Capitol Update: Week 8

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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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Capitol Update: Week 7

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Voter ID and Absentee Ballot Changes Proposed

Election laws differ from state to state, and are classified into two groups: strict and non-strict. Iowa’s current laws are considered non strict; meaning that some voters without acceptable identification have an option to cast a ballot that will be counted without further action on the part of the voter.

The legislation requires scannable ID of all voters at polling site:  use existing Iowa Driver’s License/passports/military or veteran IDs for all who have them, and a new and free ID to all active voters who don’t have DOT-issued IDs will be provided.

Currently the law requires that absentee ballots can be requested at almost any time.  This causes confusion, and often times those forms are misplaced before the ballot is ready to be sent.   The bill creates an “earliest date to request” for an absentee ballot at 120 days before the election.  The requests would not be filled until the ballots are ready, about 45 days before a general election.

The bill moves the latest date to request an absentee ballot by mail to 10 days before election. This moves the mailed-in request time frame to accommodate current postal office delivery standards. Presently, the deadline is the Friday before the election, making it impossible to get the ballot to and from the voter before the polls close on Election Day.

HSB 93 cancels voter registration of people who swear on jury questionnaire they are not U.S. citizens. Currently, if it is proven that someone who is registered to vote in Iowa is not a citizen of the state or the country, nothing happens to their voter registration status.

News from District 96

The Legislative process is speeding up this week.  There have been subcommittee meetings going on all over the Capitol building.  Legislators are busy reviewing bills for next week’s funnel.

This week I had the opportunity to visit with the Pork Producers as well as President Leath from Iowa State University.  I also had breakfast with both the Co-op Association and the Iowa Truss Manufacturer’s Association.

I spoke with Gary Schwab from the Jones County E911 group.  He and I discussed issues that are important to emergency services.  I appreciate the work of our law enforcement community.

I was excited to be joined in the Capitol on Thursday by multiple student and youth groups who oppose drug abuse.  The Jones County Safe & Healthy Youth Coalition, Maquoketa Valley TEL (Teens Eliminating Lies), and West Delaware TADA (Teens Against Drug Abuse) shared their opposition to drug and alcohol abuse in young people.  I am thankful of their willingness to address these tough issues.

Capitol Update: Week 6

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Amending House File 291

We spent this week discussing House File 291.  This is the collective bargaining legislation. We have listened to Iowans during the subcommittee and committee process, at the public hearing, at forums across the state, and through emails and phone calls.  During this process, a number of items were brought to our attention that needed to be addressed.  The amendment was a culmination of those discussions and addresses many of the concerns Iowans have expressed over the course of this debate.

It reinstates proper cause for suspensions and discharges. This means there will be still need to be documentation and a reasonable justification to terminate the employee.  There is also case law and court rulings that protect the employees from wrongful termination.

It removes some items from the list of prohibited negotiations.  They are release time, grievance procedures, Seniority and any benefits related to seniority.  It moves them to the permissive topics.   This means these topics can be discussed if both parties agree to discuss them.

The next part of the amendment reinstates the right to appeal a civil service commission’s decision to district court. It requires the court to give deference to the commission’s ruling. In the original bill we believed that the right to an appeal was a part of the process.  This makes the wording more clear.

We fixed a drafting error that could have affected firefighter and police pensions. We reduced the threshold to qualify as public safety employment to 30% (was previously 50%).   In small sheriff’s departments where deputies, jailers and dispatchers negotiate as one unit, if the makeup of deputies is more than 30% the unit can negotiate under the public safety part of the code. We added motor vehicle enforcement officers to the list of public safety employees.

Lastly I want you to understand how I reached my decision to support this legislation.  It actually started many years ago as a school board member in Monticello.  I was a part of the negotiation process each year.  I remember one evening when we were reducing a couple positions because of the poor financial state of the district.  The money was not there.

I sat that evening listening to a union steward from Des Moines tell us we had lots of money.  All we need was to raise taxes on the taxpayers of the district.  From that point on, I knew the law needed to be changed.

I supported a similar bill back in 2011 and 2015.  I believe this legislation will give more control back to the school boards, counties, and the cities. That is a good thing.   I appreciate all the email, phone calls and people who contacted me both for and against this bill.

Capitol Update: Week 5

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Discussion and Clarification on Chapter 20

A lot has been said about the bill to restructure collective bargaining.  This bill doesn’t affect private sector workers.  The Federal Government has always held jurisdiction over private sector labor relations and reforms to Chapter 20 does not change this fact.  The bill doesn’t take away or modify Iowa’s public pensions nor does it take away health insurance.  In Iowa, public pensions have always been excluded from the scope of collective bargaining.  HSB 84 explicitly states the employer must offer health insurance.  Public safety employees are exempt from the changes made.

Employees have protections against discrimination, harassment, retaliation or any other unlawful practices.  It is already illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on based on protected characteristics such as basis of race, color, religion, age, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, creed, sexual orientation, sexual identity or disability.  Iowa employers with four or more employees must comply with these laws.  This bill does nothing to undo those protections.

The scope of negotiations outlined in Chapter 20 only refers to the ability of a union to bargain those items with an employer. The changes in the bill have no effect on an individual employee’s rights to discuss or negotiate on their own accord with their employer about any topics they feel are imperative to their employment.

A pragmatic long-term change reflecting today’s economic realities is needed regarding Iowa’s collective bargaining law.

Constructive cooperation, not obstruction and fear-mongering, is needed regarding collective bargaining.  Collective bargaining advocates are arguing the law has worked well for 40 years and changes are not necessary.  Yet that did not stop those same advocates from serious attempts to significantly expand collective bargaining in 2007 and 2008.

The bottom line is that school boards, mayors, city councilors, county supervisors along with state government leaders will have more flexibility to do the jobs taxpayers elected them to do which is to manage state resources and quickly and effectively respond to their concerns.

News from District 96

This week’s focus revolved around Chapter 20.  However, we also found time to address other issues as well.  This week the Ag Committee welcomed Director Gipp of the DNR, Secretary Northey from IDALS, and Dr. John Lawrence from Iowa State.  They discussed ongoing water quality efforts in the state.  The information they provided will assist us in conversations going forward about Iowa’s rivers and streams.

Capitol Update: Week 4

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State Revenue Growth Stays at 1.2 Percent Through January

State revenue showed some improvement over last January.  But that improvement was not enough to raise the year to date revenue growth above December’s level.  The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency released the January 2017 revenue report on Wednesday afternoon.  For the month, state revenue grew by 0.8 percent over January 2016.  For the fiscal year, revenue growth remained at 1.2 percent growth level.

Personal income tax suffered a rare negative month in January.  State tax collections in this category fell by 24.1 percent, or 5.8 percent.  But that reduction is not entirely correct, as January 2016’s personal income tax collections were $23 million higher than what they should have been, as a taxpayer mistakenly sent in $23 million of withholding tax in January 2016.  Without that abnormality, January 2017 personal income tax revenue would have been down $1.1 million.

For the fiscal year, personal income tax revenue is up 1.5 percent.  For the year, growth in this category is projected to be 5.8 percent.  So while this may be a cautionary sign, it is important to note that a significant part of the year’s collections will come in during the spring.

As for sales tax revenue, the state had a very strong January.  But just like personal income tax collections, this too is a bit deceptive.  January sales tax was up $34.5 million, or 22.5 percent, over last January.  The significant increase is due to a major return date being on a Sunday, and thus artificially lowering January 2016’s figure.  For the year, sales tax is up 2.7 percent.  This is higher than the REC’s projection of 1.9 percent growth.

Corporate income tax collections in January rose by 7.7 percent over January 2016.  For the year, corporate returns are a negative 0.5 percent.  The REC projection is for 2.1 percent growth in this category.  January was also a strong month in inheritance tax collections, coming in 40.5 percent higher than last January.  Even with this strong month, inheritance tax is still running 13.3 percent behind for the fiscal year.  Tax refunds also were significantly higher this January.

News from District 96

Monday night we addressed the FY16 budget shortfall.  There was a large amount of debate and we had to make tough choices.  However, we made K12 education funding a priority and left it off the cutting block.  I am confident that the decisions we made uphold our state’s budget in a strong fiscal manner.

This week Major Genera Orr gave the annual condition of the National Guard address. He stated in his speech that the 178 year old Iowa National Guard continues to be “mission focused and warrior ready.” Orr outlined how the 9,000 members of the Iowa National Guard play an integral part of national security by supporting the U.S. Army and Airforce. He stated that Iowa currently has 425 soldiers and airmen mobilized in combat operations around the world because the Iowa National Guard is no longer just called upon for natural disasters in Iowa.  I was honored to have the opportunity to escort the Governor to the House Chamber as part of this event and I appreciate the service of our Iowa Guardsmen.

The rest of the week I was able to speak with various groups about important issues.  Tuesday afternoon the Anamosa FFA talked about Agriculture Education and issues affecting their program.  I am excited to see what these students for agriculture and for our state in the future.  Tuesday evening I visited with the state patrol and had a chance to participate in an active shooter simulation.  These simulated scenarios are part of what officers go through in training on when and when not to use deadly force.  This unique experience gave me a greater appreciation for our law enforcement community.

Wednesday I had the chance to visit with the Farm Machinery Dealers Association.  I visited with Jim Johnson from the Anamosa Eureka at the Newspaper Association Reception that night as well.

Three of the superintendents from District 96 came to visit about State Supplemental Aid for our schools.  Dr. Rickey from West Delaware, Doug Tuetken from Maquoketa Valley, and Lisa Beams from Anamosa also shared their thoughts about upcoming issues this legislative session.

Capitol Update: Week 3

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FY 2017 Deappropriations Bill

The state is facing a $117 million shortfall in revenues that is needed to meet the spending levels approved by the 2016 Legislature.  To fix this problem, the 2017 Legislature needs to reduce spending levels so that they do not exceed revenue.  The state cannot spend money it does not have.  The FY17 Deappropriations bill conforms to these strong budgeting principles.

When the Legislature adjourned in April, total spending was less than expected revenue.  Since then the revenue estimate was lowered creating the need to reduce costs in order to prevent a tax increase and maintain a balanced budget.  FY 2017 is the fourth consecutive year where actual revenue to the state will not meet the official forecast from the Revenue Estimating Conference.  We may need to look for ways to improve the accuracy of the REC’s revenue projections in the future.

Within the bill, state agencies have flexibility to implement the cuts in the best way possible for their agency.  This will help agencies to avoid program disruptions that impact the public.  While the bill includes reduction to state universities, the reductions in the bill are less than the amount in the Governor’s proposal.  The president of the Board of Regents, Bruce Rastetter, has told the media that this reduction will not result in a tuition increase.  We have been working towards this agreement since the beginning of the session.  Through this thoughtful approach, we’ve prevented any cuts to K-12 education and we were able to protect key priorities like public safety and community colleges from drastic cuts.  Overall I believe this bill represents smart decisions made in tough times to keep our state moving forward in a sound fiscal manner.

News from District 96

As Chair of the House Agriculture Committee this week was very busy.  I enjoyed attending both the Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Legislative Receptions.  I was able to visit with both Bob Ballou and Kevin Glanz to discuss issues that are important to soybean producers.  I appreciated their insight on challenges facing the industry.  I would like to congratulate Alan Wulfekuhle as he finishes his term as President of the Iowa Pork Producers.  He did a great job for his association and pork producers.

The Iowa Pork Congress was recognized this week in a resolution.  The Pork Congress takes place annually in Des Moines.  It is a gathering of producers who contribute 36.7 billion dollars to Iowa’s economy and 141,000 jobs.  Pork Producers play a large part in Iowa’s Ag Economy.

This week the Governor signed a proclamation declaring February 19th-February 25th, 2017 as Grain Bin Safety Week.  I had a chance to participate in a grain bin rescue exercise at the Farm Progress Show.  It was an eye-opening experience and I hope that this proclamation reminds Iowa’s farmers to be cautious near their storage sites.

Capitol Update: Week 2

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Tax Refunds Will Come Later This Year

The Iowa Department of Revenue is again working with the Internal Revenue Service, other state revenue agencies, and the tax filing software industry to fight tax-related identity theft and refund fraud. Operation “Security Summit,” aims for stronger protections for taxpayers in the upcoming tax filing season that begins January 23rd, 2017.

Because advances in technology have made it much easier, faster, and more profitable for criminals to steal tax information, Iowa taxpayers should be aware of some changes for this year’s tax filing season. Refunds from the Iowa Department of Revenue may take longer. The Department has extensive fraud software built into the tax processing systems—and this means dedicating more time to verifying the validity of tax refund claims before sending out refunds. The hope is that the extra time helps to ensure the right person gets the right refund and that criminals get no refund.

Another thing for Iowa taxpayers to be aware of is that no Earned Income Tax Credit refunds will be paid until early March. Beginning in 2017, the IRS will be holding onto refunds of tax returns claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit until mid-February. This delay was created to protect taxpayers by giving the IRS more time to detect and prevent fraud. The Iowa Department of Revenue will also need to take extra time to apply its own fraud checks to those refund claims.

FY 2017 Deappropriations Bill

The state is facing a $117 million shortfall in revenues to maintain the spending levels approved by the 2016 Legislature.  To fix this problem, the 2017 Legislature needs to reduce spending levels so they do not exceed revenue.

The state cannot spend money it does not have.  When the Legislature adjourned in April, total spending was less than available revenue.  Since then revenue has dropped creating the need to reduce costs to maintain a balanced budget and prevent a tax increase.

In the future it may be wise to hold down overall spending below amounts allowed by the state’s 99% Expenditure Limitation Law.  This law only allows the state to spend 99% of our total revenue and leaves the other 1% in reserve.

News from District 96

It was a short week in Des Moines because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  We did not gavel in until Tuesday.  The Iowa Turkey Federation spoke to the Ag Committee on Wednesday about the turkey industry and issues that were important to the group.  I enjoyed their presentation.

It was an honor to welcome Ron Struble to the Capitol this week. Ron is a veteran and a member of American Legion Post 45 in Manchester.  Being new to serving on the Veterans Affairs Committee I appreciated his thoughts on the needs of the Veterans Community.  I am grateful for his and all of our veterans’ services.