Staff Editorial

Address school funding, water quality and criminal justice

The inside of the dome at the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. (Gazette Archives)
The inside of the dome at the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. (Gazette Archives)

As the 2019 Iowa Legislature enters its 10th week, the set of viable legislative proposals is narrowing. It’s a good opportunity to check in on the important issues yet to be addressed.

In January, The Gazette editorial board put forth our priorities for the Legislature, imploring politicians to pursue bipartisan compromises. We wrote at the time, “You may not know it from last year’s campaign rhetoric, but there are several major issues where there seems to be broad consensus.”

Past the halfway point of the legislative season, the policy proposals we highlighted remain alive, but the outlook is uncertain.

The House and Senate have already approved nearly $90 spending in additional K-12 funding for the next fiscal year, or a little more than a 2 percent increase in per pupil funding.

That’s not nothing, but it was less than many school administrators and educators’ groups advocated for. Importantly, lawmakers approved the school funding bill in a timely manner, after they waited until the last minute in several recent sessions. That gives school boards and finance officers adequate time to develop and approve budgets for the next year.

However, the Senate has not finalized legislation to extend the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE, sales tax, which is used to fund important infrastructure improvement projects at schools across the state. The tax is set to expire in 2029, and administrators can’t include that revenue in their long-term facilities plans until it’s officially renewed.

A few lawmakers have quibbled with details of the infrastructure funding tax, but there is no discernible contingent in either party opposing the tax outright. In the interest of timeliness, we urge lawmakers to promptly approve a clean SAVE renewal, giving school leaders the ability to properly plan their building projects sooner than later.

The first item passed in last year’s Legislature dealt with water quality, which became Gov. Kim Reynolds’ first signed bill of her governorship. The legislation provided more money to prevent soil erosion and runoff on farms, but did not include stronger enforcement or monitoring provisions this board frequently advocated for.

When she signed the bill, Reynolds suggested she would advocate for stronger water quality programs in the future. She said last year, “I think it is a significant step forward, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.”

Unfortunately, we see no meaningful water quality legislation being seriously debated in Des Moines this year.

Iowa voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 to dedicate three-eights of a cent of the next sales tax increase to a protected natural resources trust fund. We support filling that fund, as long as it honors the intent of that referendum, which included both soil preservation as well as parks, trails and wildlife habitats.

While there has been some behind-the-scenes discussion about the natural resources fund, two bills to increase the sales tax have not advanced this session. Lawmakers should give it careful consideration, with an emphasis on transparency and measurable outcomes in the conservation programs it finances.

Reynolds put forth a promising vision to jump start a conversation on criminal justice reform in her Condition of the State address at the beginning of the legislative session. We applauded her for making the connection to another pressing statewide priority of growing Iowa’s workforce.

Business leaders consistently report one of their biggest challenges is finding reliable workers. At the same time, our prisons are over capacity and many offenders struggle to find that kind of gainful employment that will enable them resist reoffending.

“Too often, employers overlook these skilled workers because of the fear of lawsuits. Let’s take that off the table,” Reynolds said in January.

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The governor called on the Legislature to pass legislation protecting employers from negligent hiring claims in the event an employee hires a convict who commits another offense. Bills in the House and Senate would do that under some circumstances, and both have earned initial approval from legislative committees.

This is the kind of pro-business, pro-civil rights proposal we hope can earn overwhelming bipartisan support from the full Legislature.

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

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