By Tom Chapman
For The Catholic Messenger
It’s shaping up to be an interesting week at the State Capitol. It’s “funnel” week, where non-money bills in the Iowa Legislature are required to pass a committee no later than Friday (March 6) to remain eligible for consideration.
A subcommittee meeting was scheduled at press time on an Education Savings Accounts (ESA) bill in the Iowa House. ESAs would allow parents who choose not to enroll their children in a public school to receive a deposit of public funds into a savings account set up by the state. This money could be used by parents for private school tuition and some other education expenses, including tutoring. The amount put into the savings account by the state would be the per-pupil state foundation aid — this year, about $5,600. Iowa’s Catholic bishops have issued a statement in support of ESAs.
Of course, strong public schools are needed as well. Numerous studies have found that “school choice” programs improve outcomes at public schools. In addition, public schools will retain their basic property tax levy. As Bishop Richard Pates from Des Moines has said, he always votes in favor of funding initiatives for public schools.
In other business:
The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) is still working on getting the payday reform bill, HSB 138, passed through the House Commerce Committee before the funnel deadline.
A Senate subcommittee was scheduled at press time to consider SF 146. The bill would require Iowa to conduct outreach, public awareness and training programs to assist state employees and the public in recognizing and reporting incidents of human trafficking. Millions of people are trafficked every year, including some in Iowa communities. The ICC hopes the bill will advance.
Next, the ICC supports Senate Study Bill 1092, which would allow undocumented residents of Iowa to obtain a provisional driver’s license if they meet certain criteria. They must have an unexpired passport or an official identification card issued by a foreign government. The ICC sees this as a way to promote safety and help workers get to their job. So far this bill hasn’t moved at all.
Bills supporting the ability of employees to take time off for adoptions (SF 225 and HF 116) are scheduled to move forward in both chambers this week. The ICC is supportive of the adoption process.
Last week at the State Capitol
Thanks to the bishops and other ICC board and committee members who were able to attend the ICC legislative breakfast at the State Capitol last week. The bishops were able to meet with several legislative leaders and Gov. Terry Branstad. Among the issues discussed by the bishops were ESAs, minimum wage increase, wage theft, driver’s licenses for immigrants, support for refugees, an “ultrasound before abortion” bill and payday loan reform.
Several of these issues received action last week. The Iowa Senate passed SF 269, which will increase the minimum wage in Iowa from $7.25 to $8.75. The Iowa Senate also passed SF 270, which addresses wage theft. Both bills go to the House.
A Senate subcommittee approved Senate File 144. The bill would provide about $2.2 million in grants for organizations to train refugee community navigators to educate and provide direct assistance to their respective refugee communities. Another section of the bill would increase funding for a program to improve literacy among refugees. Here in Iowa, Catholic Charities resettles about 300 refugees each year. The U.S. government provides transitional assistance only for the first several weeks. This leaves many Iowa communities with an influx of refugees who are in great need of help.A House subcommittee passed House File 298, which would increase the current tuition and textbook tax credit to 50 percent of the first $1,000 in K-12 education expenses. Currently parents can receive a credit for 25 percent of the first $1,000.
Senate File 31 passed the Senate Human Resources Committee. The intent of the bill is to outlaw sexual orientation “conversion therapy” for minors. The new number for the bill coming out of committee is Senate File 334.
(Tom Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.)