Capitol Update: Week 8

House Moves Forward on Flexibility for School Districts

As tight budgets abound at both the state and local level, the conversation naturally moves to using existing dollars more effectively.  School districts have often asked for additional flexibility in their “silos” of funding and the legislature has abided in the past by making small changes here and there.

But the atmosphere this year has been ripe for making larger changes to give more power back to the local school districts.  Here are the bills moving currently that provide those needed changes:

House File 26 – Home Rule

This bill grants similar authority to school districts that cities and counties in Iowa have had since 1968 and 1978, respectively.   In broad terms, it’s ultimate local control.  School districts would be able to exercise flexibility in areas in which state law or rules don’t limit operation.  They would still be required to follow law that prescribe their actions as well as avoid actions prohibited by law, including creating additional taxing authority.

House Study Bill 178 – Flexibility for School District Funds

Schools receive funding for specific purposes when new programs are creating, requiring them to address the issue with narrow guidelines put on those funds.  Often those guidelines prove to be too narrow and need some loosening up.  This bill makes changes to a number of funds, including Professional Development funding, At-risk and Dropout funding, Preschool funding, PPEL (Physical Plant and Equipment Levy) funding, and Talented and Gifted (TAG) funding, by adding additional allowable expenses that are meant to help the funding further the goals of the program.  It also includes language meant to provide additional flexibility from the sometimes heavy hand of the Department of Education in creating additional parameters around various programs and funding through rules and guidance to school districts.

House File 446 – School District Flexibility Fund

As mentioned above, often school district funds have narrow parameters that prohibit them from being utilized fully.  As a result, school districts accumulate unused funds that grow year after year.  There are currently over 74 identified sources of funding that school districts statewide have leftover funds in to the tune of over $146 million in FY 2015 (a $17.5 million increase over FY 2014).  Much of this funding cannot be touched or used.

The idea behind HF 446 is to create a new “Flexibility Fund” that would collect some of this funding and create additional spending authority for districts to use those funds in a broader fashion, but still in the direction of the original source of the funding.  The fund should hopefully help districts access some of this untouchable funding, bring those carry-over down, and use the money in ways that help students with further access, more high-quality programming, and a stronger education program.

In addition to House action this week, the Senate is also moving forward on bills that fall in the periphery of the flexibility category.  Long on the minds of many school districts and legislators are issues of “inequity” for specific funding requirement, namely transportation funding and spending authority on a per pupil basis.  SSB 1124 will takes steps to alleviate these inequities and the House will review that when and if it comes over from the Senate.

All of these bills, still early in the process, are works in progress.  But movement has begun and they are priorities of House Republicans to the extent that additional flexibility and authority be provided to school districts to more effectively manage local operations in providing the best education possible for Iowa’s children.

Ag Committee Bills on the Move

House Study Bill 135 continues the work of previous legislatures on Iowa’s Water Quality.  It contains both ideas from previous years as well as this year.  The bill does not provide a silver bullet to water quality; however, it is a comprehensive funding approach that allows for collaborate water quality efforts.  It allows cities, counties, industries and farmers to work together to develop and implement water quality projects that are beneficial for all parties involved.   It is definitely not a one size fits all approach but allows various entities in the state to work towards improving water quality.

House Study Bill 134 is a bill that promotes responsible animal feeding operations.  Presently, many livestock producers are being sued for damages by home and landowners.  Quite a few of these times the lawsuit is unjustified or it is an attempt by bad actors to collect legal fees.  Farmers can be sued as many times as someone would like to sue them.  HSB134 protects farmers who are using best management practices for their livestock operation.  These farmers will be limited to pay a certain amount of damages if the court rules against them.  However, if the court rules in favor of the farmer the plaintiff may be required to pay court costs and other damages brought by the suit.

News from District 96

The legislature was busy with committee work. Friday March 3rd marked the end of the first funnel.  This is the cutoff for any policy bill that has not moved through a committee.  If bill has not cleared a committee, it is dead for the rest of session. Bills that are referred to the Appropriations and Ways & Means are funnel proof. These two committees deal with funding and taxes.

I still had the chance to visit with some people from the district even though it was a busy week.  Ellen Krogmann and Faith Hunt came to visit about youth mentoring that is going on in Delaware County.  Rep. McKean and I enjoyed talking to the Jones County 4-H group who came to the Capitol for a tour.  On Wednesday Klark Telleen stopped in to talk about issues important to the Jones County Farm Bureau.

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