Fairfield Ledger
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Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | May 24, 2018

Legislators speak at first forum

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Jan 22, 2018
Photo by: ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Fairfield High School students who attended Saturday’s legislative forum pose with Iowa State Rep. Phil Miller of Fairfield. The students are, from left, Hermela Gebremariam, Kirsi Bland, Taylor Myers, (Miller), Hollie Nelson, Megan Davisson and Aaron Haines.

The monthly Legislative forums that add excitement to cold winter months returned Saturday to Best Western Fairfield Inn.

The morning featured a good back-and-forth between three state legislators and their constituents. The three were Sen. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa), Rep. Phil Miller (D-Fairfield) and Rep. Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant). Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) was invited, but could not attend due to a family emergency.

 

Opening remarks

Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce director Darien Sloat introduced the legislators and ran the forum. The legislators started by summarizing the first few weeks on Capitol Hill, which Heaton said consisted mostly of ceremonies and speeches. He talked about the high points of Gov. Kim Reynolds’s Condition of the State being reducing taxes, increasing workforce opportunities, and improving water quality.

He said the state cut its budget last year because of low revenues, but it still wasn’t enough and left the state in debt. He said he hopes the Legislature approves Reynolds’s plan to reduce the budget $56 million a year.

Chelgren also talked about how the state has struggled to generate revenue. He blamed two causes: lower commodity prices for farmers, which meant less income for them, which meant less tax money for the state; and the state’s failure to charge an online sales tax. Miller spoke briefly, first thanking Chelgren and Heaton for their eight and 24 years of service, respectively, and then talking about his committee assignments.

 

Question and answer

The bulk of Saturday’s forum was devoted to question-and-answer time with the audience, alternating between sponsors and non-sponsors having a chance to pose queries to the legislators. Diana Krystofiak of the Southeast Iowa Sierra Club asked the legislators a series of questions about the environment, such as how they would ensure the survival of Iowa’s solar tax credit, what they’d do to mandate a reduction in carbon emissions and whether they’d support divesting state pension funds from fossil fuel companies.

Miller said a tax credit for solar power is exactly what a tax credit should be for. He said the state awards $450 million a year in tax credits to “some of the largest corporations in the world.” He said the state should work toward keeping carbon in the ground, though he added that he’d have to study Krystofiak’s proposal of divesting from fossil fuel companies before he could endorse it.

Heaton said he’s seen solar panels on hog buildings in Washington County that were built because of the solar tax credit. He said that was true for wind tax credits as well, which helped build a wind farm between Pella and Oskaloosa. However, he added that he wasn’t comfortable mandating carbon reductions, and he wasn’t sure about divesting from fossil fuel companies.

Chelgren said he has supported tax credits for renewable energy, though he does not like tax credits as a general rule. He said every dollar the state gives away in tax credits is one fewer dollar for education, Medicaid and courts. He said he was not in favor of limiting returns to IPERS by restricting how it invests.

 

Infrastructure

Resident Greg Hanshaw asked the legislators about their highest priorities for infrastructure. Heaton said he wants the state to focus on improving broadband internet.

“You’re lucky here in Fairfield, but we’re not so lucky in Mt. Pleasant,” Heaton said, referring to the availability of broadband.

Miller said he’s on the transportation committee, and remarked that the interstate roads were built in the 1950s and 1960s. He said they need to be updated to aid commerce.

Chelgren agreed the state needs better broadband infrastructure, especially for rural areas, and good highways.

“If we don’t invest in the rural parts of the state, those communities will dry up, and many already have,” he said.

 

Water quality

Joe Ledger, president of Jefferson County Farm Bureau, said water quality is an important issue for him, and asked what the legislators are doing on the subject. Miller talked about a bill, Senate File 512, that would replace the 7 cent sales tax on Iowa water bills with a 5 cent tax to fund water quality improvements. Though it would reduce revenue overall, Miller said it has some merit. Additionally, Miller said he submitted a bill to incentivize the use of cover crops, which hold the top layer of soil in place, preventing nitrogen and phosphorous from being washed away into rivers. The bill would provide an investment tax credit for farmers who purchase a seed drill or a no till planter.

 

Mental health

Becky Schmitz, former Jefferson County supervisor and state senator, asked about what legislators are doing on mental health. Heaton talked about integrated health homes, which are teams of professionals who provide care for adults with serious mental illness and children with serious emotional disturbances. He said the people working for these integrated health homes are not being trained as well in rural areas, and they’re not as accountable. He said he liked the concept, but he wants the program to meet certain bench marks.

Miller spoke about the mental health problems he’s aware of, such as having to transport patients long distances for their treatment.

“If you end up in the hospital, you might go all the way to Cherokee. That’s not good,” he said.

Richard Beall, head master of Maharishi School, asked if there was the will to take on mental health issues. Heaton said he thought so, and added that some changes need to be made. He said sheriff’s departments having to make multiple roundtrips to an acute care bed hours away are wasteful.

 

Gun control

Stan Plum asked the legislators about what they would do on gun control, particularly in light of the mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall. He wanted to know if they supported background checks, banning bump stock sales and stopping domestic abusers from buying guns. Miller said he belonged to the National Rifle Association years ago, but his main concern today was keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

“You have to remember that, when the Second Amendment [was ratified], a musket was the only weapon,” he said. “Now physicians can’t believe the wounds they have to treat, because they’re from weapons of war.”

Heaton simply said, “Well put, Dr. Miller.”

Chelgren said every legislator swore an oath to uphold the constitution, which includes the Second Amendment. At a time when the government is cutting funding for state troopers, he said it’s the legislators job to make sure Iowans have the means to protect themselves, and hold the government accountable.

After the meeting, Plum said he liked the answers he got from the legislators, though he disagreed with Chelgren’s idea of gun owners being a check on government power.

“That is not what the founders intended, but that is a common argument by the NRA,” he said.

 

Animal confinements

Diane Rosenberg, executive director of Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, asked the legislators if they supported a moratorium on building new confined animal feeding operations until the negative environmental impacts they cause have been cleaned up. Chelgren said it’s important to know what bench marks in water quality the state is trying to hit.

“The state’s water quality is better than it was 15 years ago,” he said. “Do we want it to be good enough for marine life? To swim in? To drink? It seems like no matter what we do, it will never be enough.”

He said the state should set a goal of eliminating fish kills.

Heaton said there is a loophole in CAFO law that exempts small hog confinements from regulation, and he said he was in favor of closing the loophole.

“If you store manure in a pit, you should have to have a manure management plan,” he said.

However, he said he was against a moratorium.

Miller said the issue gets back to an earlier one about cover crops. If manure were spread on top of cover crops, it won’t pollute the soil and water as much as when it is applied on bare ground. He talked about animal confinements in other countries that have been built so the methane produced from the manure is turned into electricity.

 

Student voices

Maharishi School student Jeremy Marks stuck around after the forum to ask Chelgren about a plan to give Fitbit watches to mental patients to track their heart rate, breathing, GPS and other information about them. Marks said he expected some resistance to the idea because of privacy concerns.

Fairfield High School student Hollie Nelson said it was the first forum she has attended. She said she doesn’t follow politics closely because it seems so negative to her, though she did like hearing what Republicans had to say about water quality. She plans to study agriculture after high school, so that issue is particularly important to her.

FHS student Aaron Haines said it was nice to learn about the issues being debated in the Legislature. He said he’s so busy with school that he doesn’t have much time to follow politics, though he is interested in gun laws. He said he was pleased with the answers he heard from the legislators about gun laws.

“It sounds like they’re very knowledgeable about it,” he said.

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