2014 progress builds hope for next year's General Assembly
What was poised to be a relatively mundane year for the Iowa General Assembly turned out to be anything but in 2014. Legislators made significant headway during the five-month session and tackled some key issues that many people thought were dead this year. Some laws were more momentous than others, but it's obvious Iowans scored a few big victories. However, it's equally clear there's still plenty of work to do once our lawmakers get past the November election and reconvene in 2015.
It's important to reflect on some of this year's most notable accomplishments before we get ahead of ourselves. Democrats and Republicans found common ground on many issues, which is an important step towards bridging the partisan gap in the future. Lawmakers agreed on a budget relatively quickly; they boosted benefits to help Iowa's veterans; and a new medicinal cannabis (marijuana) law was passed to close out the session. All are significant in their own right, but some stood out amongst the crowd.
Bills that help veterans are typically noncontroversial affairs that zip through both houses with little turmoil. However, hardly anyone thought significant inroads would be made with medicinal cannabis this year. The two parties were significantly split on the issue, with Democrats favoring a new law legalizing medical marijuana and Republicans opposing it. They navigated through these differences and came to an agreement that's considerably less ambitious than when they first began, but it's beneficial nonetheless. The law approved last week makes it OK for Iowans with severe epilepsy to possess and take cannabis oil within state boundaries. They can't smoke marijuana, and they don't get high off the oil. It simply alleviates some of the unimaginable symptoms for these individuals, which is certainly a good thing for those afflicted by this condition.
The cannabis oil bill was a huge milestone in Iowa public policy, but it only affects a very small segment of the state's population. Various other issues were left on the table when the Legislature adjourned that influence nearly every Iowan living within the state's four borders. A proposed increase in the state's gas tax was one such issue, and it's a topic that needs substantial attention as we look towards 2015.
Lawmakers have been mulling a 10-cent hike in the state's gas tax for more than three years. The increase is badly needed and would help erase a $215 million shortfall in the Iowa Department of Transportation's annual budget, which would then help pay for more statewide infrastructure improvements. Iowa's roads and bridges are crumbling, and it's obvious our legislators can't keep ignoring the problem by putting it off year after year. Our roads and bridges foster economic growth and are a vital asset to each and every community across Iowa. Improvements are needed, and the best way to pay for them is with an increased gas tax. It'd be a shame if legislators failed to act on the issue yet again next year.
The proposed gas tax increase is but one of many topics already filling up the agenda for the 2015 General Assembly. Iowa made gains this year, but there's always room for improvement. It will be interesting to see if our lawmakers step up to the plate and attack some of the more contentious issues once the November election is over. They proved they can find common ground on decisive issues during this year's session, and it's high time they put those lessons to work and tackle some more in 2015.