By Tom Chapman
For The Catholic Messenger
A bill that sets the first limitation on abortion in Iowa in years now awaits Governor Terry Branstad’s signature. That legislation and a bill that provides a sustainable funding stream for Iowa’s mental health care system are the two most significant achievements of the 2017 legislative session, said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference. The session concluded April 22 at 7:15 a.m., after legislators pulled an all-nighter to approve the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. The governor has time to review all bills before signing off. “Nothing is guaranteed,” Chapman said, “until he reads everything in its final form and approves it.”
The abortion ban and mental health funding issue can be placed in the win column. The loss column includes no action on raising the minimum wage, and transportation funding cuts for nonpublic school students, according to the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy voice for the state’s bishops.
Here are preliminary details of the legislative session’s final days:
• Abortion ban: Senate File 471 prohibits abortion after 20 weeks post-fertilization with exceptions to save the life of the mother or for a serious physical health emergency. The bill also contains a three-day waiting period before an abortion. The ICC has been working on this bill since 2011 and it is the first limitation on abortion passed in Iowa for many years.
• Mental health care: The ICC has supported a sustainable funding stream for Iowa’s regional mental health care system and was pleased to see Senate File 504 pass the legislature. The bill provides for the equalization of county property tax levies for mental health and intellectual/development disability services within 14 regions. It doesn’t get rid of the statewide funding cap but the bill will allow for more funding in some regions of the state.
• Human services: The legislature approved the $1.7 billion human services budget bill, House File 653. As with the other departmental budget bills, it contains some substantive cuts in spending. One example is a cut in field operations for the Department of Human Services. It also cuts reimbursement to hospitals for difficult cases. One relatively small example is a $100,000 (one-third) cut in the RefugeeRISE program. The ICC worked in support of the creation of the program just last year. RefugeeRISE helps to build job and leadership skills for people who are relatively new arrivals to the U.S.
• Family planning: House File 653 continues a $3.3 million family planning program that’s available at no cost to people making less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. However, a new rule will not allow for reimbursement of abortion providers. The ICC has also been working on this provision for several sessions.
*Nonpublic school transportation: Despite lobbying efforts and emails from parents, the legislature followed through on a cut in funding for transportation of students to nonpublic schools. The legislature budgeted $8.56 million for this service in the current year. There was a mid-year cut of $278,000. An additional cut was approved in the FY 2018 budget for a final number of $8.2 million – a $360,000 reduction in total.
The money is spent by public school districts to reimburse schools or parents for the cost of transporting students to nonpublic schools. Students who attend Catholic schools save the state millions of dollars because their parents and parishes cover the great majority of the cost of their education. Nonpublic schools and parents are entitled to the same consideration as their public counterparts when funding commitments are made. The education appropriations bill (House File 642) contained status quo funding of about $650,000 for textbooks purchased by public school districts for the use of nonpublic school students.
*Minimum wage: The Iowa Legislature passed a bill prohibiting local governments from raising the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in Iowa, which could mean a pay cut for workers in communities that previously raised the minimum wage. Amendments to raise the minimum wage were filed by Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, but none passed.
*Sanctuary city: House File 573, which passed the legislature April 21, gives public school districts more authority over their operations. A last-minute amendment was attached to make clear that districts do not have the power to adopt or enforce a “policy that would unreasonably interfere with the duties and responsibilities of a local, state or federal law enforcement agency.” The ICC suspects this has to do with the sanctuary city issue.
The ICC is working on its comprehensive review of the 2017 Iowa legislative session. Visit the website at iowacatholicconference.org and keep reading The Catholic Messenger for updates.