Education, property taxes health top town hall forumGov. Branstad, Lt. Gov. Reynolds host meeting in Mt. Pleasant
By BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
“The state is in the best financial condition it has been in its history,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told about 75 people at a Town Hall Meeting Friday at the Henry County Extension Office.
Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds were in Mt. Pleasant, taking a page out of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s playbook. Grassley, Iowa’s longtime Republican senator, has visited every county in the state during his senate career, and Branstad and Reynolds are making an annual stop in each county during their terms.
“The state is doing a much better job (financially),” he continued. “Not every state is like Iowa. All you have to do is look across the (Mississippi) river. Illinois is a real basket case.”
During the 50-minute meeting with Henry County residents, Branstad and Reynolds seized the opportunity to detail the accomplishments of the two-and-one-fourth years of their four-year terms and outline the centerpieces of their agenda for Iowa.
Four of the major items on the list are property tax relief, education reform, job creation and making Iowa the healthiest state.
Branstad said he is proud of measures taken by his administration to rein in government. “Last year, we spent 97 percent of our revenue. We have worked really hard to get the state’s financial house in order. Now, we are in the position to do some things in education and property tax.”
Property tax relief has been a slow process, he admitted. “We have been working on this for three years,” he said. Last year, Branstad proposed a plan cutting commercial property tax by 40 percent over five years. Neither Legislative chamber supported the measure. His current plan calls for a commercial property tax cut of 20 percent and the state fully funding the homestead tax credit for residential property.
“If we do nothing, we will see a $2 billion increase in property tax,” he began. “Iowa has the third highest property tax in the nation. We can’t (reduce taxes) all in one year, but in four years we can reduce property tax for all classifications of property.”
The Iowa Senate has proposed capping commercial property tax relief at $325,000 of the assessed value of the property. However, Branstad says that would offer no relief to business owners who operate some businesses, particularly businesses in a mall.
“I favor permanent tax relief for all properties and fully funding the homestead property tax credit,” he said.
If a commercial property tax relief bill were passed, some cities and counties — Mt. Pleasant and Henry County in particular — would lose considerable tax revenue. Branstad’s plan calls for the state to “back fill” the loss as part of a permanent annual appropriation.
Since it would be an annual appropriation, it would need approval from both the Senate and House and the governor’s signature to repeal it.
Reynolds explained the administration’s education initiatives but before doing so, she once again reiterated her warm memories for Mt. Pleasant. “It is good to be back in Mt. Pleasant and I say that from the heart. I was here seven years and Mt. Pleasant is like family.”
The former Clarke County treasurer and state legislator said she and the Branstad are committed to making Iowa’s education system the best in the nation.
“In 1992, Iowa was first in the nation in math and English (among the nation’s high schools),” Reynolds noted. “Now we are 25th. Iowa is dead last in achievement improvement. It is not that our education hasn’t improved, bu other states have passed us by.”
She compared Iowa’s education system to a model from the 20th century.
The administration’s emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and the 1:1 initiative are benefitting education in the state, she noted.
“I am passionate about STEM,” Reynolds, who co-chairs the governor’s STEM committee, said. “It has received bi-partisan support and the Legislature has appropriated $4.7 million for it. STEM reached 40,000 students in Iowa last year and this year we hope to reach 107,000 students. We want to brag about Iowa having the best educated workforce in the nation.
“…With the 1:1 initiative around the state, it is amazing what students can do with technology,” she continued. “The 1:1 has been great for the STEM initiative.”
Part of the education package is a new teacher compensation package. The salary for beginning teachers would rise from $28,000-$35,000. If beginning teachers commit to teaching in Iowa for five years, they would receive $4,000 reimbursement from the state each of the five years to repay student loans.
A career pathway for teachers would set up three levels of instructors — model, mentor and lead teachers.
The education plan, Reynolds stated, would cost the state $160 million over a five-year period.
Branstad added that part of his education reform includes a revamping of professional development time. “A lot of the professional development is not very relevant and we want to improve that by mentor teachers working with other teachers, or on-the-job training.”
Finally, Branstad briefed attendees on his healthiest state in the nation initiative.
He noted Iowa has made progress towards the goal, moving from 19th to ninth in the latest healthiest state rankings. “If we can become the healthiest state what a calling card that will be for business and industry to locate here,” he said.
The governor said we need more residency opportunities in Iowa for medical students. He has proposed three initiatives to keep doctors in Iowa.
First, he has proposed a partnership with existing family physicians in Iowa to raise $4 million ($2 million of which will come from the state) to support additional medical residencies in Iowa.
Secondly, a loan forgiveness program for young physicians.
Thirdly, a review of the medical malpractice cases which would lead to dismissal of many frivolous cases, Branstad said.
“States that have done this (revision of medical malpractice cases and laws) have retained more doctors and reduced malpractice insurance premium insurance,” Branstad claimed.
Never missing an opportunity to take a hit at the federal government, Branstad said states are doing a much better job of managing finances than the federal government. “They (federal government) don’t even have a budget and are spending $1 trillion more each year than they are taking in. I am really proud. I am really proud of what we are accomplishing.”