Iowa’s Legislature returns to the Statehouse Monday, and Gov. Kim Reynolds will stand before a reconvened 87th General Assembly on Tuesday to present her first legislative agenda as governor. It’s a historic moment, and a hopeful one.
For starters, we hope the governor delivers a message of unity in her first Condition of the State address. We could use it in these sharply divided times. We hope she reaches out to constituencies beyond her fellow Republicans and those who helped them win total control of the Statehouse.
We hope to see signs of Reynolds declaring a measure of independence from the policies and governing style of former Gov. Terry Branstad. So far, there’s been precious little daylight in style or substance between Reynolds and the six-term governor. Hopes for a new direction have yet to be fulfilled.
We hope, as a former state senator, Reynolds will use her voice to urge lawmakers to have more respect for the legislative process, the need for transparency and the importance of broad public input. Too often during the 2017 session, major legislation was crafted in backrooms and shoved to passage on a fast track, leaving affected Iowans on the sidelines. We hope Reynolds will tap the brakes on this legislative freight train, and be a voice of restraint.
As a former county treasurer, we hope Reynolds will recognize the importance of home rule and local decision-making on an array of issues. In 2017, the GOP Legislature too often substituted top-down state edicts for the ability of local officials to address local circumstances. Local control should be more than a political catchphrase.
And we’re still holding out hope the governor will lead the way in crafting comprehensive, meaningful water quality legislation with clear timelines for action and bench marks for charting success. That doesn’t mean, in our view, signing a hastily approved bill that does more to provide political cover than clean up Iowa’s water.
Other critical issues face lawmakers and the governor.
TAXES AND THE BUDGET
Reynolds and legislators will have to solve daunting budget problems, including the immediate need to cut $36 million from the current budget year and prepare a 2019 budget hemmed in by sluggish revenue growth. Low farm commodity prices are among the culprits sapping revenues, along with shortsighted decisions made by past General Assemblies.
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There will be painful cuts and heated debates over Iowa’s priorities. And as lawmakers deal with these budget issues, we have two requests.
First, don’t further reduce already scarce revenues. We think it’s a lousy time to cut taxes, but we understand the desire on the part of Republican lawmakers to reduce or “reform” certain tax categories. Any tax reductions should be offset with other changes that make those reductions net revenue neutral. A good place to start reforming would be by tackling the enormous pile of tax breaks, cuts, exemptions, credits and other tax expenditures handed out to various interest groups over the last two decades by lawmakers. Explain why they’re needed, or repeal them. And don’t simply throw more goodies on to the pile, then attempt to call it reform or simplification.
Second, play it straight. Craft your budget plans in the open. Use real numbers. Use the open, public committee process to clearly detail any proposed cuts and explain why they’re necessary. Don’t surprise us. Don’t hide important details in a blizzard of complexity. Don’t use gimmicks that simply put off the true cost of politically advantageous tax or budget moves to future Legislatures.
It’s Iowans’ money. They deserve to know how it’s being spent, to understand what’s being cut, and to have a real chance to weigh in.
School choice is a long-held Republican policy priority, and some Iowa policymakers have shown interest in pushing the issue at the Statehouse this year. We urge them to exercise caution and preserve the quality of our traditional public schools.
Iowans take pride in the value of public education, it is even written into our state Constitution. Constituents will adamantly oppose any plan that aims to erode public schools, yet most acknowledge the status quo has failed too many students.
Much of the buzz in conservative education policy surrounds voucher programs, which allow families to use government money to pay for private school tuition. That does not appear to be the right choice for Iowa — research shows vouchers do little to improve educational outcomes, and private schools are not held accountable like public schools.
A better place for Iowa to experiment with school choice would be to bolster charter schools, which are fully public institutions delivering specialized or innovative curricula. Iowa law authorizes charter schools, but there are significant barriers for parents and organizers to actually starting one.
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Since Iowa legislators passed the law in 2006, fewer than 20 charter schools have been approved, and today there are just three — in Dubuque, Maynard and Storm Lake. The Cedar Rapids school board rejected a proposal in 2011 for an arts and technology charter school downtown.
Charter schools could be a powerful tool to offer the kinds of classes that have been disappearing from our schools, like fine arts and vocational training. They also could help serve students who have fallen through the cracks in the traditional school system, like the Storm Lake Early College Charter School, which caters in particular to English-learners and low-income students, with the goal of increasing high school and college graduation rates.
However, current law requires charter schools to have a contract with at least one local school district. If lawmakers want to make charter schools a realistic alternative for more students, they’ll have to come up with a way to incentivize school districts to participate, or establish proper oversight outside the existing school district system.
Many aspects of health care are in turmoil. In most cases the status quo has gone from bad to worse, with Iowa residents often unable to afford insurance or hindered in accessing care. And many Iowa health care professionals and health-related business owners have reported an abundance of government red tape, and market uncertainty is negatively affecting their bottom line.
State lawmakers cannot force federal policy to stabilize, but urgency dictates they also cannot wait for Congress.
When compared to other states, Iowa ranks 49th in state mental health hospital beds. Although this problem was made worse when former Gov. Terry Branstad shuttered two of the state’s four mental health institutes, Iowa has placed in the bottom rung of such rankings for years. State officials have pushed for more community-based services, and providers have pushed back while pointing to the state’s dismal reimbursement rates. Programs intended to bring more behavioral health professionals into rural Iowa aren’t keeping pace. Meanwhile, Iowans who need care are filling jail cells or falling through the cracks.
Medicaid modernization has been — to put it mildly — an unnecessary challenge for everyone involved. There’s little doubt the Branstad-Reynolds administration moved too quickly. Patients, providers, suppliers, state liaisons and, based on what’s transpired in the past few months, private insurance companies were unprepared. Promised taxpayer savings have not transpired; none are visible on the horizon. All of the managed care companies that contracted with the state have lost millions. Perhaps worst of all, vulnerable Iowans are not reporting better health outcomes following the move to managed care.
This must be the year state lawmakers set partisan posturing aside and make health care insurance and access a priority.
We recommend action on two immediate needs:
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Whether through rate increases or other incentives to expand private care or opening of a new state-run behavioral health facilities, Iowa must double its existing statewide residential treatment capacity. The roughly 660 private beds and 65 state beds currently available do not adequately serve the more than 135,000 Iowans suffering with serious mental illnesses.
State government must continue to be a part of the Medicaid program. When one of three insurers withdrew from the program, and another refused to increase its capacity, a state-run, fee-for-service system provided necessary stabilization and became an option of last resort. There may come a time when such a government-run safety net is no longer needed, but the past 21 months of Medicaid modernization has proved it isn’t in the near future.
REMEMBER WHO IS REALLY IN CHARGE
Individual lawmakers represent House and Senate districts. But they also must remember the decisions they make affect Iowans far beyond those boundaries. In fact, the Legislature belongs to all Iowans, and it meets in the people’s Statehouse. They’re truly the ones in charge.
We fear some lawmakers have lost sight of that reality. During the last session, we were troubled repeatedly by a legislative process that too often opted for backroom lawmaking and denied the public ample opportunity to weigh in on major legislation. Back home, too many lawmakers skipped public forums where constituents could question them face to face. Some legislators blocked their critics on social media. Nobody likes to take heat, but pursuing an aggressive agenda will inevitably lead to pushback.
The 2018 session can be different. Republicans have the votes to enact their agenda. But the health of our democratic system depends on a willingness to reach across the aisle, when possible, and to make sure Iowans have a full say on actions affecting their lives. It also means listening, not blocking. The majority can show us how its partisan allies, donors and powerful interests are not the only Iowans who truly matter under the golden dome.
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