Local governments will welcome 2021 with all too familiar obstacles.
Elected officials at the local level have complained for years about unstable funding and a lack of local control brought on by the Iowa Legislature. Heading into the next legislative session, those problems are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing disaster recovery in Eastern Iowa — local governments need more authority to manage the pandemic, all while their revenue sources are threatened by the economic downturn.
Ever since Republicans earned the state government trifecta in the 2016 elections, holding complete control over the legislative and executive branches of government, they have slowly whittled away at home rule authority. The Legislature’s habit of underfunding schools and social services is making it all but impossible for local governments to work through their unique circumstances.
A special source of anxiety for local government budget planners is the bipartisan property tax reform bill approved in 2013. At the time, proponents of the plan said the state would “backfill” lost revenue to cities and counties, though legislative leaders have suggested in recent years they might phase out the payments, which would be a multimillion-dollar blow to local governments’ expected revenue.
Representatives from city halls and courthouses also hope to claw back local governing authority, crying foul about unfunded mandates and all the red tape attached to money coming from the state. They also want more latitude over public health (the pandemic) and public safety (law enforcement reform) so they can better respond to their own unique local challenges.
These are old fights, rehashed under unprecedented circumstances. Maybe 2021, under pressure from a deadly infectious disease outbreak, will be different.
Local government advocacy groups are finalizing their legislative priorities for the upcoming session. The Gazette reviewed draft or final versions of the legislative agendas to report some of the highlights.
The Iowa Association of School Boards, representing more than 300 school boards:
• Adequately fund schools, including transportation and special education
• Fully fund preschool so all 4- and 5-year-olds have access to the voluntary preschool program
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• Establish a comprehensive community mental health system, including greater support for in-school services
The Iowa State Association of Counties, representing all 99 county governments:
• Provide adequate revenue for regional mental health and disability services regions, or give counties the ability to exceed their property tax levies
• Protect the property tax backfill, whereby the state is reimbursing local governments for lost resources from statewide property tax reform
• Pass a statewide sales tax increase to fund the natural resources trust fund approved by voters last decade
The Iowa League of Cities, representing more than 800 city governments:
• Preserve home rule authority, where decisions are made at the local level
• Protect the property tax backfill
• Give cities flexibility in economic development projects
The Gazette editorial board enthusiastically endorses those legislative priorities. We hope they find empathetic ears at the Capitol in January.
Now more than ever, it’s imperative to give local governments ample flexibility and predictable funding streams. The era of top-down government under one-party control has created a mess for local governments.
Compared to the state Legislature, where just 150 people account for more than 3 million Iowans, local governments are more responsive to the people they serve. Local government is where regular citizens can participate in meetings and where dissatisfied contingents can occasionally right the wrongs at the ballot box.
Iowa lawmakers should not be afraid of giving power back to the people.
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