expand its economic base so that tax revenues meet spending requirements.

Otherwise, he said, plugging budget holes will be a perpetual problem.

"Fundamentally, we have to be about growing Iowa's economy and growing the number of people who have jobs in this state. Otherwise, the budget will continue to be an issue every year for the foreseeable future," Rants said. "We cannot afford an on-again-off-again approach to economic development and improving the business climate as the national and world economy changes on an ever-faster basis. We cannot afford to ever take our eye off that ball."

Vilsack said he has kept focus on economic development, pushing lawmakers to create the $503 million Iowa Values Fund last year. Since its implementation, the number of businesses expressing an interest in the state has quadrupled.

"I think we're already in the process of transforming the economy of the state from things that we've done in the past. We just need to give many of those programs an opportunity to work," Vilsack said.

He points to the program's successes, including plans by Wells Fargo Home Mortgage to expand in West Des Moines, bringing 2,000 new jobs to the area.

He said business leaders share his interest in maintaining the quality of education.

"Those business leaders understand in the long range that without a well-qualified, creative and innovative work force we all will not do as well as we should," Vilsack said. "I'm gratified that they share that priority and understand the importance."

Much of the first day traditionally is used to organize and prepare for Vilsack's speech.

On Wednesday, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Louis A. Lavorato delivers a Condition of the Judiciary speech to outline his budget requests.

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