Nearly every seat was filled Saturday at the mealsite in the restored Creston Depot for the third and final legislative coffee session with Sen. Tom Shipley and Rep. Tom Moore.
Half the session was spent updating everyone in attendance on the progress of the state budget and talking about progress on other bills and plans the senator and representative were hoping to move forward with, such as mental health and suicide prevention.
“Getting budget numbers together is compounded by the tax reform package that’s being proposed and seeing how all that fits together, because you can’t do one without looking at the other,” Shipley said.
He added that the Senate voted on its tax reform package in February and it didn’t match that of the House or the governor, but it was never intended to be the same, and it isn’t set in stone. Tax reform is a process where the House, Senate and governor come up with plans and then negotiate so they can all meet somewhere in the middle.
“You’ve got a lot of big pieces of the puzzle to get put together,” Shipley said, “so that’s part of where that’s at. I’m cautiously optimistic about our budget numbers. Our amount of revenue is going to possibly be a little better. I sit as chair of Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriation Committee. One would think that with agriculture being a big part of this state it would be a pretty significant part of the budget. My piece of the action is really small, between agriculture and natural resources. When they came and talked to me about it, they didn’t throw any numbers out, but the conversation was a little more positive than I thought it was going to be.”
Moore echoed Shipley’s statement, saying that the budget is also the main focus of the House right now. He works with the education budget appropriations non-K-12 subcommittee, a joint committee between the House and Senate, and said the subcommittees have been meeting with Ways and Means to figure out how money from the budget will be split. Each subcommittee – he said there were seven – is given a certain target amount and they are working together, with Ways and Means, to decide where the money is going to go.
“As the Senator said, budget is the main concern now,” he said. “Appropriations and Ways and Means have been working every day to get this picture put together and to coordinate it with the Senate so that we can come up with a viable tax plan, as well as the budget. The tax plan, I think, we’re pretty close. Right now, the word I heard was that we were about $8 million apart between the Senate and the House as far as the tax plan. Eight million in a $7.2 billion budget is not a whole lot, but it’s still a significant amount when you talk about what you’ve got to cut.”
April 17 will be the 100th day of the current legislative session and both Shipley and Moore said while they are optimistic that everyone can come to an agreement on the budget and tax reform, they doubt it will happen before that date.
Progress on legislation
Mental health in Iowa has been the topic of discussion for some time, and Sen. Shipley and Rep. Moore couldn’t say enough positive things about the progress the current piece of legislation has made and will make in addressing mental health in the state.
“I think we’re all most pleased to have a mental health plan that was worked on over the summer by all different parties put together – from counties, law enforcement, mental health people – putting a system together where there’s going to be some places where people can get some critical access right away, right on down to long-term care,” Shipley said. “I think that’s probably the most significant piece of legislation we’re going to pass this year. I really believe it is. When you’ve got the people that deal with mental health on board with it wholeheartedly, I think that’s a big step in the right direction. That is huge, and I was very pleased.”
The state of Iowa has a suicide problem, said Rep. Moore. It’s the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 and the third leading cause of death for youth 14 and under. He is the floor manager in the House for the suicide prevention bill, which would address the issue by arming teachers with the training they need to recognize warning signs.
Moore, who is against mandates, especially unfunded mandates for schools, said the bill includes a mandate that requires teachers get one hour of training a year, but the bill leaves it up to the schools to decide how and when that training will take place.
“When I was looking at this and was given the opportunity to run this bill, I said to myself, ‘I would give an hour of my time as a teacher to get the training,’” he said. “Like I said, I’m not a mandate guy, but I think the one hour was not too egregious to our schools. The purpose of this bill is to recognize that someone may be in crisis and if we can do that and get professional mental help for them, I saw that as being very much a positive.”
During the second half of the session, Sen. Shipley and Rep. Moore answered questions and concerns from constituents.
Saying she wasn’t happy with the current legislature, Karon Finn expressed concern that the water quality bill recently passed was going to take money away from entities that needed funding, such as education, Department of Human Services and law enforcement.
Sen. Shipley and Rep. Moore responded by trying to assure her that in passing the water quality bill, education would not lose any funding.
“This legislation did not cut a penny from K-12,” Shipley said. “We did what we were supposed to do. Maybe not right at the timeline, but we weren’t very far off as far as telling schools what new money they were going to get in their school supplemental aid. Many schools were expecting nothing. I had superintendents tell me they were expecting zero. We gave them 1 percent. It doesn’t sound like much, but they were very appreciative. The other thing we did was we passed this equity issue with the rural schools and transporation, which was another several million dollars, which allowed schools to get some more money to offset their high transportation cost. We have freed up categorical accounts to where they can utilize some of that money for schools. Not all of it, but some.”
“The last two years have probably been the most aggressive, positive legislation for education that Iowa has seen in many years,” said Moore. “In fact, when you look at it over the last 10 years, Iowa is number one in spending nationally for K-12 education. Number 1. We have spent more over the last 10 years for K-12 education than any other state in the nation – $750 plus million. Now, that’s not all going to state supplemental aid, but that’s in many other forms as well. As far as what’s been done for K-12 education, I believe Iowa is second to none. I’ll make no apologies for what we have done educationally, and that is coming from an educator.”