Saturday, March 7 marked the 55th Day of the 110-day session, exactly halfway to the end of the per diems (legislators' pay). It also marks the end of the eighth week of session and the passage of the first major legislative deadline: "The First Funnel."
The "first funnel" is the nickname of a process the Iowa Legislature employs to winnow down the number of eligible bills by requiring them to show some forward progress in order to stay alive for the session. Bills must have been passed out of the committee to which they were assigned by Friday, March 6, or they died for the year. Bills that are assigned to Appropriations, Ways & Means or Oversight Committees are exempt from the funnel.
While the funnel process sounds simple, it makes for a very stressful week for everyone in the Capitol. Bills are still being introduced throughout the week (several dozen per day!), but now subcommittee meetings are stacked throughout the morning, often over 10 at one time, in an attempt to give bills a last ditch opportunity to beat the funnel deadline. Full committee meetings are held throughout the afternoon with dozens of bills on several of the committees' agendas. By the time Thursday afternoon rolled around, an additional 100+ bills had made the funnel deadline in only a few days, while probably 3/4 of all the bills introduced (over 2,000) were dead for the year.
Some of the bills that died in the funnel include a bill raising the state's speed limit to 75mph, a ban on traffic cameras, a bill allowing for a smoke-free casino in Cedar Rapids, legislation to raise the minimum high school dropout age from 16 to 18, to raise the age at which people can legally buy tobacco from 18 to 19, and the Governor's Iowa Next proposal (expect to see the Senate begin working on Iowa Next though as a spending bill). Some committee meeting went long as legislators pushed to keep bills alive that dealt with gun rights, collective bargaining, environmental stewardship tax credits and others.
The next step over the weeks ahead will be to prepare for the Second Funnel (April 3), the last major deadline before the end of the session. To pass the second funnel, a bill must be passed out of committee, passed by the full chamber and then be passed by the committee in the other chamber (meaning a House Education Committee bill would need to be passed by the Senate Education Committee, for example). Again, Appropriations, Ways & Means and Oversight Committee bills are exempt from the funnel. Also exempt are bills that have emerged from committee and have a companion bill in the other chamber that has also emerged from committee. To make our way toward the next funnel, the House and Senate will change gears now and start to move a lot of legislation through the chambers in order to get them to the other chamber's committees.
While floor debate will be a focus, the majority party in each chamber will begin assembling behind the scenes the framework for their budget bills. The Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) will meet on March 19th and will determine whether they believe state tax revenues will go up, go down and hold even with previous estimates. After that determination, legislators will formally release their budget targets (the amount of money they are authorizing each of the budget subcommittees to allocate).
School Funding Budget pressure is a major reason that school funding continues to be unresolved at the statehouse. Typically, school funding is the first bill acted upon by the Legislature. This year, however, the House, Senate and Governor have been unable to come to agreement about the percentage by which school funding should increase. The Governor and the House have suggested 1.25%, while the Senate is holding out for 4%. That issue is currently in conference committee and may be difficult to resolve before the March 19 REC numbers become available.