By Tom Chapman
DES MOINES — The 83rd General Assembly adjourned March 30, the 79th day of the session. Because of budget concerns, it was the shortest session since 1972. Here’s what happened with some of the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) issues of interest:
• HF 2531 the annual “standing appropriations” bill, passed on March 30. The standings bill is the last bill passed during the session and usually contains several items that did not make it through the regular process earlier in the session. In this case, the ICC supported a successful amendment which reinstated the child abuse check-off on Iowa tax forms. The program benefits the Iowa Child Abuse Prevention Program (ICAPP). Prevention services overall helped nearly 66,000 children last year. The check-off revenue will limit the impact of likely budget cuts of $125,000 for ICAPP. The standings bill also contains the annual appropriation for transportation services for nonpublic school students. This year the amount was cut to about $7 million, compared to $8.6 million two years ago.
• The Senate accepted the House’s amendment to Senate File 2380, the tax credit bill. Originally the bill had contained a 10 percent cut to tax credits for donations to scholarship funds for low-income children to attend accredited nonpublic schools. However, with your help, we were able to get the cut amended out of the bill. There will continue to be $7.5 million in tax credits available each year. Donors receive a 65 percent tax credit on donations to the scholarship funds.
• Gov. Chet Culver on March 22 signed SF 2178. The bill allows state textbook funds to buy laptop computers for use in nonpublic schools.
• The chambers gave final approval to SF 2356, a bill which enables IowaCare patients to receive care at a clinic closer to home (not just Des Moines and Iowa City as it is currently). The bill also sets up a Web information portal on health insurance options in the state. IowaCare is the state health insurance program of last resort, covering people who make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, but are not eligible for Medicaid. The ICC supported the bill.
• House File 2526, the health and human services appropriations bill, passed both chambers and is on its way to the governor. It appropriates about $950 million from the state’s general fund and $470 million from other funds. It is anticipated that this budget will entail about 125 job losses in the human services department, rather than the 500 estimated earlier. Many staff members are taking advantage of early retirement, which will save other jobs.
• Earlier in the session we opposed a bill to expand the Medicaid family planning waiver. The waiver currently enables the government to pay for contraceptive services (not abortion) for those who make two times the poverty level or less but don’t have coverage in their private insurance plan. The waiver bill did not advance to the floor, but was included as an amendment in HF 2526. The amendment increased the age of eligibility for these benefits from 44 to 55 (minors are already eligible), includes men in the program (for vasectomies), and expands the eligibility to include recipients making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Another amendment to restrict the eligibility expansion by Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, failed.
• The ICC supported an amendment to HF 2526 which would have required the delivery of propane between Nov. 1 and April 1 for customers eligible for LIHEAP (federal low-income energy assistance program). Many rural people use propane for heating. The state already protects those who heat with other fuels during the winter months. The amendment to HF 2526 was withdrawn.
• SF 2376 is also on its way to the governor. It appropriates about $845 million to the state’s education department and universities among other agencies. About $2.5 billion is appropriated to public schools through the standing appropriation bill. It includes the annual appropriation for textbook services for nonpublic school students. This year the amount was cut from about $625,000 to $600,000.
• For the past two sessions, the ICC has supported legislation to establish a “local food and farm” task force. The legislature passed as an amendment to the agriculture department appropriations bill, HF 2525. The task force would be charged with creating policy recommendations for expanding and supporting local food systems, and overcoming obstacles to local food production. We believe the task force would identify ways the legislature could support economic opportunities in Iowa to keep people living on the land and involved in rural life. “Local food to local markets” could also mean decreased transportation costs and help make affordable fresh food more accessible.
• Another of our legislative concerns has been to support incentives in rural areas to create new jobs. The infrastructure budget bill, SF 2389, creates a fund of about $5 million to make low-interest loans for up to $50,000 to businesses with 35 or fewer employees.
As the session concludes, I would like to say thank you to Joan Thompson, the ICC research and outreach associate; Margi Prickett, administrative assistant; Larry Murphy, consultant; our ICC board and committee members; and the members of our legislative network. Thank you so much for your assistance, feedback and contacts with legislators. Our efforts could not be successful without you.
(Tom Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.)