Iowa lawmakers make time to talk to area residents before heading back to Des Moines
Special to Mt. Pleasant News
Iowa lawmakers are popular right now. The question is how to stay that way.
At a forum hosted Thursday by the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance, Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mt. Pleasant, told the 30-plus people in attendance that a recent survey showing 60 percent approval for state lawmakers is evidence that Iowa residents appreciate the bipartisanship at the Capitol in 2013.
“We had … what I think probably was one of the most productive sessions we’ve ever had,” said Heaton, who was joined at the forum in the Mt. Pleasant Civic Center by Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mt. Pleasant.
The end result: A balanced budget, one of the nation’s strongest economies, and a forecasted surplus of $694 million in the coming year.
Of course, maintaining momentum in 2014 may be tough. Democrats will try to chip at support for incumbent Republican Governor Terry Branstad ahead of the November general election, and the legislature must address several spending increases in areas such as education, child wellness and mental health that were built into previous budgets.
There is also the matter of an $80 million cut in federal Medicaid reimbursement, a rare unhappy consequence of the improving economy.
“Most of it (the surplus) is already spoken for,” Heaton said, “which is going to make the negotiations for the budget either simple or very difficult.”
As Chairman of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, Heaton’s budget priorities hit heavily on mental health and related topics. He hopes to find dollars to pay for respite time for parents of autistic children and to train emergency management personnel as mental health crisis intervention teams. He also mentioned the need to fund supported work programs that employ the developmentally disabled and to find some means of keeping recently graduated physician assistants and nurse practitioners in the state.
Ultimately, though, the Republican caucus will “stand by our principles that we will not spend any more money than we taken in,” Heaton said.
Thursday’s forum actually took place at Taylor’s request. The senator asked the Chamber Alliance to schedule the event so that he could hear from constituents before heading to Des Moines.
Entering his second session, Taylor said his priority in 2014 would be “the economic and educational security of the middle class families of my area.”
For one, Taylor wants to secure additional money for early childhood education and ensure last year’s appropriation is distributed in full. He also hopes to shore up aging infrastructure and to hold tuition steady at the state’s three regent universities.
As is the norm with Chamber-sponsored events, taxes were part of the discussion. Coming on the heels of major commercial property tax reform in 2013, Taylor said any additional relief should be “oriented toward Main Street businesses” and homeowners on fixed incomes. He is preparing legislation that would freeze property taxes for seniors and also discussed a residential TIF (tax increment financing) bill. The program would resemble commercial TIF, which allows cities to capture increased property tax revenue from new development and direct it toward infrastructure improvements or financial incentives.
In a proposal of particular interest in Mt. Pleasant, Taylor hopes space at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility that came available when the women’s prison was shutdown can be reused by the Mental Health Institute.
As Taylor was hoping, several audience members rose to address the lawmakers. Among them was first-year Mt. Pleasant Community School District Superintendent Mike Wells, who started by thanking Taylor and Heaton for the so-called supplemental weighting program, which will provide $250,000 to the district this year, and a recent early childhood literacy allocation worth $28,000 more.
Wells then asked that legislators craft a new transportation funding system for schools that accounts for geographic differences among districts. Mt. Pleasant spends as much as three times more than some districts in the state simply getting students to class, he said.
A new approach should have the goal of “creating equity to the money that actually goes to educating kids,” Wells said.
The 2014 Iowa Legislative Session convenes Monday, Jan. 13.