By Tom Chapman
The Iowa legislature adjourned the 84th General Assembly on May 9. Legislators completed work on the state budget, which will spend about $6.24 billion from the state’s general fund. They left, however, without a property tax compromise.
• Both chambers finally passed Senate File 2284, the education reform bill. It’s important to remember that because all of Iowa’s Catholic schools are accredited by the state, policy changes that affect public schools usually affect Catholic schools as well.
On the plus side: provisions for competency-based education, the inclusion of nonpublic schools in an online learning initiative, and keeping the current core curriculum without an expansion.
On the negative side, legislators took out a provision for alternative licensure of teachers, which could have helped smaller schools in particular. Unfortunately, religious liberty language was also taken out of the bill. This would have allowed religious schools to opt out of curriculum that would conflict with their religious teachings, if it became a concern in the future.
The bill also contains a focus on early childhood literacy efforts. It provides that a public school student who is not proficient in reading by the end of grade three would be held back if parents don’t enroll them in a summer reading program.
• Regarding the human services appropriations budget, Senate File 2336, the Republican-led House had to give up on its proposal that would have redirected Medicaid funds away from abortion providers. The Democratic-led Senate did not move on the issue. This proposal will no doubt come up again next year. On the plus side, major cuts were avoided in several programs that help poor families as the House came closer to the Senate’s numbers.
• The much-discussed property tax reform proposal did not pass and an increase in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit died with it. Many cities were afraid that mandatory cuts in property taxes would have hurt their ability to provide needed services.
• Finally, of interest to many, the legislature approved a mental health reform package that is intended to standardize the level of services paid for by counties. Legislators came to an agreement on transition provisions to help counties with funding over the next year. The bill limits the amount counties can levy for MH/DS services to $47.28; counties below that level will receive assistance and counties over the level will have the option of maintaining their current levy rate or reducing their levy rate.
Leadership has agreed to support a supplemental funding bill to help counties below the level in the next session; until then, those counties will be allowed to use other funds for cash flow purposes. Sen. Jack Hatch said that this is likely the great achievement of this session. He said that it will save the taxpayers of Iowa money and will improve services for Iowans.
(Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.)