When the 150-member Iowa General Assembly rolls into town next week, the lawmakers will have more opportunities and face more challenges than at any time in recent memory.

The possibilities are substantial for Republicans who control both houses and the governor’s office for the first time in 19 years.

Gov. Terry Branstad’s nomination to become ambassador to China adds an unneeded level of uncertainty. All things considered, it might be best if he stepped down now and began preparing for his new job, rather than waiting for confirmation by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which is a virtual certainty.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds has studied the job for six years and is certainly up to it by now. Plus, it’s unfair to make lawmakers guess which governor will be in office when the session ends.

They are, after all, different people. Many folks believe Reynolds will be a more flexible and empathetic governor than Branstad has been in recent years on issues ranging from water quality to mental health.

Those are only two of several weighty topics lawmakers are expected to address as a weak farm economy diminishes resources.

Just how weak the economy is remains uncertain, because at this time some lawmakers and Branstad are painting a darker picture than is warranted as part of a strategy to hold down spending.

In recent weeks they have characterized state revenue as “declining,” which is not true — at least not yet — although growth has clearly slowed.

One solution for relieving some of that stress involves rewriting the laws for handling public employee benefits, including health care and pensions.

Efforts to do that in the past have failed, but these are new times with new Republican majorities in the Iowa House (59-41) and the Iowa Senate (29-20-1).

Republican leaders have said they expect to introduce legislation this year that will remove health care as a negotiable issue in future contracts for all public employees.

Instead, the state would create a giant health insurance pool composed of all public school teachers and city, county and state employees. The presumption is that the pool will be large enough to give the state substantial clout in negotiations with health insurers, resulting in lower rates.

Also, part of the burden for paying insurance premiums and higher deductibles would be transferred to individual employees, as is the case in most private jobs.

Those changes are expected to generate a lot of resistance from workers, and it’s unclear whether Republicans in the Legislature are up for the fight.

But if they win that battle, they’re likely to propose — although probably not this year — reforming the state’s pension system by introducing 401(k)-like plans in place of traditional pension plans. That or some other type of pension reform is needed because current public employee pension plans are unsustainable without significant tax increases.

Other issues lawmakers will face include:  

  • The annual debate over school funding, which seems to get uglier each year.
  • Ongoing debates about tax reform.
  • How to deal with the failure of Branstad’s unilateral effort last year to privatize the state system that handles Medicaid payments.
  • Unresolved issues about handling mental health problems in the wake of the governor’s shutdown of two of the state’s mental health institutes.
  • Looming concerns over how to fix Iowa’s growing water problems, including who should pay, how much and how soon to clean up our rivers and streams.

The above list doesn’t even touch on transportation/infrastructure concerns or perennial proposals for new restrictions on abortions or less-restrictive gun control laws.

This should be an interesting session.