Staff Editorial

Iowa Legislature can take on bipartisan issues

Public policy works best when lawmakers work together

The Iowa State Capitol building is seen after short snow storm in Des Moines on Feb. 2, 2016. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The Iowa State Capitol building is seen after short snow storm in Des Moines on Feb. 2, 2016. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Recent history shows there will be plenty of time at the Statehouse this year for partisan division and political maneuvering. Those seem to be inevitable products of our legislative process.

With that in mind, why not start the upcoming session with a few unifying issues? Lawmakers could build up some bipartisan goodwill, helping to make the tricky issues easier to navigate later in the season.

In the previous Legislature, Iowans saw several major packages rushed through by Republican leaders — sometimes with zero votes from Democrats, but much support from special interest groups. Those same lawmakers have the authority to make more hasty unilateral decisions this year, since voters backed GOP legislative majorities and Gov. Kim Reynolds in last November’s elections.

They could, but they shouldn’t.

Policymakers make better decisions when they work together, rather than when they refuse to compromise. You may not know it from last year’s campaign rhetoric, but there are several major issues where there seems to be broad consensus. If our political leaders in Des Moines can’t reach deals on the items laid out here, they have little hope of making progress on the important issues that divide them.

EDUCATION FUNDING

The debate over how much to increase state aid to school districts has proved contentious in recent years. However, on a separate school finance issue, lawmakers in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate appear to agree.

Iowa’s sales tax for school infrastructure projects — known as Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE — will expire in 2029 if the state doesn’t extend it. It is imperative that lawmakers take up the sales tax issue this year, the sooner the better. School boards across the state rely on this revenue to keep their facilities functioning, and they cannot properly finance future and ongoing projects if the SAVE extension is not finalized.

There has been some discussion of adjusting schools’ spending authority for SAVE dollars, like including transportation expenses or barring spending on athletics facilities. Those ideas have highlighted worthwhile issues, but the best chance for a prompt renewal is to keep the current rules in place.

NATURAL RESOURCES

The Legislature will wade into several important agriculture and natural resource issues this year. At least one of them should be a no-brainer. The federal farm bill approved last year lifts restrictions on hemp, a versatile crop that some states are already experimenting with. Iowa farmers deserve the opportunity to join the movement, and we encourage lawmakers to lift the state-level ban on growing hemp.

We also welcome the discussion over increasing the statewide sales tax, with three-eights of a cent going toward the natural resources trust fund, a constitutionally protected fund voters approved in 2010. This has often been talked about in the context of soil and water conservation on farms, but remember voters had more uses in mind when they cast their ballots.

The constitutional amendment specifically lists those uses — “parks, trails, and fish and wildlife habitat, and conserving agricultural soils in this state.” If the Legislature decides to fill the trust fund, they must balance all those priorities, rather than spending new dollars on agriculture alone.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A confluence of seemingly disparate factors will make this year a unique opportunity for criminal justice reform — our prisons are over capacity, businesses are starved for workers, some drug abuse metrics are trending in troubling directions and there is growing demand for better mental health programs.

Additionally, President Donald Trump recently signed the First Step Act, which will bolster programs meant to keep inmates from re-entering prison after they’re released. While that only pertains to federal prisons, not state corrections systems, the legislation is driving interest in prison reform, and setting a precedent for Republican leadership on this issue.

This is a multifaceted issue and meaningful progress will take careful deliberation over multiple legislative session, but there are some good starting points. For one, lawmakers should approve funding for the crisis intervention access centers they authorized last year. Those facilities will be a powerful tool for diverting vulnerable people away from jails and hospitals.

WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT

There is nearly unanimous agreement among government and business leaders that Iowa will need more workers in order to sustain our economy in coming years. Accordingly, the Legislature unanimously approved the Future Ready Iowa program last year, meant to increase the state’s stock of skilled laborers through community colleges and apprenticeship programs.

However, that legislation only included a few million dollars to start the program, with no ongoing appropriations. Workforce leaders will ask the Legislature to designate some $18 million this year for Future Ready Iowa.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Skills training is vital, and we encourage the Legislature to adequately fund state-managed training programs without delay. Yet lawmakers must also recognize the problem is not necessarily skills, but humans — Iowa can’t meet future needs with the current workforce, no matter how much the state spends to educate workers. Instead, policymakers will need to explore strategies for attracting more people to the state, or activating would-be workers who experience barriers to employment, like disabilities or criminal records.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

Want to join the conversation?

Consider subscribing to TheGazette.com and participate in discussing the important issues to our community with other Gazette subscribers.

Already a Gazette or TheGazette.com subscriber? Just login here with your account email and password.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.