Education dominates legislative breakfast
Education is a hot topic in the Iowa Legislature this session, Sen. Mark Chelgren told participants at Saturday’s Legislative Breakfast hosted by Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “The governor has a plan how to run our schools to change and improve, and it comes with a $2 million-plus price tag.
“I personally don’t like the plan,” said Chelgren, an Ottumwa resident representing District 41, who like Gov. Terry Branstad, is a Republican.
He said the Senate wants to give a 4 percent allowable growth to Iowa’s school districts, “with no expectations of changes.”
“We have a limited pool and to do what we want, I predict going with a 2 percent allowable growth,” said Chelgren. “We’ll end up with a hybrid plan. The governor’s plan gives no choices for private education.
“Iowa spends $6,000-plus per student, which isn’t the highest or lowest in the country. I think we should allow school districts to decide how to educate our kids. The Legislature doesn’t know the students more than you do.”
Sen. Rich Taylor, a resident of Mount Pleasant, representing District 42 and a Democrat, said the Senate passing a 4 percent allowable growth for school districts is the right thing to do, so districts can know what to plan.
“Districts need to know what they’re working with,” he said.
Rep. Curt Hanson, a Fairfield resident representing District 90 and a Democrat, said education is one of the state’s fundamental services.
Rep. David Heaton, a resident of Mount Pleasant representing District 84 and a Republican, said education reform is needed but it needs to be sustainable.
“The governor proposed paying the fees for high school students to take college entrance exams, including the ACT or tech school exams,” he said. “That would add up to a large amount. We had strong feelings if a student is going on to college, they could pay for the test.”
Chelgren said he’s interested in a tuition set-aside program at Iowa’s regent universities.
“Tuition-paying students could elect to have 20 percent set aside to provide for scholarships to other students,” he said. “It could help lower tuition fees.”
Heaton replied the Legislature has no control of tuition prices at the universities.
“There’s no way the Legislature can lower tuition,” said Heaton. “It’s a board of regents decision.”
Chelgren said the Legislature could encourage a set-aside program.
Funds of Funds, created in 2002 to attract venture capital investment and help emerging, expanding, and restructuring Iowa companies, has $5 million to manage tax credits, said Chelgren.
“So, we’re trying to change its incentivize to bring investments to Iowa companies,” he said. “We’re trying to streamline and encourage people to headquarter in Iowa.”
Breakfast attendee Ken Ross, CEO of The Global ID Group in Fairfield, asked about Iowa’s 7 percent tax on laboratory work when other states have no taxes.
Chelgren said Iowa is among the worst for dis-incentivizing businesses with its tax rates.
“Last year we tried working on property tax deductions and it didn’t go,” he said. “Years ago, the state lowered property taxes for individuals and farms, but commercial stayed at 100 percent valuation. It’s a burden to economic development.”
Heaton said the transition money funding has been passed for mental health reform in the counties.
“We have $11.6 million going to 26 counties,” said Heaton. “The amounts for each county were determined by auditing. I serve on the Health and Human Services sub-committee, and there’s a lot of concern about Medicaid. I’m waiting to see the governor’s plan for extension. But I will decide independently.
“We heard from Iowa’s major hospitals this week,” said Heaton. “They are looking to become the state’s main health care deliverers. It’s kind of scary. Jefferson County Health Center would still be here, but it would work through one of the four big health care providers — a way to keep costs in line, according to proponents.”
A question about mental health care and the state’s plan for counties to merge as regions came from the audience.
“Jefferson County can go on its own if it qualifies,” said Chelgren. “The mental health system here in the county runs well. The system does a very good job. But the decision is yours. I see this as the state usurping the counties’ powers.”
Taylor said if a county doesn’t or isn’t able to provide the same services as other counties, or regions, it won’t qualify to stand alone as a mental health care provider.
“I researched this week and for four straight years, the funding was squeezed and squeezed and the state lost 28 beds for mental health treatment,” said Heaton.
“The government needs to go back to doing what it needs to do — not grow government bigger — but get it to do what it does, providing services.”
Hanson said all of the county supervisors he represents are against mental health care regionalization.
“I’d like to see mental health care more accessible and without stigma in accessing it,” said Hanson.
The third and final Legislative Breakfast this session is at 7:30 a.m. March 16 at Best Western Fairfield Inn. Reservations can be made at the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce by calling 472-2111.