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1/9/2013

Politicians are descending upon Des Moines. Dressed in their snappiest suits and pantsuits, Iowa’s elected officials are arriving in droves to Capitol Hill with what we hope are the purest intentions in their hearts to make a difference for the citizens of this state. The 85th Iowa General Assembly is slated to begin bright and early on Monday morning, Jan. 14. They will deliberate and debate the needs and wants of their constituents into the early days of May. Some of the issues they’re working on are exciting and interesting… others, not so much. Either way, though, here are a few of the bill proposals and agenda items they’ll be debating.

Inside the Iowa Senate at last year’s General Assembly. Photo by Amber Williams

Inside the Iowa Senate at last year’s General Assembly. Photo by Amber Williams

At 4.9 percent, Iowa’s unemployment rate has reached a four-year low. That’s down from 6.1 percent when Gov. Terry Branstad took office, promising to legislate 200,000 Iowa jobs into creation. But in the big shadow of that lofty vow, Branstad admits there’s still much to be done.                

“With this goal in mind, the governor will again focus on reducing property taxes for all classes of property,” said Tim Albrecht, spokesperson for the governor.            

Iowa’s unemployment rate is currently the fourth-lowest in the country, and Branstad plans to aggressively continue job creation efforts, including permanent property tax reform, Albrecht said.

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“Iowans have paid too high property taxes for too long, and the governor believes this needs to change,” Albrecht added. “Iowa businesses pay the third-highest property tax rate in the country, which is unacceptable and a hindrance to job creation. The governor’s plan will also lower residential property taxes, which are 16th-highest in the country.”

Rep. Walt Rogers (R-Cedar Falls) agrees with the plan and says property tax reform is the “No. 1 issue” this year.

“With the Republican plan giving property tax relief for all classes, I feel it will promote jobs,” he said.

 

EMPLOYMENT

Most everyone agrees, getting people back to work and out of social and unemployment programs is a primary focus this legislative year. But what Republicans and Democrats do not agree on is how to tackle that task.              

“Jobs are always a concern of the governor and Republican House members,” Rogers said. “Our overall philosophy is one of smaller government, keeping tax dollars in the hands of job creators, where the money is most effective. Just today I met with a small business owner employing 40 people. He is very concerned about his property tax burden which is the difference between hiring more people or not.”            

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) said that agenda involves a three-fold plan: Give Iowa businesses a first crack at state contracts, expand training programs for those willing to work and develop small business loan programs to make them better able to compete with the big ones.            

“The big businesses have the tools needed already in place, while the small, Main Street businesses do not. We (Democrats) think most small businesses don’t get much of an opportunity to bid on state contracts, which makes it hard for them to compete,” Gronstal explained. “The state spends millions and millions of dollars buying from private sectors that are often out of state.”                

state capital: Members of the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate will be converging at the Statehouse for another legislative session which starts Monday, Jan. 14. Photo by Ryan Anderson

Members of the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate will be converging at the Statehouse for another legislative session which starts Monday, Jan. 14. Photo by Ryan Anderson

In addition to contractual bid reforms and small business loan program development, Gronstal urged that Iowa’s unemployment problem is linked to a lack of education and training.               

“Iowa doesn’t have a worker shortage; Iowa has a skills shortage,” he advised. “We have workers in Iowa, but our workers don’t have the skills necessary for the jobs out there. So they find themselves locked in low wages at dead-end jobs, and there’s no state aid available for those who are looking to better their life.                

“I was recently on tour and ran into two guys in Sioux City,” Gronstal continued. “One had just been offered a job literally that morning because he had finally gotten his commercial driver’s license.                

“We’ve heard loud and clear from several business owners that workers in Iowa lack the skills. So we need to focus on adult basic education for people who want jobs but don’t have their high school diploma and need a GED (General Education Degree). Iowa is one of the only states in the Union that doesn’t provide state assistance for GED programs. We’re very open to a broad discussion on this.”

 

EDUCATION

Education is at the top of legislators’ to-do lists year after year, and 2013 is no exception. It’s an imperfect system that’s worthy of obsessive time and consideration — something about which nearly every lawmaker on both sides of Congress and in both political parties agree. This coming session, the governor will again focus on his goal to have the best schools in the nation, Albrecht said.                

“The governor will release an ambitious education reform package that puts students first, and to do so requires a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every building,” Albrecht stated. “The governor will also offer additional funding to back up his reform efforts.”             

The Iowa Department of Education was centrally involved in crafting Branstad’s education reform legislation, which he plans to introduce at the beginning of the legislative session. State director and chief learner Dr. Jason Glass said the Department will lobby for large-scale changes included in the governor’s bill, which are designed to have a positive impact statewide.               

According to the Task Force on Teacher Leadership and Compensation plan unveiled last year (Senate File 2284), the Department of Education has several recommendations for legislators to consider this year, including:

Creating and funding multiple, meaningful and well-designed career pathway opportunities open to all teachers in Iowa based on the wisdom and expertise of educators who are not currently practicing, including retired teachers;

Enhancing teacher compensation, including a $35,000 annual base salary with leadership opportunities;

Collaborating with districts implementing a mechanism for piloting peer assistance and coaching programs;

Incentivizing teachers to teach in locally- and state-defined, hard-to-staff subjects and high-need schools; and

Creating a residency year for entry into the teaching profession to build a more seamless transition from teacher preparation to practice/employment.             

“At the heart of every Iowa community is a school, and within these schools are educators who do their very best to teach our children. These educators are worthy and deserving of our respect and appreciation,” the Task Force wrote to the governor. “The global and instantaneous nature of our world now compels us to take up, with steadfast resolve, the systemic work of dramatically improving Iowa’s school system. This work is necessary and important, because the future of Iowa’s children is what is at stake. As generations of Iowans have done before, it is our turn and our responsibility to make a significant and focused effort to improve Iowa’s schools.”

 

CRIME

The Department of Public Safety has three bills for Congress to study this year, and if they pass, it’s bad news for meth manufacturers and serial criminals.                

“Meth producers are always developing different ways to make meth, and we need to try and keep up with them,” said department attorney Roxann Ryan. So they’d like to add new ingredients to the list of precursors, including: sodium hydroxide (a.k.a. lye, traditionally used in making soap), ammonia nitrate (used in fertilizer) and white gas.                

Another issue involves the collection of convicted criminals’ DNA. Iowa is one of the only states in the country that uses the aggravated misdemeanor classification.                

“Most just call aggrevated misdemeanors felonies,” Ryan explained. “We’re kind of out of the mainstream on that one.”                

The difference is small, but important, she said. In Iowa, only offenders convicted of a felony are subject to a mouth swab for DNA profiling by the state before being released or paroled. That DNA sample is collected in a database used by law enforcement to identify suspects. If those convicted of aggravated misdemeanors must submit a DNA profile, that database grows broader and more inclusive.               

“DNA has been one of those ways for us to identify offenders, so when they offend again, we would have a broader database to better identify serial offenders sooner,” Ryan said.              

The department would also like more authority granted to office personnel, such as police dispatchers, in information gathering, Ryan said. As it is now, district attorneys have such authority, but “they go home every day at five o’clock,” she said. “Crimes get committed after 5.”                

Allowing dispatchers to access court records of possible offenders through the “criminal information sharing proposal” would aid officers on the street — keeping them safer and making them more efficient, Ryan said.

 

MENTAL HEALTH

In the wake of tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut and the shocking disappearance and death of Evansdale cousins Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, a grieving public cried out, appealing to their legislators to reinstate capital punishment as a deterrent to such crime. Despite the water cooler buzz, local politicians say capital punishment isn’t passing the whispers stage and is not on the table for discussion this year.             

“Capital punishment has come up, but we’ll more likely put the focus of that discussion on mental health services, a topic that has been in a transitional phase in this state for years,” said Gronstal. “We discuss it every year. The mental health system in Iowa is somewhat fractured. It needs completely revamped and regionalized.”                

The Iowa Development Disabilities Council recently voiced publicly its concerns about cuts and decreases in services in mental health and disability aid as the state navigates the transition to a new system. While services that were once provided by each county are now moving to a regional system, components of the new system don’t go online until July 1. In the meantime, the state has stopped sending money under the old system, according to Iowa Development Disability Council spokesperson Rik Shannon. Instead, he said the Legislature is approving the creation of a transition fund.               

“The redesign itself is not causing people to lose services,” explained Iowa DHS spokesperson Roger Munns. “In the years ahead, it will result in a more consistent and coherent approach to providing services for people in need.”              

But Shannon said the temporary solution is inadequate, and of the 32 counties that applied for transitional funding, only three meet all of the grant qualifications.                

“So that leaves 29 counties wondering how they are going to provide all of the services that they’ve been providing,” Shannon said in an Iowa News Service press release.             

Shannon said the Legislature will have to decide how much money each county will receive, but in the meantime, cuts could be coming for items such as psychiatric medication, rent subsidies for the mentally ill and services for people with autism.                

“One of the areas that causes concern for us is that the people who will be the first to lose those services are people with developmental disabilities that don’t have an intellectual disability, and people with brain injury,” he warned. “Those are people that counties are not required to serve.”                

CVA_10PAGE 15He says many counties have been providing such services, but without state funding, those services would likely be the first to go.                

“We’re replacing a system that is really 99 different systems — one for each county in the state,” Munns defended. “We’re ending a system that provides services depending on where you live, not what you need. In a nutshell, the reform requires regional administration of local services, and it will establish core services.                

“The mental health redesign approved by the Legislature over the last two sessions is an enormous victory for people with mental health and disability service needs. It is also decades overdue,” Munns added.              

Munns said the legislation also relieves local taxpayers of the non-federal share of Medicaid for certain services, and the vast majority of counties are better off because of it.                

“But big changes sometimes come with unintended consequences,” Munns admitted. “Last spring legislators directed the DHS to make recommendations for a transition fund. Only a third of the counties applied for funding. Of those, six did not have need for funding in the current fiscal year and most of the rest had challenges that related to unpaid state bills.                

“The DHS believes that failure to pay back bills is not an unintended consequence of the redesign,” he continued. “To put it another way, it wouldn’t be fair to pay back bills for some counties but not others.”               

The department recommended $1.5 million in transition funding. The issue now goes to the Legislature. (Find the report at www.dhs.state.ia.us.)

 

SPENDING

The governor will continue to require a two-year budget that balances five years out.                

“Tough decisions were made in the past two years, and those decisions have offered predictability and stability to the state’s finances,” Albrecht wrote in an email to Cityview. “Just three years ago, Gov. Culver engineered a massive, 10 percent across-the-board cut that sent school districts and local governments into budget chaos. Thanks to Gov. Branstad’s leadership, local governments no longer have to fear looming, significant cuts that may await around the corner. Additionally, the state of Iowa faced a $900 million spending gap when Gov. Branstad took office.”                

He credits the governor’s “sound budget principles” for the closing of that gap and a continued balanced budget that he believes is directly proportionate to Barron’s magazine recently deeming Iowa “the second-best managed state in the country.”                

“These priorities will be among the governor’s goals that he intends to advance with bipartisan cooperation in the 2013 legislative session,” Albrecht concluded. CV

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