Good morning, Mr. President, Mr. Majority Leader, returning Senate colleagues, new Senate colleagues, Senate staff, family, friends, and fellow Iowans.
Today, I want to begin with a few personal observations. The first is the honor I feel to stand before you today as the first new leader of the Senate Democratic caucus in 20 years. Few people have the honor of leading the Iowa Senate Democrats, and I want to extend my thanks to my Democratic colleagues for entrusting me with the leadership of our caucus. I hope my service meets with your approval.
Today is also my grandfather’s 119th birthday – Mason Ladd was born this day 119 years ago in Sheldon, Iowa, January 9, 1898. He was the son of a lawyer-farmer who served as a Justice on the Iowa Supreme Court.
My grandfather was also a public servant, serving the people of Iowa as a professor and long-time dean of the University of Iowa Law School from 1929 to 1966 and as one of the architects of the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Before my grandfather passed away in 1980, he also did other important things – along with my grandmother – such as teaching me to be an Iowa Hawkeye fan, showing me how to dig fence post holes, and teaching me to clean, store, and install the screen windows and storm windows each spring and fall. As always, I hope my service meets with their approval.
I also want to note at the outset that this is the first time the Iowa Senate has convened since the passing last September of our friend and colleague, Dr. Joe Seng. Joe was one of a kind, a truly unique person: an accomplished musician, a leading veterinarian (who took care of just about every animal in Scott County), and a committed public servant. This morning, would you please join me in a moment of silence to remember and honor Joe Seng? Thank you.
Now, let’s talk about the Iowa Senate and the Iowa Legislature and the opportunities we have at the start of this new session. My remarks are especially directed to Senator Boulton and the other new Senators who are joining the Legislature for the first time this year because you need to know that this institution has the capacity to govern wisely and take action to make life better for the people of Iowa on bread-and-butter issues that Iowans face every day.
The Legislature, with bipartisan support, has helped create jobs and broaden economic prosperity across our state. For example, we supported the expansion of Iowa’s renewable energy industries including wind, solar, biogas, ethanol, and biodiesel. In 2012, we created a solar energy tax credit that led, through the end of 2015, to over 1,800 solar energy projects, over $100 million invested, and more than 700 jobs in the solar energy industry that basically did not exist before. And 2016 was an even bigger year, and with our continued help, that industry can keep on growing. Renewable energy is a winner for jobs, businesses, farmers, our health, and our environment.
The Legislature, with bipartisan support, has helped Iowans with educational opportunities from early childhood to college and job training, such as the STEM initiative we started in 2008 and community college programs like PACE career pathways, GAAP tuition assistance, the Kibbie Skilled Workforce Shortage Tuition Grant, and other programs supported by the Iowa Skilled Worker and Job Creation Fund that help Iowans improve job skills and find better-paying jobs available in today’s economy.
The Legislature, with bipartisan support, has supported the community attraction and tourism program and other economic and community development efforts that have helped communities across this state invest in themselves – projects like American Gothic House Center in Eldon in Wapello County – projects that create jobs, improve the quality of life, help retain Iowans in our state, and help attract visitors to our state.
The Legislature, with bipartisan support, has helped Iowans prepare for disasters to safeguard our people and our property – with programs like the Iowa Flood Mitigation Program that has helped communities across our state invest in flood mitigation infrastructure – Council Bluffs, Storm Lake, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Coralville, Burlington, Dubuque, and Waverly. In Waverly in September, those investments paid off as they helped Waverly avoid flood damage while nearby communities, Plainfield, Shell Rock, Clarksville, and Greene, suffered much damage – that’s a problem we can solve, it’s a problem we can address.
e are more examples: The Legislature, with bipartisan support, used the opportunity provided by federal law to create the Iowa Health and Wellness Plan that today provides access to health insurance for over 150,000 Iowans. The Legislature, with bipartisan support, raised the tobacco tax in 2007 and provided for smoke-free workplaces in 2008, to improve health. The Legislature, with bipartisan support, has taken significant action to improve public health and safety, with efforts in recent years to prevent underage drinking and combat human trafficking.
Especially for new members, I want to share what I considered my first significant legislative accomplishment, in 2004, when I was in the minority in the Iowa House. We updated Iowa’s child safety seat law, to help keep our children safe. To help get that done, I worked with a Republican, Clel Baudler, and a Democrat, Vicki Lensing. I will always remember asking Rep. Baudler if he would help co-sponsor the bill to strengthen Iowa’s child safety seat law. He told me, “Strengthen no, update yes.” And that was a step in getting more of the bipartisan support we needed in the House to “update” that law.
Here is why I am sharing these examples with you today: when this Legislature identifies real problems and works together to solve them, we can make real positive changes for the good of the people of our state:
- helping Iowans get better jobs with higher wages and better benefits,
- providing educational opportunities that prepare our students for work and citizenship,
- helping people access health care and improving public health,
- creating real public safety to safeguard our people and our property.
So what are the real problems this body can address this year? As we begin the 2017 session, I pledge that Senate Democrats will focus on real solutions to real problems. We will work with every Iowan, regardless of party, to move our state forward.
Here are six real problems that need to be addressed: Let’s start with the tragic increase in deadly Iowa traffic accidents. Over 400 people died on Iowa roads in 2016, reversing many years of progress. That was 20 percent more than in 2015. Fortunately, the Iowa Senate has at least one real solution ready to go. Two years ago, we voted 44 to 6 to ban texting while driving. That would help – it would allow Iowa law enforcement officers to stop people who put all of us at risk by texting while driving. Public safety is government’s first responsibility. Let’s act to stop the carnage on our roads, and let’s act on other issues – child abuse, mental illness, substance abuse – that threaten the lives and health of our people.
Here’s another real problem: the stagnant wages paid to Iowa workers. While profits have gone up, the wages Iowans earn have not kept up. This is a problem with many causes, but the Iowa Legislature can help. Iowa’s minimum wage is too low. It is lower than the states around us. It is so low that full-time Iowa workers can actually qualify for public assistance.
Let’s do what our Democratic neighbors in Minnesota and Illinois, and our Republican neighbors in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri, have already done. As part of an economic development strategy to increase wages, let’s raise Iowa’s minimum wage, and let’s do it without voting to lower the wages of any Iowa worker.
The problem of stagnant wages is directly tied to another problem – the loss of population in many parts of our state. We have over 70 counties that have lost population, not because of the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, but just since 2010. We need higher wages. Our businesses need skilled workers and more customers. We need to retain Iowans and attract people to our state. We need to invest in our communities. We need to invest in our main streets.
We need to support our local public schools with adequate school funding – every community needs a high-quality public school. When a community loses its schools, it simply cannot attract new families and new businesses. Education is the foundation of our state, our economy, and our future. Let’s make sure schools across our state – in rural Iowa and urban Iowa – get the support they need to provide world-class education for every young Iowan.
Another real problem we can no longer ignore: impaired waters. This doesn’t mean that every stream, every river, and every lake in Iowa is a health hazard, but we do have over 700 impaired waters in our state, we are the second leading contributor to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and we do have communities in this state that struggle to provide safe drinking water for our citizens.
Senate Democrats have led the way for additional funding for water quality efforts in recent years, including an infusion of $20 million in 2013 that Secretary Northey called a “game changer” for the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
This year we are ready to work with you to bolster monitoring and to bring together all sectors – industry, cities, landowners, septic tank owners – so that we can make near-term, tangible progress toward our longer-term clean water goals.
Here’s another real problem: too many of our neighbors don’t have the security of a pension or retirement plan. The good news is that our State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald has a real solution: get private employers who don’t provide a pension or retirement plan to make a contribution. And for Iowa workers who are looking for a safe, secure place to put those retirement savings, Treasurer Fitzgerald has another good idea. He wants hard-working Iowans to have access to professional, tax-free retirement savings. His “Iowa Retirement Savings Plan” is modeled after the very successful Iowa College Savings Plan he already manages. Just like the college savings plan, no state funds would be involved. This is a real solution to help hard-working Iowans achieve retirement security.
We must also address the health care security of all Iowans. Our health care safety net, Medicaid, is under duress. A year ago, the Iowa Senate recognized that the Medicaid privatization proposed by the Branstad-Reynolds Administration was a potential disaster that should be stopped before it started. We had no idea then how right we were. We were concerned that it would fail to meet the needs of Iowa families and undermine Iowa’s local health care providers. Unfortunately, that is what has happened – and now we know that the new system run by out-of-state insurance companies is also in danger of financial failure. The Medicaid mess is a real problem and needs a real solution.
These problems – tragic traffic deaths and other threats to public safety, stagnant wages, loss of population in more than 70 counties and loss of schools, impaired waters, lack of retirement security, the Medicaid mess – these are all real problems affecting the lives of real Iowans every day. In the Iowa Legislature, we can help solve these problems, if we work together and focus on practical solutions.
What we cannot do is ignore these real problems in favor of “fake” problems – like the “fake” problem of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is working well in Iowa, and has since it was adopted by a Republican Legislature and a Republican Governor in the early 1970s. It’s not a problem. Health benefits for city sanitation workers, and firefighters, and police officer, and DHS social workers, and our correctional officers are not a problem – we need more health security for everyone. We all benefit when labor and management can work together on fair wages and benefits.
Here’s another “fake” problem – Planned Parenthood funding. Planned Parenthood’s eligibility to provide contraception services, cancer screening, and other preventative health services for state Medicaid patients, including many low-income women, is not a problem. These health services prevent problems for low-income women and other patients. They are not a problem.
Finally, there is the “fake” problem of “fake” people casting votes – it is simply not a problem in Iowa. People aren’t risking severe criminal penalties to cast an illegal vote. We don’t need government barriers to voting in Iowa. We don’t need to make it harder for the elderly to vote. We don’t need to make it harder for people with disabilities to vote. We don’t need to make it harder for young people and low-income Iowans to vote. We don’t need to make it harder for a person who misplaces his or her ID to vote. Voting is a fundamental right. We need to help Iowans participate in the political process, not create government barriers to participation. We want more participation, not less.
Today, I ask you in this chamber, and I ask all Iowans listening to these proceedings or watching these proceedings, to join together with a renewed sense of citizenship, to sit at our table of democracy, to participate, to speak up, and to serve . . . by addressing the real problems facing our state and our country in this century.
Much has changed since my grandfather was born in Sheldon 119 years ago today. But Iowans are still the responsible, practical, hard-working, community-minded people today that we were then. Let us show the world how we can work together, even under single party control, to address real problems to make Iowa even better for our people and our future.
Thank you, Mr. President.