End of Session
Budget Mismanagement Leaves State with Cuts, Deficit
Budget Mismanagement Leaves State with Cuts, Deficit
Earlier in the year, Governor Reynolds signed $35 million of budget cuts in to law. These cuts to the services Iowans depend on and the state’s on-going budget crisis were the main reason that lawmakers went into overtime to close out the 2018 legislative session. In the end, a $7.48 billion budget was approved for fiscal year 2019.
Since the state budget has been in deficit for two years in a row, Republican leaders at the Statehouse struggled to balance the state budget while paying back the $144 million in debt they had to borrow last year.
The impact of the latest round of budget cuts will be felt hardest by Iowa’s most vulnerable citizens, as well as students at community colleges and state universities. Lawmakers knew the cuts would be needed since last fall, but waited until the final months of the state’s fiscal year to approve them.
As the final budget for the upcoming fiscal year was approved, many of the discussions happened with little to no public comment and review. Many of the budgets funded programs less than they did in the past, and while there were some positives, much of the funding was simply just trying to get back to levels before the budget cuts.
Many Iowans expressed concern that public schools will receive another historically low increase in state funding next year while GOP lawmakers approved a massive new tax giveaway to corporations and wealthy. In addition to budget cuts, homeowners and farmers will be paying higher property taxes and a new sales tax for online purchases next year to pay for the new tax breaks approved this year.
Hard working Iowans who craft a budget every month for their family know and expect lawmakers to use the same principles that they do every month. Republican lawmakers have failed to live up to the expectations of Iowans, by running the state’s budget on a credit card and putting corporate tax cuts before everyday Iowans.
GOP Tax Giveaways Favor Wealthy, Corporations
On the last day of session, Republican lawmakers pushed through a $2.7 billion tax proposal that disproportionately benefits the wealthy and special interests. The bill came in spite of the fact the Governor and legislative leaders were forced to put $144 million on the state’s credit card last year to balance the state budget and made millions in budget cuts just weeks earlier in session.
The bill implements several new taxes, including taxes on streaming services like Netflix, digital products like phone apps, and an internet sales tax on purchases from places like eBay. The revenue reductions will likely mean that Iowa families will also have to pay more in property taxes, tuition, and fees for government services to make up for the loss of revenue. The budget mess already means Iowans are being shortchanged with fewer services for victims of domestic violence, fewer nursing home inspections, and little for public schools.
The Republican tax changes also do nothing to rein in corporate tax giveaways. The bill also has nearly $500 million in new tax breaks for corporations in the state. The bill heavily favors millionaires who will get a tax cut of $8,774 while everyday Iowans get just $56 on average in income tax reductions while having to pay for new taxes on things like Hulu, Spotify, ebooks, Uber, and online purchases.
K-12 School Aid Falls Short Again
For yet another year, Iowa’s public schools will endure low state funding and will be forced to raise class size and reduce new opportunities for students next year. When adjusted for inflation, public schools have received just a $33 per student increase over eight years, which is less than 1% each year. Iowa’s per pupil funding is now $1,111 below the national average.
At the same time low funding was approved for public schools, new data was released that found 105 public school buildings have closed their doors over the last several years. Iowans already know that closing public schools has a devastating impact on neighborhoods, small towns, and rural communities.
Over the last several years, public school funding has become a low priority for Majority Party lawmakers who have approved billions in new tax giveaways to corporations, special interests, and the wealthy instead.
Iowa Republicans Pass Utility Legislation to Scale Back Energy Efficiency, Solar
Even though Iowa is a national leader, Republican lawmakers passed utility legislation that allows utility companies to roll back Iowa’s renewable energy efforts and slash energy efficiency rebates for Iowa consumers. Senate File 2311 deregulates numerous energy efficiency statutes and elevates utility companies’ demands over the needs and affordability of Iowa consumers.
Given the dramatic changes in the bill, thousands of Iowans working in the energy efficiency industry will likely lose their jobs and utility consumer rates will drastically increase. Last year, Governor Reynolds established the Iowa Energy Plan, which developed a comprehensive energy plan that outlined goals and strategies to drive down energy consumption and costs, spur economic development, and promote infrastructure. Despite contradicting her own Iowa Energy plan, Governor Reynolds signed the utility bill just before session adjournment.
This bill guts Iowa’s energy efficiency efforts by mandating new, more restrictive requirements and significantly decreasing funds available for homeowners to make improvements that save energy. Additionally, municipalities, corporations, and cooperatives are allowed to consider consumers’ use of renewable energy as basis for establishing discriminatory special rates or charges. As a result, Iowa utilities have the ability to shift all risk to Iowa customers without providing Iowans any recourse.
Beginning Steps Made Towards Improving Mental Health in Iowa
After years of bipartisan work, a bill that begins the process of reforming the mental health system in Iowa was signed into law.
To fill critical gaps in the system, the new law will allow more Iowans to access mental health services and also provides several new choices to patients and their physicians in determining what type of assistance they may need.
New access centers will provide immediate short-term assessments to people who do not need inpatient psychiatric treatment. Intensive Residential Service Homes are comprehensive, 24 hour facilities to coordinate community living services for persons with serious mental illnesses. Assertive Community Treatment Teams will provide flexible treatment for individuals who are transferring out of an inpatient program.
This legislation will also allow Mental Health and Disability Services (MHDS) regions to contract with transportation service companies to transport patients. Currently, patients are transported by law enforcement or an ambulance service, and by contracting with an outside vendor, it will free up law enforcement to do other important work. Mental health professionals will also be able to disclose mental health information to a law enforcement agent to prevent a serious threat to the patient or to others.
While the bill is a great first step to improving the system, many Iowans and lawmakers are concerned it does not include any additional investment from the state, causing a bigger strain on existing services and resources.
Instead of expanding the state’s investment in mental health, Governor Reynolds authorized a cut of $4.3 million from the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) budget. DHS is the agency that oversees much of this work, and they may have to decrease services to make up for the severe cut in their budget.
Also, the mental health regions are being asked to fund most of the bill without receiving any sort of financial assistance. In order to truly make meaningful and lasting changes to the system, it needs to be fully-funded. Next year, the House Democrats will continue to work towards finding solutions to these problems and move forward with funding the mental health system at a sustainable and adequate level.
Legislature Passes Water Quality Measures; More Work Needed
The Iowa Legislature took one small step to address the pollution of the states lakes and rivers, but the investment falls well short of what is needed to fix the problem.
In January the legislature passed Senate File 512, which funds water quality efforts by creating a new water excise tax. The excise tax is already collected, but the money currently goes to fund things like Medicaid and education.
The money will now go to the Water Quality Assistance Fund to help support drinking water and source water protection projects; a loan program designed to provide financial assistance to enhance surface and groundwater, and infield and edge of field conservation practices. Additionally, $15 million from the State’s Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund will be used beginning in 2021.
Opponents of the plan felt the plan does not provide sufficient money to cover the scope of the state’s water quality problem, and that there is little oversight for the money that is appropriated.
During debate on the legislation, House Republicans assured Democrats that additional meaningful legislation would be coming as the legislature progressed. However, no additional action was taken.
Unconstitutional Six Week Abortion Ban Signed by Governor
In the closing days of session, Republican lawmakers passed the nation’s strictest abortion ban at just six weeks, which is before many women even know they are pregnant. This ban is clearly unconstitutional and the State of Iowa will have to pay thousands of dollars in litigation fees over the next several years as the legislation moves through the courts.
This bill will also harm the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine, where students will not be able to complete their training if this legislation were to go into effect. Iowa already ranks next to last in the nation for Obstetrics and Gynecology (OBG) physicians per capita, and two-thirds of our 99 counties currently do not have an OBG physician. This means fewer women will receive care, and there will be an increase in negative health outcomes and complications due to reduced access to these types of physicians.
The bill, Senate File 359, started out as a bill banning the selling of fetal tissue, something that is already banned by federal law. However, Republicans underhandedly added the six week abortion ban to the bill at the last minute.
Bi-Partisan Opioid Legislation Completed this Session
The national opioid crisis has extended to Iowa. In 2015, there were 59 opioid overdose deaths and 163 opioid-related deaths in our state. These numbers rose to 86 overdose deaths and 180 opioid-related deaths in 2016. To help address this national problem, a bill relating to opioid abuse passed the House and Senate this year.
Included in the bill is the expansion of the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), which allows authorized prescribers and pharmacists to view information about their patients’ use of controlled substances. This is a tool used in determining appropriate prescribing and treatment of patients without fear of contributing to a patient’s abuse of or dependence on addictive drugs or diversion to illegal drugs.
The bill, House File 2377, also mandates that prescribing practitioners and first responders utilize the PMP. Practitioners are to use the PMP when they prescribe controlled substances and first responders when they administer opioid antagonists, like naloxone, to patients.
It also directs the Board of Pharmacy to issue a report to each prescribing practitioner that includes a summary of the practitioner’s history of prescribing controlled substances; a comparison to other practitioner’s prescribing activities, and educational updates. The Board will also identify patients who are at risk for potentially abusing or misusing prescription controlled substances and notifying the practitioners of the risk.
Finally, the bill includes Good Samaritan language that provides certain protections to those who seek treatment for a drug-related overdose or a person who seeks treatment for another person who is experiencing a drug-related overdose. This provision gives these individuals certain protections against being prosecuted or arrested, with some exceptions.
This bill was sent to the Governor for her signature, and if signed, will go into effect on July 1, 2018.
Preventing Food Shaming Becomes Law
Iowa has become the 9th state to pass a law protecting children from school lunch debt food shaming. Lawmakers in Louisiana and Maine are currently considering bills similar to Iowa’s legislation.
Under the bill, the following actions are no longer being allowed as these actions humiliate or “shame” a student because they cannot pay for the meal, including the following: 1) Requiring the student to consume the meal at a table set aside for students who owe a meal debt, 2) Have a student discard a meal after it has been served, 3) Require a student to wear a wrist band, hand stamp, or other identifying marks, or do chores or work to pay for their meal, or 4) Denying participation in afterschool program or other extracurricular activities.
Once a year schools are currently required to offer assistance to parents or guardians in filling out Free and Reduced-Priced Lunch forms. Due to changing economic circumstances, this would now be required twice a year.
Skills Training a Focus for Iowa Democrats
Iowa currently faces a skills gap because there are not enough workers possessing the needed skills for the jobs available. Right now, 55% of jobs available in Iowa are middle skill jobs. These jobs require more than a high school diploma but not a four year degree; they require an associate’s degree, a training certificate, or an apprenticeship. However, only 32% of our workforce has this skill set.
This lack of skilled workers presents a challenge for businesses looking to expand or relocate as well as an opportunity for Iowans looking for better paying jobs. To that end, House Democrats pushed legislation this year to improve Iowa’s job training systems.
The Future Ready Iowa legislation brings forward the recommendations of the Future Ready Alliance with the goal of the having 70% of Iowa’s workforce with education or training beyond high school by the year 2025. The legislation creates a new apprenticeship program under the Economic Development Authority designed to incentivize small and medium sized apprenticeship programs to create new or more apprenticeships.
The bill also creates a volunteer mentor program; a summer youth intern pilot program for at risk youth; an Iowa Employer Innovation Program focused on training for high demand jobs and a Future Ready Iowa Skilled Workforce Grant Program for state universities or accredited private colleges. Additionally, the legislation directs the Department of Workforce Development and area community colleges to identify and create a list of high demand jobs for these programs.
However, many lawmakers expressed concern the Future Ready initiative was funded while steep hikes in tuition at community colleges and state universities will put higher education out of reach for many Iowans.
Lawmakers also worked together this year to update the development and delivery of job training services. In addition to updating local workforce development boards, new duties for the board include developing a comprehensive four year workforce development plan to engage local employers and make sure the workforce activities meet the needs of employers. The board will also work with high schools and community colleges to lead efforts to align employment, training, and education that are needed by adults and youth, particularly individuals with a barrier to employment.
Gun Rights Amendment Passes Legislature; Must Pass Again Next Session
An amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would provide additional protections for firearms rights passed the Iowa Legislature this year. The amendment states the right to keep and bear arms cannot be infringed and provides the highest level of judicial protection to firearms rights.
The amendment would need to be re-introduced in the next General Assembly. Since the amendment was approved by both chambers of the legislature this General Assembly, the amendment would have to be passed next legislative General Assembly to be submitted to the voters. If the amendment passes next General Assembly the amendment would have to be approved by a majority of the voters that vote in the next statewide election. If the amendment is approved by a majority of the voters it becomes part of the state constitution.
REAP Funded at Lowest Level in Over a Decade
The Resource Enhancement and Protection fund, commonly referred to as REAP, was funded at $12 million in the Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources budget this year. The legislature directed $2 million of this funding, though, to state parks. When this $2 million “scoop” of REAP funding is accounted for, REAP actually receives $10 million this year, the lowest funding level since 2003.
REAP was established to invest in the enhancement and protection of Iowa’s natural and cultural resources. The program is authorized to receive $20 million according to the Iowa Code, but the funding is often cut by the legislature annually. REAP funds go into eight different programs based on a formula in state law. The funding is specifically targeted to providing more public land, or open spaces, county conservation, soil and water enhancement, city open spaces and parks, public land management of conservation land, habitat and facilities, historical resources, and roadside vegetation.
In addition to providing REAP funding, House File 2491 also provided funding for the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The bill funded the regular operations of the departments at $39.4 million overall, an increase of $825,000 from last year. This funding level is still nearly $2 million less than the departments were funded in Fiscal Year 2017.
Lawmakers Continue the Push to End Medicaid Privatization
Ever since the Governor unilaterally privatized Medicaid in 2016, the results have been disastrous for the people of Iowa. Since this time, people have been systematically denied critical care, essential medical equipment, and have had their services severely reduced or cut altogether.
Lawmakers learned this year the situation keeps getting worse. According the State Ombudsman’s Report, where there has been a 157% increase in Medicaid-related problems reported to the agency in 2017. The Ombudsman Office is an independent department responsible for investigating complaints against state and local governments. Many of the complaints dealt with late or missing payments to the providers, lack of adequate notification, and denial of services.
To help fix the Medicaid mess, a bipartisan bill that passed the House standardized Medicaid provider forms to lessen the confusion for those providers entering into contracts with the managed care organizations (MCOs). The bill also provided more Medicaid oversight by directing the Department of Human Services (DHS) to create a workgroup to review health home programs, initiated a review process of prior authorizations by the MCOs, and guided DHS to hire an independent auditor to perform an audit of small dollar ($2,500 or less) claims paid or denied to Medicaid long-term services and supports providers.
However, many lawmakers are concerned the changes made this year did not go far enough and will not fix the privatization disaster.
Concerns continue to be raised about the high cost of Medicaid privatization. In addition to getting an additional $60.6 million in FY 18 from the Reynolds Administration, the for-profit MCO’s can keep up to 15% of taxpayer dollars to administer the program. Before privatization, just 4% of Medicaid dollars were spent on administration. The Medicaid budget was passed this year, but it did not include any funding for the MCO rate increases, which have yet to be released. It is anticipated this will cost the state an extra $60 million or more.
Medicaid is a federal and state partnership that provides health care to 600,000 Iowans, including nursing homes. According to recent estimates, about 70% of Medicaid dollars are used for the elderly, severely disabled, and poor.
2018 Natural Resources Legislative Update
This year, the Iowa Legislature passed a few bills relating to Iowa’s natural resources. One piece of legislation that gained bipartisan support exempts the state and cities from liability claims due to honeybee hives purposely placed on public property. There are federal grants available to honeybee hive owners to place hives on public land for educational purposes and plant pollination. Schools, cities, and the state have been hesitant to have hive owners put hives on public land due to fear of liability claims. This legislation exempts city and state property from those liability claims as long as both the hive owners and the city acted in good faith.
Another bill signed by the Governor gives the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the ability to set fees for campsites and recreation areas in state parks. Currently fees remain the same throughout the year. With the new legislation, the DNR will be able to set prices based on demand. The goal is to increase park usages and encourage visits and camping during the off season. Iowa’s state parks have been drastically underfunded in recent years. This bill will allow the DNR to increase park usage and generate more revenue to reinvest in the parks.
The DNR will also have the ability to gradually increase fees for hunting, fishing, and furbearer licenses beginning next year. These license fees go to fund the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund, which helps better the habitat for the wildlife of Iowa. Fees cannot surpass a 5% increase and the fees must be evaluated by the Legislative Rules Review Committee. Another provision in the bill increases the number of free wild turkey licenses a landowner can receive from one to two and allows a person who has a youth deer hunting license to use the tag during any other established hunting season. Since the DNR has been underfunded in recent years causing Iowa’s state parks to be neglected, lawmakers approved small fee increases to help maintain and keep state parks open for everyone to enjoy.
For more information regarding the hunting and fishing laws in Iowa, please visit the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s website at http://www.iowadnr.gov.
Retirement Systems in Iowa Remain Strong
Iowa currently maintains four retirement systems in the state for Iowans who work in various careers such as police officers, firefighters, and teachers.
Even before session began, lawmakers have been working to make sure Iowans have a strong retirement system. Throughout the legislative session lawmakers on the committee tasked with monitoring the public retirement systems met to hear presentations and ask questions from pension experts.
The Legislature did not make any changes to the retirement systems this legislative session sending a clear signal that Iowa continues to be a leader in the nation in retirement system management and continues to be proactive in addressing potential issues. All four retirement systems are in a strong and stable place to provide a secure retirement for working Iowans.
Public retirement systems in Iowa ensure approximately 360,234 Iowans including police officers, teachers, firefighters, correction officers, and numerous other professions have a secure and reliable retirement system. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security Iowa pension systems have an economic impact of $2.4 billion in the state, with an added $1.3 billion value to Iowa.
Law Aims to Protect Students from Concussions
In an effort to protect students, lawmakers passed a bill this year to develop training materials and courses on return to play protocols for concussions and brain injuries that coaches or contest officials would complete every two years and adopted by all schools by July 1, 2019.
Under the new law, a student removed from sports participation cannot resume any sports activity until they are evaluated by a license health care provider. “Return to Learn” to the classroom protocol is also adopted, and grades 7-12 would receive an information sheet on concussions.
Iowa House Majority Enacts Anti-Immigration Legislation
This session, Governor Reynolds and Majority Leaders in the House and Senate hastily passed anti-immigration policies, which take effect July 1, 2018. Senate File 481 will ban local entities from crafting policies that prevent law enforcement officers and other local officials from inquiring about the immigration status of a person.
This new law will ban and penalize any form of a so-called “sanctuary city”. While supporters say the law will have an impact, no law enforcement groups in Iowa supported the bill and there are no so called “sanctuary cities” in Iowa.
Additionally, many Iowans are concerned the new law jeopardizes state funding to Iowa’s public schools and places educators and schools in the middle of immigration enforcement activities that are best handled by law enforcement. As a result, communities will experience a heavy increase in property taxes to supplement the penalty until a court determines compliance of the law.
This law also makes jails potentially vulnerable to Fourth Amendment right violations, even if community officials are acting on the federal government’s behalf. As a result, until an official judicial ruling is made regarding Senate File 481, there is no guarantee Iowa law enforcement is free of any unconstitutional liability.
Continuing to Support Iowa’s Veterans
This year, the Iowa Legislature continued to thank and support Iowa’s veterans and their families for the services and sacrifices they’ve made for our state and country.
Several bills were passed and sent to the Governor this session that will assist veterans across Iowa. One bill that was signed into law will increase the amount of money that can be spent out of the Veterans Trust Fund from $300,000 per year to $500,000. The Veterans Trust Fund was created in 2003 and is designed to assist veterans with services like dental work and car repairs. The legislation also adds preventing homelessness to the list of acceptable expenditures. Currently, the Iowa Lottery transfers $2.5 million every year to the fund.
The Legislature also took steps to protect veterans from organizations wanting to charge individuals for benefit assistance, when the veterans are entitled to these services free of charge at a county veteran’s office. This bill requires that these organizations provide veterans with a disclosure at the beginning of events related to veteran’s benefits indicating that the event is not sponsored by a governmental agency or by any officially recognized organization.
Another piece of legislation that was passed this session allows the Adjutant General of the Iowa National Guard to establish “Morale, Welfare and Recreation” areas on bases across the state. These areas are similar to the ones operated by the U.S. Armed Forces, and could include gym facilities, wellness centers, and would allow for food trucks to be brought on base. These designated areas will not only support readiness of the Iowa National Guard, but will also provide Guard members the opportunity for more food and entertainment options while on base.
Transportation Costs and School Aid Formula Issues Addressed
The Iowa Legislature finally took one small step to address transportation costs and inequity in school funding during the 2018 session. There are significantly higher transportation costs per student in some districts that translates into less money for educational needs of the students. A one-year buy down of $11.2 million, for the highest transportation cost districts will bring down the cost to $432 per pupil transported. The current statewide average transportation cost per pupil statewide is $314.
The bill also reduced the gap in the school aid law that allows a gap of up to $175 per student between school districts at the highest level in spending authority and those at the state wide level. The bill modestly raised the floor for those at the statewide level so the gap would now be $170 per student.
Legislature Creates More Protections for Consumers
Iowa lawmakers enacted several new consumer protections this year, including credit security freezes and “skimming” devices attached to gas pumps and ATM’s.
Senate File 2177 gives consumers that seek credit freezes more options. The bill prohibits fees from being charged for placing, removing, suspending, or reinstating any security freeze. The bill also creates new procedures to speed up the receipt and processing of security freezes. Credit reporting agencies are required to provide information on how to receive credit freezes from other consumer reporting agencies to any consumer seeking a credit freeze with one consumer reporting agency.
A credit freeze, also sometimes called a security freeze, allows someone who has had his or her identity stolen to restrict access to the person’s credit report to make it more difficult for accounts to be opened by the identity thieves. If a creditor cannot see a credit report the creditor may not extend the line of credit that is requested. A credit freeze can be lifted by the person that asked for the freeze, either temporarily or permanently.
House File 2199 protects Iowans from new wireless devices used in skimmers that are used to skim or scan credit card numbers at places like ATMs and gas pumps. The bill also expands the crime to the direct or indirect use of these scanning devices. These changes assure that the law is keeping pace with the newest technologies that are used to commit these crimes.
A new crime is also created for possessing a scanning device with the intent to use the device to steal credit card information. Under current law it is a crime to use a scanning device to read a credit card without permission, but this change will assure when police find these devices places like ATMs and gas pumps that the criminals using the scanning device can be held responsible.
School Security and Suicide Prevention
Public and non-public schools would have to develop emergency operations plans, including active shooter training, each year according to a new bill signed in to law this year.
Another bill gives schools more flexibility in paying for personnel, psychologists, licensed independent social workers, master of social workers, and licensed mental health counselors in public schools.
Senate File 2113 requires school boards to have one hour of nationally recognized training on suicide prevention and intervention after a suicide for all licensed school personnel in grades K-12. Another provision of the bill requires schools to annually have evidence-based, evidence-supported training for staff on the identification of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress that may impact student learning.
School Security Tip Line Not Approved
In another measure to protect students, some Iowa lawmakers offered a plan to create a school security tip line, but it was not adopted. Other states across the country have developed anonymous tip lines in response to school shootings that allow people to report people threating or acting dangerously to authorities. They have worked to prevent cases where attacks on schools could have happened.
According to Colorado authorities, the number of tips submitted in Colorado have increased dramatically over the past decade with 300 reports in the last year involving planned school attacks. In addition, the US House of Representatives has passed a bill that would help fund these types of tip lines for states.