By Tom Chapman
The 2011 session of the 84th Iowa General Assembly, which adjourned June 30, was the third-longest in history because of a fight over the state’s budget.
In the end, the Republicans got what they wanted — a two-year budget which spent less than $6 billion from the state’s general fund each year. Democrats in the Senate also achieved some of their top goals — retaining the state’s universal preschool program which started in 2007 and obtaining an increase in “allowable growth” for public school budgets, at least in the budget’s second year.
The state ended the fiscal year with about a $480 million surplus (some of which will be used in the current fiscal year’s budget) and $600 million in emergency funds.
The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) focuses on four areas of concerns: education, family life, pro-life and social justice. Here’s a look at how some of those concerns fared in the 2011 session:
Education: Much of the legislation affecting Catholic schools was contained in Senate File 533, which was approved the next-to-last day of the session. In SF 533, the legislature approved a $1.25 million increase in tax credits for school tuition organizations (STO), for a total of $8.75 million in tax credits. This was a major priority for the ICC this session. The STO program helps raise money for tuition assistance for lower-income children to attend private schools. Tax credits are given to donors for contributing to scholarship funds.
Iowa’s current “universal” preschool program is continuing to be funded, albeit at a lower level. Many Catholic schools in Iowa have been partners with public schools in the current universal preschool program, and for most of them, it has worked well. Students can attend these private preschools at no out-of-pocket cost. Gov. Terry Branstad had suggested making preschool a “means-tested” program (those who could afford to pay would pay), but the legislature decided to lower the state funding for the public preschool program by about $12 million to a little over $58 million.
Another provision of SF 533 prohibits school districts from using more than 5 percent of the preschool formula funding for administration of the program during the next year. The ICC advocated for this because a few school districts have withheld an extraordinary amount of funds for administrative services from private school partners. State funding to public schools for transportation of nonpublic school students continues to be less than adequate. The ICC likely will make this a higher priority next year as it becomes an enrollment issue for schools when public schools drop this service.
Family life: The marriage amendment passed the Iowa House by a 62-37 vote and was referred to the Senate State Government Committee, but did not move from there. The amendment would specify that marriage between a man and a woman would be the only legally-recognized union in Iowa. If approved by both chambers, the amendment would have to be approved by the next General Assembly (seated in 2013) before it could go to the voters.
Pro-life: House File 657, a bill that would prohibit abortion with limited exceptions after a post-fertilization age of 20 weeks, passed with bipartisan support and went to the Senate. The bill’s progress was slowed by a few legislators who oppose abortion, but were not willing to vote for a bill that did not ban all abortions. Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, never called up HF 657. However, the Senate did pass Senate File 534, a bill requiring new late-term abortion clinics to apply for and receive a “certificate of need” before opening for business.
Social concerns: The ICC supported an increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) from seven to 10 percent of the federal EITC. This was passed by the legislature and vetoed by the governor. He stated he wanted to provide broader-based tax relief.
(Chapman is executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.)