Smith, Edler face questions from voters at legislative forum

Worker’s comp, mental health, tax credits dominate MEA forum conversation

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS State Rep. Mark Smith and state Sen. Jeff Edler discussed a myriad of topics at Saturday morning’s Marshalltown Education Association legislative forum. Mental health, tax credits and workers’ compensation were among the issues touched upon.

Many workers in the state, teachers included, have been watching a workers’ compensation bill progress through the state legislature, and two local lawmakers were asked where they stand on the bill Saturday.

“There were a lot of issues I had with that bill,” said state Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, of the legislation at Saturday morning’s Marshalltown Education Association legislative forum. “I know it was amended multiple times coming out of the House (of Representatives) before passage, and it does sound like a lot of the issues I had were addressed in those amendments.”

State Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, said he voted no one HF518 as it passed through that chamber Thursday.

“It is a major overhaul of the workers’ comp program that’s existed in Iowa for 104 years,” the House Minority Leader said. “The argument against the changes is that it is incredibly more restrictive than it was before as far as the management of injuries that workers receive on the job.”

Smith said House Democrats offered an amendment to strike down the bill and commence study on workers’ comp in the state before taking legislative action, and the amendment failed.

“The issue with the shoulders was a major thing for me in voting no,” Smith said of the bill’s language on shoulder injuries and post-injury career opportunities, which offers a total of up to $15,000 for tuition, supplies and fees payments by the employer or employer’s insurer while the employee completes a community college program. Some at the meeting said that figure would not fully cover the cost of the vocational program in the bill’s language.

Edler said the problems that prompted the bill’s creation had to do with commission and court system decisions on workers’ compensation settlements.

“The purpose of that is to compensate wages and ensure that the medical expenses for a work-related injury are taken care of properly and done fairly,” he said. “With some of the issues that we’ve had, either through court system decision or commissioner decisions, we’ve gotten away from that intent a little bit”

Additionally, Edler said he hesitates on whether some types of injuries should be up to current employers to compensate workers for entirely. He used old, re-aggravated injuries as an example.

“We want to make sure people are covered, but yet I don’t know that the employer should be totally liable for something that was a pre-existing injury,” he said.

Having passed the House very nearly along partisan lines, the workers’ compensation legislation now moves to the Senate.

Due to a third estimated decline in growth from the Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference, the state government is looking to cover a $131 million predicted budget shortfall by paying out of the state’s emergency fund.

MEA President Sue Cahill asked the lawmakers why tax credits given by the state to companies weren’t cut while community colleges and the Board of Regents saw de-appropriations earlier in the session.

“Our current governor’s office has presented tax cuts and tax credits to a number of companies,” she said, citing the likes of Rockwell-Collins and John Deere as examples. “I hear from our top employers, Fisher and Lennox and others, that we are limited on finding mid-skill employees.”

Cutting community college funding, Cahill said, is detrimental to those employers looking for mid-skill employees.

“Those credits were put on due to a tax system that’s broken as a temporary remedy to bring businesses into a tax environment that was much higher than the surrounding states,” Edler responded, adding he would support efforts to simplify the tax system and “do away with credits.”

Smith said he would support taking away individual tax credits if analysis showed they were ineffective at spurring job growth and business in Iowa.

“The trouble with the tax credit part is those reduce revenues coming into the state, so it’s difficult to reverse it,” he said, adding emergency legislation could be enacted to stop such credits. However, he said he is wary of “hurry-up” legislation passed without much analysis.

Smith said taking the tax credit funds back from companies would be “recoupment” rather than a reduction in pay-outs.

“On the Democratic side, we like the Earned Income Tax Credit that helps a number of poor people have more money in their pocket, and we’ve pushed for expansion of that,” he said. “We also believe we should have analysis to make sure that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and we don’t have that to the degree that we should for any of the tax credits.”

Marshalltown Schools Superintendent Dr. Theron Schutte asked Edler and Smith about the Secure and Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) sales and services tax, which is currently scheduled to sunset in 2029.

“I don’t think there’s a will to touch it,” Smith said of SAVE in the current session. Edler said there is talk of extending the sunset date to 2050, but no such official action has yet been taken.

Schutte also brought up mental health issues as it relates to public schools, adding the district’s recent Thoughtexchange process has revealed that student behavior is a concern among many community members. He also said student behavioral issues related to mental health is a nationwide concern.

Smith, a mental health professional who started Marshalltown Schools’ mental health services in the early 1990s, said a key to help curb the effects of mental illness is to detect problems early.

He added that there is a problem in the state of having many mental health patients in jail rather than in professional treatment.

“We are identifying the onset of these conditions at an earlier age, and we can intervene in them,” Smith said. “That’s falling on school districts and falling on not having enough people trained to intervene and to get the outcomes that we need.”

In other business

Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper voiced his disapproval of property tax credits passed by the legislature a few years ago. He said Marshalltown may lose $250,000 annually in related backfill money from the state, and the city police department is already short on officers and dispatchers.

Edler said he could see phasing out the commercial and industrial tax credit and the related backfill entirely in the future.

Smith said there has been talk among legislative leadership of phasing out the tax credit in question. He said the credit is one of many issues “hitting rural Iowa in ways that we cannot afford to have rural Iowa hit.”

Edler said he was proud to be part of a bill that passed through the Senate which “was trying to get the formula corrected for the cost per-pupil and transportation costs.”

The funding for the bill, if passed into law, would be a total of about $210-$250 million phased in over a 10-year period. Because of the high cost, Edler said that the legislation likely wouldn’t initiate until about Fiscal Year 2019 if it passed into law.

Smith said the Iowa General Assembly is between two self-imposed funnels on legislation. The first deadline has already passed, and bills that weren’t through the committee stage by the deadline were killed, but their language may still be presented in amendment form.

The next funnel deadline is set for March 27, and Smith said bills must pass to the opposite legislative body and get through committee if they are to survive.

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