By Tom Chapman
The second session of the 83rd Iowa General Assembly convened Monday, Jan. 11. The leadership has decided to cut the number of days that legislators will be reimbursed for expenses from 100 to 80. Since the end of the session typically comes close to when the “per diem” ends, that would put the end of the session around March 31.
This timeframe will make it more difficult to advance issues other than the budget and other priorities of the leadership, but we’ll be ready to work from day one.
Let’s take a look at the issues the Iowa Catholic Conference is likely to work on:
Since Catholic schools are accredited by the state and generally must follow all the state’s regulations for schools, we pay very close attention to what’s going on. There is already an unfortunate recommendation to cut the Educational Opportunities Act (EOA) tax credit program, which helps nonpublic schools raise private money for scholarships. The problems with the Iowa Film Office tax credits have put all tax credit programs under scrutiny. We agree that all tax credit programs should be reviewed for their usefulness to the state.
The governor’s tax credit review panel called for keeping the EOA tax credits, but capping them at $5 million rather than $7.5 million, and reducing the credit percentage to 40 percent rather than the current 65 percent. That would mean fewer dollars for scholarships and more difficulty in raising those dollars.
We will be working to keep the status quo with the Educational Opportunities scholarships. The program helps low-income children and leads to great student achievement. In addition, every child who attends a nonpublic school saves the state money, because the state and local governments do not have to pay for their education.
We are also concerned about funding cuts for services provided to nonpublic school students, particularly in the area of textbooks and transportation. In reality, funding for textbooks is less than what was appropriated in 1992. Transportation funding for nonpublic school students is about the same as in 1992 and falls more than 20 percent short of what is actually needed.
Finally, we will be working to make a change in the Iowa Code allowing state textbook funds to be used for instructional technology.
The main issue for us is passage of an amendment to Iowa’s constitution that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. We believe that the people of Iowa should be able to vote on such an important issue, and that can only take place if the legislature passes the amendment in two successive sessions.
The legislative leadership is adamant that the debate on this issue is over and that an amendment will not reach the floor. But the debate is not over. We encourage you to contact your legislators even if you have previously done so. This is a new session.
We also have concerns about the religious conscience aspects of the issue and its effects on the church. In the past, state laws have largely been in harmony with the church’s view of marriage. Now, as in other states, we believe that same-sex marriage will be an occasion for conflict. We are concerned about requirements for benefits, the provision of the church’s moral teaching in Catholic schools, denial of access to government benefits, and the licensing of adoption services, among other areas.
In his most recent encyclical letter, “Charity in Truth,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character.”
A bill called the “Women’s Right to Know Act” will be introduced. It provides for an informed consent process of at least 24 hours before an abortion is performed. Women would have the right to view an ultrasound if they wish. An exception is included in the informed consent bill for an abortion that would be required in a medical emergency. Since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the practice of abortion has been exempt from many medical standards, including informed consent.
You are invited to participate in the Prayer for Life Day 2010. Nationally-known neuroscience and bioethics expert Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is coming to Des Moines on Feb. 8. He is presenting workshops on stem cell research and end-of-life issues/euthanasia beginning at 10 a.m. at the Catholic Pastoral Center. Reservations are required to attend the morning educational workshop and lunch by calling (515) 237-5016 by Feb. 3.
Later that day, everyone is invited to a “Lobbying 101” workshop in the Legislative Dining Room on the ground floor in the Capitol at 2:30 p.m. It will be followed by a Prayer for Life Rally at 3:30 p.m.
One of our major concerns will be the impact of the state’s budget shortfall on the safety net for the poor and vulnerable. The shortfall is estimated at about $1 billion. About half of that will be made up through leftover stimulus and rainy days funds.
You may have seen a story in the news this week about the Iowa Catholic Conference support for regulation of payday loans, which can carry interest rates of 400 percent. We are encouraging the legislature to limit the interest rate on payday loans to 36 percent. We believe the current situation is unjust especially since these loans appeal to people who are in a precarious financial state to begin with. Only 1 percent of these loans are made to one-time borrowers. Legislation will be filed to deal with this issue.
There are also plans to introduce a bill that would allow undocumented high school graduates who are Iowa residents to be eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities in Iowa. We believe the legislation would be a good building block for immigration reform and help add talented, motivated, multilingual and multicultural people to our workforce.
(Tom Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.)