Did everyone go home happy from Des Moines?Solons praise bipartisanship during legislative session
By BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
Everyone went home with a smile.
While that may not be necessarily true, State Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mt. Pleasant, and State Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mt. Pleasant, gave the recently adjourned Iowa legislative session high marks — both in legislation accomplished and bipartisanship.
“We went home with a $600 million surplus,” Heaton announced during Saturday’s final legislative briefing, hosted by the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance in the Chadwick Library on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College.
“After seeing so much partisanship (in the past), this year was different,” sized-up Heaton. “Legislation progressed and it seemed like there was a sense to find common ground and work together.
“This is the first time I have not gone home with some angst,” he continued. “I am really happy this year.”
Taylor agreed, saying his first year of legislative service was the highlight of his life. “It was a very exciting experience for me, the single most exciting experience of my life. I thought that was reserved for the birth of my children, but this topped it. It was a lot of fun and a great learning experience. I can’t describe it, it was an experience like no other.”
Highlights of the session, according to the legislators, was increased funding of special services, i.e. department of corrections, Iowa State Patrol pension fund, property tax reform and appropriating $66 million to community colleges for the Skilled Workforce Initiative.
“This is a very big step,” Heaton said, referring to the workforce initiative. “It is for a high quality job-training fund which will lead to job creation. This is the direction we need to go to develop skilled workforce.”
Sen. Taylor concurred. “There are a lot of jobs out there, we just don’t have the workers we need with the skill level.”
Mt. Pleasant Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Roederer said high schools also are “looking at this closely to address those issues (skilled workforce).”
Legislation having possibly the biggest impact on local government bodies was the reclassification of apartment complexes (including four-plexes) from commercial to residential. The new classification means that apartment complexes now will benefit from the residential rollback which this past year was around 52 percent, or residential property was taxed at 52 percent of its assessed value.
Mt. Pleasant Mayor Steve Brimhall said that the reclassification “will have a substantial impact on Mt. Pleasant. You are going to have information coming from Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls because it will hit the really hard.”
For example, Brimhall said, the Mapleleaf apartments paid $100,000 in property tax last year. With the reclassification, the tax bill will be cut nearly in half and so will the property tax revenue cities, counties and school districts receive from the property.
City Administrator Brent Schleisman said the city could take around a $300,000 tax revenue hit from the reclassification. “When you look at a $2.9 million general fund budget, that is quite an impact.”
The legislature also passed a bill granting 10 percent commercial tax relief over a two-year period. In addition, legislators put a 3 percent rate of growth cap on agriculture and residential property, meaning the assessed value cannot increase by more than 3 percent in a given year.
The loss of commercial tax funds to cities, counties and schools will be backfilled by the state, Heaton and Taylor said.
However, some doubt how long the state does backfill the lost revenue. “You say you are going to backfill it now, but will you later?” asked Brimhall. “We trust the state about as much as they trust the federal government.”
The state is banking on continued economic growth to replace the lost tax revenue, the legislators said. “When we made the decision to movew apartments to residential, we made it because we are expecting (economic development) growth,” Heaton explained.
However, Taylor is skeptical.
“I think we will be pretty good for the first two or three years but I think the loss or revenue to the state will trickle down to counties and cities,” he said. “When the economy slows down and it will, we will have trouble sustaining our backfill. I am afraid we will have to raise taxes at that point…If commercial tax relief boots our economic development, then we will be fine, but I am skeptical.”
He added that he was disappointed in the lack of action on raising the state’s gas tax.
Heaton said he thinks the votes were there in the House to raise the gas tax (the proposal was to raise the tax 10 cents over three years, four cents each of the first two years and three cents the third year), but the problem was a lack of needed support among Republicans in the senate.
“When you look at gas tax in Iowa now, outside of Missouri, we are the lowest in the Midwest,” Heaton claimed. “However, any talk of raising the gas tax makes service stations jumpy near the Missouri border because they know people will go to Missouri to buy their gas.”
The representative said he is sure the proposal will surface again, but Taylor doubted any action would be done on it next year because it is an election year.
Heaton said he felt good about what the state did on health care. “The governor’s play included using one half of the funding from property tax for the health-carte plan,” he said. “I liked some of the wellness aspects, but the property tax stood out.
“Iowa is different than other states in that we address uninsured citizens through Iowa Cares,” Heaton remarked. “I think the final version was a little bit of what all sides wanted. I think we have a workable plan. We are seeking a waiver from the federal government. If we don’t get a waiver, I don’t know what we will do. This is a real compromise. For me, it was a dramatic process. After getting through all the partisanship of the past years, this was a great piece of work. It made me feel good.”
In other legislation, the state will increase funding to corrections. Taylor said the amount is more than the department asked for. “We will be able to staff them (prisons), not fully, but adequately,” he noted.
School districts will receive a 4 percent increase in state aid for each of the next two school years.
An increase of $90 million was put into the state patrol pension fund so the fund is now 88 percent funded.
“So much was accomplished this year,” Heaton said. “It feels like you just got done eating Thanksgiving dinner. You are full and don’t have an appetite.”