By Tom Chapman
DES MOINES — Iowa’s four bishops celebrated Mass at St. Ambrose Cathedral on Feb. 8 to give thanks for the service of public servants and to ask for blessings on the legislative session currently underway.
The Mass, sponsored by the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC), capped a daylong Prayer for Life event that involved keynote speaker and pro-life activist Abby Johnson (see Page 2). The following morning, the bishops participated in the ICC Legislative Breakfast that provided an opportunity to meet with legislators from their dioceses.
Here’s a look at some of the issues the Iowa Legislature is addressing:
House File 45
As approved by the House, this bill would save about $500 million in the state budget. However, a Democratic Senate amendment would replace the original bill. Among things the amendment would do is keep the current “universal” state-funded preschool program. Elimination of the universal preschool program, as proposed by the House bill, would affect some Catholic preschools that currently receive funds from the local public school district to offer tuition-free preschool. However, it is anticipated they would participate in a proposed replacement program as well.
The Senate amendment would also prevent funding cuts to Area Education Agency (AEA) programs, which the House proposed. AEAs are helpful to private schools particularly for the services they provide in special education. The Senate amendment would eliminate the Taxpayer Relief Fund proposed by the House. But the amendment would not eliminate the mental health services waiting list in Iowa counties, as House File 45 would do.
Another provision still included in the Senate amendment would “ensure” that adults who are in the state illegally would be excluded from receiving state or federal benefits they are not entitled to. The word “ensure” could be broadly interpreted and end up accidentally denying benefits to citizens who cannot readily prove they are citizens. The only explicit legal benefit for undocumented adults is emergency medical care.
Budget and taxation
Republicans in the Iowa House released their budget targets which call for a state budget of $5.9 billion. That’s about $350 million less than the current year’s budget and $162 million less than Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposal. The Republican proposal includes $350 million for a Taxpayer Relief Fund.
Democrats in the legislature will release their own budget targets later. This year Republicans have advocated for lower personal income and corporate taxes while Democrats say that important parts of the budget such as public schools are being underfunded.
A continuing item on the list of legislative concerns for the ICC has been to support a progressive tax system, a just living wage, and fair and reasonable labor practices by employers. All of those items necessarily involve prudential judgment.
For more background on the Church’s teaching regarding taxation, visit the ICC website at www.iowacatholicconference.org, click on “Statements” and read the Iowa bishops’ 2003 statement on taxation.
On a related matter, the ICC supports Senate File 31, which would increase the state’s earned income tax credit (EITC) from seven to 10 percent of the federal EITC. This is a refundable tax credit which would mean about $14 million in tax relief for people who work but have low wages.
Life sentence without parole for juveniles
A new bill has been introduced, House File 199, which would prevent a life sentence without parole for juveniles in Iowa. The ICC supports the bill. It also supports Senate Study Bill 1058, which advanced out of subcommittee last week. This bill would eliminate a life sentence without parole for juveniles who have committed a crime without murdering someone. House Study Bills 44 and 77 would also eliminate the life sentence for crimes committed by juveniles that did not involve murder. The Church believes in responsibility, accountability and legitimate punishment. It also believe that juveniles who commit a crime may not have the benefit of a fully-formed conscience and their culpability may be lessened. Years later, they should have an opportunity to be considered for parole. None of the bills on this issue would require anyone’s release at any time.
Health and human services
Senate File 111, which would have reduced the financial eligibility level for the “hawk-i” health insurance program for children, failed to advance. About 20,000 Iowa children would have lost their health insurance. The ICC opposed the bill. On Feb. 9 the Joint Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee heard a report on the ongoing Department of Human Services reorganization. A reduction of 342 full-time equivalent positions has occurred over the past two years — a 17 percent reduction in workforce.
Senate File 170 would set up a “deregulated schools pilot program” for six public and six nonpublic schools. The purpose of the program is to improve student learning in these schools and make additional innovation possible. The ICC supports the bill.
The ICCs goal concerning a religious conscience bill was to have a discussion regarding the rights of religious organizations to operate in the public square in accordance with their teachings. However, that point was lost in the discussion around a separate provision of the House bill exempting small businesses from providing services related to any marriage. The chair of the subcommittee said the bill was dead for the session.
(Tom Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.)