By Tom Chapman
For The Catholic Messenger
The Iowa General Assembly’s final version of the human services budget bill, House File 2460, included funding of abortion providers for family planning services, despite efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. That decision came as the Iowa General Assembly concluded its 2016 session April 29.
Previously, the House attempted to set up a state program for family planning that would not send money to abortion providers, but the Senate did not go along. However, as a part of the final deal between the chambers, the state tax credit for adoptive parents was doubled from $2,500 to $5,000. The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) supports this increase, as it will be helpful for many parents hoping to adopt a child.
The ICC is pleased to see $300,000 in RefugeeRISE funding as a part of the human services bill. This is a bill that the ICC has been working for all year. The money will help the EMBARC group to pair teams of one native English-speaking person with one refugee to help provide job readiness skills and other resources to refugees in Iowa.
Resettlement agencies such as Catholic Charities and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants provide direct assistance to refugees during the first 90 days following arrival. Other groups such as EMBARC, Lutheran Services in Iowa and Visiting Nurse Services provide important services after the first 90 days.
The human services budget bill also included compromise language regarding oversight of Medicaid, and $3 million in grants for two regional mental health care areas. The current law regarding property tax levies for mental health services will remain in place for at least another year. Legislators had considered removing a cap.
Nonpublic school appropriations remain the same.
No action was taken on additional funding for nonpublic students and parents. Current levels were maintained. Thousands sent messages to their legislator on these issues through the combined efforts of ICC, Iowa ACE and the Iowa Association of Christian Schools (IACS). Supporters were not able to get the final commitments from leaders in either chamber to allocate additional funding to help nonpublic school parents. Legislators were able to find at least $150 million in new funding for public schools — not bad!
House File 2459, the standings appropriations bill, eliminates the July 2020 repeal of provisions that require the state to accept the accreditation of a nonpublic school by one of six accrediting organizations (in addition to state accreditation). The ICC supported this but the real work was done by the Iowa Association of Christian Schools.
Funding for human trafficking, drug courts, disaster case management
The standings bill also includes $200,000 in funding for the new human trafficking office in the Department of Public Safety. A $250,000 appropriation for emergency food purchase programs didn’t make the cut.
The final version of the justice budget bill includes “intent” language that the ICC was working for that requires several of the corrections districts to retain their drug courts. The goal of a drug court is to offer nonviolent offenders with addictions an opportunity to change their lives with the help of an intensive treatment and rehabilitation program. Catholic Charities assists with these programs in some parts of the state.
The House and Senate passed Senate File 492 which sets up a state-based disaster case management program. The ICC has been working to get this bill through the legislature for more than a year. The bill looked dead last week but the House majority leader brought it back after Democrats backed off from trying to attach “medical marijuana” amendments on every bill left on the House debated calendar, including SF 492. State-based disaster management services will be available following the governor’s declaration. Catholic Charities is often part of the statewide recovery network that serves in the event of emergency.
Lawmakers also approved a bill that allows for nonviolent drug offenders to be eligible for parole after serving at least 50 percent of their mandatory minimum sentence. The bill allows, but does not require the Board of Parole to release offenders. It does not apply to offenders who are at high risk of offending again, and it does not eliminate minimum mandatory sentences.The bill’s passage was a good example of bipartisan cooperation this year. While the ICC has spent more time specifically on juvenile justice issues, the bishops generally support sentencing reform that keeps offenders who are not a threat to the community out of prison, and gives greater latitude to judges when deciding appropriate penalties. This bill provides a little more flexibility in sentencing and is expected to help reduce the number of Iowa minorities behond bars.
(Tom Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.)