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When legislators convene in January, education funding must be top priority
Local lawmakers from both parties agree that one issue holds the key to the success or failure of the 2016 Legislative session: School funding.
'I think the ability to have a legislative session that is productive probably depends on being able to get an agreement early on education,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, during an editorial board session with local House and Senate Democrats.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, expressed a similar sentiment in our meeting with local Republican legislators: 'It would open the door for so many good policy debates that sometimes get sucked up into the vortex of the education funding debate.”
In 2015, legislators spent much of the legislative session in a deadlock over how much state aid for K-12 public schools would increase this school year. Republicans who run the House stuck with a 1.25 percent increase supported by Gov. Terry Branstad. Democrats who run the Senate insisted the GOP plan was inadequate while floating efforts to increase funding by 6 percent, then 4 percent and finally a bid to split the difference between 4 percent and 1.25 percent. Republicans dubbed the Democrats' plans unaffordable.
Finally, with the session far into overtime, the parties agreed to 1.25 percent plus a $55 million one-time shot of funding for local districts. It was touted as a hard-won bipartisan compromise.
But on the eve of Independence Day, Branstad vetoed the $55 million. It was a frustrating end to a marathon negotiation that left schools in limbo and some observers wondering if Washington, D.C.-style gridlock had made its way to Iowa.
We'd like to see a much different outcome when the session convenes in January. We'd like to see the Legislature reassert its role to a governor with a penchant for acting alone. We'd like to see an education funding deal that proves our lawmakers can work together.
We are glad to hear initial reports that local lawmakers, at least, seem committed to do so:
'I would say this year people are on more of the same page. The conversations are occurring before the session,” said Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Cedar Rapids. 'I don't think anybody wants any end of session surprises. So I think we're committed to getting a compromise on education early.”
School districts need to know as soon as possible how much state funding they'll receive this fall as they build budgets this winter and spring. State law says the Legislature should have set 2016-17 funding last session. But partisan bickering has crippled what was once a bipartisan process intended to make school funding the General Assembly's top priority.
If lawmakers can't summon the votes to change the law, they should live up to it.
Compromise surely will mean giving and taking, meaning Republicans can't simply stick with whatever the governor proposes and Democrats can't stand on a funding level the GOP can't accept.
We'd like to see our education debates and discussions center on what will make Iowa's schools better, creative and more innovative, not simply focused on an endless fight over funding percentages. Reasonable, predictable funding is key to reform and improvement. Spending another legislative session flogging the usual scapegoats, tossing accusations and pointing fingers will be another year wasted.
And if the Legislature is able to forge an early compromise, the governor should, unlike in July, show he has respect for the legislature's work and put away his veto pen.
TAX BREAKS, CREDITS AND LOOPHOLES
The debate over education funding is a fight over scarce revenues. And Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, insists lawmakers who argue we can't afford more funding aren't telling the whole story.
'When revenues run into the state, of the top we have hundreds of millions of dollars that come off for corporate credits, corporate refunds and grants,' Running-Marquardt said. 'And then they say the pie is shrinking.”
We agree, special interest tax giveaways of all shapes and sizes have gotten out of control. Lawmakers eager to help businesses and other interests have carved up the tax code over the years, adding exemptions, cuts and credits with little or no follow-through to determine whether those tax breaks and loopholes are having a positive economic effect, as advertised.
Legislators who want a flatter, simpler tax code should start by eliminating breaks that complicate the code and suck dollars away from bigger public priorities. Exemptions should demonstrably stimulate the state economy, not just serve as a perk for a specific interest, or be scrapped.
'I think on a broader scale, this whole concept of transparency and good governance requires that we put all of the tax credits under the same scrutiny as we do every line item in the budget. So I would be supportive of doing that,” said Rizer, who is part of a group of lawmakers undertaking a comprehensive review of the state budget.
Kaufmann said there's also talk of reviewing the use of Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, for local economic development projects.
'TIF's a good tool for a lot of towns. I don't think our intent is to take away TIF as a tool. It's just to potentially rein in those who would use it nefariously,” Kaufmann said.
Both reviews would be a valuable use of legislators' time.
FILL THE NATURAL RESOURCES AND OUTDOOR RECREATION TRUST FUND
It's been more than five years since Iowa voters overwhelmingly supported the creation of the natural resources trust fund, a constitutionally protected source of dollars for conservation, recreation, water quality improvements and other related programs. But lawmakers haven't done their part to trigger the fund by raising sales tax so that three-eighths of that new penny tax will start flowing into the fund.
In recent weeks, we've heard several proposals for how they might do that this year.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett has floated a plan for raising the sales tax by a full penny, both to fill the fund and to cover the budget impact of lowering and flattening income tax rates. He'd also seek $40 million in private and corporate contributions to water quality efforts.
Hogg would seek a tax to fill the fund in exchange for an agreement by the water works to drop its lawsuit. The state, under his plan, also would help the water works install infrastructure needed to keep its drinking water clean.
Rizer has his own plan, which would involve lowering the state sales tax for one day before increasing it, potentially triggering the trust-fund fill. 'I don't actually know if that would pass constitutional muster,” he said. That question is currently under review.
Details will matter, especially how trust funding spending would be sliced up. But it's time to have the debate. As Iowa's list of waterways impaired by pollution grows, as a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against rural counties over farm contamination moves through the courts and after a summer that saw a swarm of beach closures tied to pollution, it's long past time to act.
MONITOR MEDICAID MANAGED CARE
The governor moved unilaterally, without legislative input, to hand Iowa's Medicaid program over to private managed care companies. But lawmakers still have an obligation to make sure the public health insurance program is serving their constituents.
'The overriding concern is that those companies will deny or delay services, or cut reimbursement rates, to Iowans, hurting Iowans,” Hogg said. 'We need better oversight. We need third-party reviews. We need a place where people can go to get advocates.”
Hogg talks about a 'bill of rights” for Medicaid recipients. We're intrigued by the idea.
What exactly, if anything, lawmakers will need to address in order to protect patients during this transition remains to be seen. But lawmakers must be sure to keep a watchful eye and be prepared to step in.
LIMITING GOVERNMENT'S REACH
Last year, lawmakers made promising steps toward making penalties for low-level, first offense marijuana possession more rational and reasonable in response, in part, to our state's troubling racial disparities in arrests for the crime. This year, the Legislature should follow through.
Lawmakers also should support Rizer's proposal to bring crack and cocaine penalties into a more equal alignment, a change he said he will add to legislation he's crafted to target synthetic marijuana products.
'Cocaine is cocaine. There is no good reason why the penalties should be significantly more for crack,” as Rizer told us. 'It's kind of a first bite of the apple of drug penalty reform.”
We'd also like to see lawmakers address issues surrounding the civil forfeiture of money and property by law enforcement during criminal investigations. At the very least, lawmakers should make it easier to track forfeitures by local agencies and how those resources are spent.
'I think it can absolutely be done without it being some sort of attack on law enforcement,” Kaufmann said.
We're also watching Kaufmann's efforts to strengthen landowners' protections against the use of eminent domain to seize land for utility lines and other projects. We agree that developers should meet a high bar for landowner participation before being allowed to take private land.
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