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Iowa Watchdog

Iowa lawmakers’ top five fails in the 2013 session

6/3/2013

FAIL: Some of the 2013 legislative sausage turned out rotten.

FAIL: Some of the 2013 legislative sausage turned out rotten.

DES MOINES – Iowa lawmakers have dubbed the 2013 legislative session a banner year that brought compromise on large issues that have previously failed to yield bipartisan deals and extended sessions well into June.

This year Senate Democrats and House Republicans set aside differences to reach deals on hot button issues, including education, tax reform and health care. They took more steps in overhauling the state’s mental health system, converting it from one operated by 99 individual counties to a regional-based system.

The compromises and accomplishments have drawn high praise from Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who has ranked it among the top in his 19 years as the state’s leader.

But with winners come losers, and the 2013 session had plenty. Here’s a list of Iowa Watchdog’s top five fails among lawmakers this year.

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1. Education reform. Lawmakers are to be applauded for taking steps towards overhauling the state’s outdated and lagging education system. They created career ladders for teachers, rewarding them for taking on additional leadership roles and responsibilities, instead of basing pay on years of experience and education levels.

The legislation provides students with new yearly exams that are aligned to the Common Core standards and strengthens teacher preparation programs, while raising beginning teacher salaries from $28,000 to $33,500 a year.

The legislation, however, failed to address student advancement. Currently, students move from grade to grade regardless of their performance and ability to show they mastered grade-level material. As failing students continue to move through the system, they typically fall further behind. A number will eventually drop out.

Lawmakers scrapped proposals requiring high school students to pass end of course exams and take college or career readiness tests that demonstrate they have obtained the skills necessary to succeed outside of high school. They also stripped down a bill that would have required third-graders who fail to meet basic literacy requirements to take a summer reading course or be held back.

Branstad made education reform a top priority and, from the beginning, said his plans needed to be comprehensively adopted and not approved piecemeal, as in the past. Those measures largely failed to gain traction. But lawmakers did exactly what Branstad urged them no not to do and students, along with Iowans, will bear the cost.

2. Oversight of Iowa’s Family Investment Program, which funnels millions of dollars to low-income Iowans to provide them with necessities. The Iowa Department of Human Services currently doesn’t track debit card transactions of recipients, saying it’s not their job and federal law prohibits them from accessing transaction information.

The state contracts with third-party vendor Xerox to manage the debit cards and state dollars. A new federal law requires states to adopt measures that prohibit the use of welfare dollars at strip clubs, casinos, bars and liquor stores. If they fail to do so, they lose out on 5 percent of federal funds for the program. That amounts to more than $6 million in Iowa.

3. Property tax reform. It’s taken years for lawmakers to agree on reforms, but they finally broke their stalemate this year. We applaud that. The legislation, however, puts the state’s cities and counties at risk of losing millions in funding, which prompted Moody’s to issue  a statement that the state’s stellar credit rating could be downgraded because of the stress the measure will put on the budgets of public agencies – mostly cities and counties.

4. Mental health – Lawmakers pumped an additional $42 million into transitioning the state’s mental health system from county-based to regionally-based. It’s unclear how much money is needed to help the thousands of Iowans suffering from mental illness, because the state has never tracked it. What is clear is the money falls short in addressing the public and private mental health providers that are either shuttering their facilities or making cuts. It also won’t keep Iowans from being shipped out of state for hospitalization and care for the most severe cases.

5. The Iowa Public Information Board. Lawmakers provided a meager $350,000 to fund its first year of operation. That money has to cover the salary of an executive director and two other full-time staffers, as well as operational costs. The highly-touted board will have its hands full in settling open record and meetings disputes with such a small staff.

The state ombudsman’s office , which lacks the authority to force compliance, received 331 complaints from journalists and the public, as well as inquiries from government staffers. Nearly 200 were investigated. That represents a 340 percent increase in cases in the past decade. The office employs 15 full-time staffers. The board will be the only government agency with the authority to force compliance among public entities. Some say without sufficient funding, lawmakers are setting the newly formed group to fail.

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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