Iowa Legislature back to talk taxes, workers, child care
DES MOINES — The Iowa Legislature convenes Monday with Republicans firmly in control and in a position to set the agenda for another session on topics ranging from tax policy and education funding to rural child care and mental health for children.
Amid the state’s nearly $300 million budget surplus, Gov. Kim Reynolds will lay our her priorities Tuesday in her Condition of the State address.
Here are some issues expected to come up this year:
Iowa has one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates and highest labor force participation rates, meaning there aren’t many workers seeking jobs. Reynolds and legislative leaders said those trends are hampering business growth.
“We need to find ways to get more people in the state to work in our workforce, and we need to find more ways to bring people to our state, too,” said Senate President Charles Schneider.
Child care plays a role in workforce discussions because parents are more likely to take full-time jobs if they don’t have to spend much of their income on day care.
Legislative leaders note government programs offsetting child care expenses typically are limited by income.
House Democratic leader Todd Prichard said the situation is especially hard for families who have more than one child. Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said besides money issues, there are big concerns about ensuring the quality of child care and making it accessible.
Legislators likely will discuss raising the state sales tax by 1% and dedicating some of the money to a water quality program overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2010 but never funded. The measure created the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and authorized a sales tax increase of 3/8 cents to fund it. Lawmakers didn’t approve the funding aspect.
Discussion is focused on boosting the sales tax by 1 percent to allocate the 3/8 cents for water quality and recreation and discussing how to use the other 5/8 cents. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said Republicans will only consider tax changes that would lower taxes.
Mental health funding
Lawmakers last year created the first statewide program for children seeking help for depression and other mental health issues, but they didn’t fund most of the effort. Reynolds has pushed to approve dedicated funds during this session.
Whitver said Iowa has historically paid for mental health care with property taxes and questioned whether that should change.
“It’s different from the rest of the country,” Whitver said. “I think we should take a hard look at whether we should continue to use property taxes for that purpose.”
He said there may be an opportunity to lower property taxes and find long-term sustainable funding for mental health.
Senate Democratic leader Janet Petersen cautioned against taking money from the adult program to fund the new children’s initiative. “We’re going to need to find a different and sustainable revenue source,” she said.
Reynolds has said she will again push lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow felons to vote once they’ve completed their sentences. Iowa is now the only state to require felons to seek voting right restoration from the governor.
Senate Republicans declined to act on her proposal last year and Reynolds’ proposal could again face opposition.
“There are still several hurdles to get over to get that through the Iowa Senate,” Whitver said.
Last year the House unanimously approved a measure seeking increased penalties for the mistreatment of pets and more regulation of the pet breeding industry, but the effort stalled in the Senate. Backers of such a measure are expected to try again in this session.
“It is closer than it’s ever been,” Whitver said. “I do think there’s a lot of passion from Iowans on that issue and we certainly want to be responsive to the wishes of Iowans and act when needed.”
Legislators will likely discuss proposals for boosting job prospects and quality of life in rural areas.
One of Petersen’s priorities is to address the closure of rural hospitals and specifically labor and delivery services. Iowa has had 35 labor and delivery departments close in recent years and Petersen said 10 more could close soon. Petersen said Iowa’s rate of women dying during pregnancy has more than doubled in the past three years, which she called shameful.
Funding for improved broadband coverage in rural areas and tax credits to encourage improvement of housing are other issues expected to get some attention.
With Republicans facing the potential that the November election could return House control to the Democrats, some conservatives may see that as their last opportunity to change laws regulating abortion and other matters.
Legislators approved laws restricting abortion in the past few years but the changes were struck down by the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled the Iowa Constitution protects the right of women to control their own bodies and obtain an abortion. Senate Republicans are expected to propose a constitutional amendment reversing that ruling to say there is no right to an abortion in Iowa.
“I expect there will be legislation filed,” Schneider said.
Republicans also are expected to introduce a bill requiring Iowans on welfare to work, and GOP lawmakers will likely back a bill allowing capital punishment for someone convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder of a child.
Iowa outlawed the death penalty in 1965.