The 2018 Iowa Legislature adjourned last weekend. Finally. What did 118 days and record legislative overtime under one political party do to make Iowa a better place to live?
Granted, lawmakers were able to agree on a mental health reform bill that should help fill gaps in care for vulnerable people. But the new law relies heavily on funding from Medicaid, a program regularly under assault by the GOP, which currently controls the government in Iowa and Washington, D.C.
Legislators also shepherded through some relatively noncontroversial changes, including expanding the "safe haven" law for infants, prohibiting fees for Iowans freezing their credit reports and requiring ignition interlocks for all drunken drivers. And Iowans can be grateful efforts to redirect public education dollars to private education were not successful.
Yet the lack of action on important issues and the damage done in other areas in a mere five months are far greater than the few gains made. If leaders continue refusing to generate revenue to fund Iowa government and the environment, the damage will be exacerbated in future years.
Voters may well express their discontent in November. And there are plenty of issues that may affect what they do at the ballot box. These include:
The 2016 privatization of Iowa's Medicaid health insurance program has created numerous problems for low-income Iowans and health care providers. There is no good evidence taxpayers are benefiting. Lawmakers, who set appropriations, have incredible power to intervene. They could refuse to fund the program until it is returned to state oversight or they receive accurate, current estimates about the cost.
Instead, with no information on how much the program will cost in the upcoming year, they increased spending by $55 million. The expense could be much greater than that after the state eventually wraps up another round on negotiations with for-profit managed care companies.
The latest move by Republicans obsessed with the reproductive choices of their female constituents came in the form of a "fetal heartbeat" bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. It bans abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which may be heard in the sixth week of development and before a woman knows she is pregnant. The new law is considered the strictest ban on abortion in the country.
Taxpayers may foot the bill for the inevitable court fight. GOP politicians who claim to champion less intrusive government placed the state squarely in the uterus of every Iowa woman.
Once again, lawmakers refused to raise the sales tax a fraction of a penny to provide revenue to the voter-approved Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Voters from every walk of life overwhelmingly supported the creation of this trust fund. The revenue generated would be constitutionally protected to use exclusively for the outdoors. State law requires it to be allocated to specific endeavors, including wildlife habitat restoration, trails, local conservation and water quality.
That would be wonderful, except there is no money in the trust. Iowans who have been waiting eight years to fund the outdoors have been failed by elected officials again.
Forget about local control in Iowa. And elected officials who solve actual problems. Gov. Reynolds signed into law a bill that targets so-called sanctuary communities. It authorizes revoking state funding for communities that "prohibit or discourage" the enforcement of immigration laws.
It's not as if undocumented immigrants are flooding the state while local officials flout federal statutes. Iowa does not even have enough home-grown workers to fill jobs. This state has a worker shortage and needs more people, including immigrants. Yet grandstanding politicians succeeded this session in sending an anti-immigrant message.
Unsustainable tax cuts
Lawmakers opted for a feel-good cash giveaway instead of making the tough decisions needed to reform and simplify Iowa's tax code. The income-tax bill, approved just weeks after lawmakers had to cut the current budget by $35.5 million, will eventually reduce state revenues by more than $2 billion.
The top 2.5 percent of taxpayers — those making more than $250,000 a year — will see 46 percent of the benefit.
Republicans who last year acknowledged the need to eliminate or cap runaway corporate tax credits did neither.
They also left the federal tax deduction in place until 2023, even though it makes Iowa's tax rates appear higher than other states' and works against the federal tax cuts.
The federal tax cuts gave the Legislature a prime opportunity to make Iowa's tax code simpler, fairer and better able to support investments in education, health care and other priorities. Lawmakers blew it.
Lawmakers joined hands with investor-owned utilities to slash energy-efficiency programs that save consumers roughly $2 for every dollar spent. Capping rebates for installing energy-efficient appliances or windows saves consumers in the short term, but will lead to higher costs in the future. The legislation jeopardizes Iowa's clean energy goals and potentially thousands of jobs associated with energy efficiency programs.
Lawmakers approved a bare-bones, 1 percent increase in state aid to K-12 education for the coming school year. That's an increase of about $32 million — half of what former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad proposed for the same period before he left office last year.
Meanwhile, lawmakers cut $11 million from Iowa State University and the University of Iowa in midyear budget cuts. The increase approved for next year of $8.3 million does not come close to filling the gap, leaving students facing higher tuition and more debt. The result will be increased brain drain from Iowa at a time when employers say they can't fill open jobs.
Des Moines Register