BUDGET PRIORITIES WILL EXPAND IOWA’S MIDDLE CLASS
This week, the Iowa Senate released a budget proposal that will expand Iowa’s middle class while maintaining fiscal responsibility. Our overall budget is equal to that proposed by Governor Branstad, saves taxpayer dollars and breaks this session's on-going logjam on school funding.
Our plan calls for a compromise 2.625 percent increase in state support for Iowa’s local schools. It also calls for a tuition freeze at our state universities for the third consecutive year and for fully funding property tax credits and a commercial property tax cut that is especially helpful to our small businesses.
Under Iowa law, the Legislature never spends more than 99 percent of what it takes in. In fact, this year's Senate proposal is $149.1 million below that 99 percent mark. We use a cautious approach to determining how much to spend by looking at the recent revenue estimates of a nonpartisan panel of experts, then budget according to the more conservative estimate.
Each year, at least 1 percent of the state budget goes into savings accounts, which include a cash reserve fund and an economic emergency fund. This is the money that gets us by in hard times, such as an economic recession or a natural disaster.
With the budget proposal that Senate Democrats released for Fiscal Year 2016 (July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016), we expect to have a surplus of about $225 million when the fiscal year ends. In addition, our reserve funds will be full with $717 million, the largest amount in state history.
Our budget proposal is sustainable, spends less than the state takes in, and invests in expanding Iowa’s middle class by helping workers gain new skills, improving our schools and growing local businesses.
Read more at www.senate.iowa.gov/democrats/?p=20252.
On Wednesday, schoolchildren rallied on the east steps of the Iowa Capitol in support of timely and adequate funding for our local schools. A good education prepares our students for the jobs and training they need to build a thriving Iowa economy.
SCHOOL FUNDING FITS INTO STATE BUDGET PLANS
Senate Democrats continue to get public support for our compromise proposal to increase basic school funding next school year by 2.625 percent. That's exactly halfway between the original Senate and House proposals.
Unfortunately, legislative Republicans refuse to budge, despite widespread reports that their proposal for a meager 1.25 percent increase in school funding would result in more crowded classrooms, fewer course offerings and extracurricular activities, and higher property taxes.
The refusal of House Republicans to consider a compromise puts school districts in the impossible position of setting budget priorities before their April 15 deadline without knowing how much money they have to work with. In some school districts, layoff notices already are being sent to teachers and other school employees. One school in central Iowa plans to send out layoff notices to 100 percent of its employees because it doesn't know what its budget will be for the 2015-16 school year.
Senate Democrats released our overall state budget plan this week. Our plan proves that it is possible to invest in students and schools while maintaining fiscal responsibility. Our budget plan is identical in total general fund spending to Governor Branstad's budget, and includes our compromise offer to increase school funding by 2.625 percent.
We are constantly raising expectations for students and educators. We must provide them the opportunities to meet those expectations through strong local schools focused on 21st Century learning. Please continue to make your voice heard on school funding that will prepare our students for the jobs, training and higher education to grow Iowa's future.
SAFE, SECURE MEDICAL CANNABIS FOR SUFFERING IOWANS
Iowa took a first step last year to help those with epilepsy legally use cannabis oil, which has been shown to dramatically reduce seizures and other complications.
A legislative committee studied our new law last fall and came to the conclusion that it is ineffective because families cannot get the medicine locally, requiring them to break laws or face financial, travel and other hardships to access it elsewhere.
This week, the Senate voted to address those deficiencies by passing SF 484. The legislation establishes a comprehensive, safe and secure medical cannabis program for Iowans seeking relief from debilitating medical conditions. Eleven medical conditions are eligible for the program, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. A medical advisory board is established to recommend the future addition of other medical conditions and to provide oversight of the program.
To address one of the primary failures of last year’s law, four Iowa-based manufacturers will be licensed to produce medical cannabis and 12 dispensaries will be licensed across the state to provide local access. All facilities will be subject to inspection and strict security requirements. The Iowa Department of Public Health will determine the appropriate form and quantity of medical cannabis available to patients, but smoking of medical cannabis will be prohibited.
Establishing a more effective Iowa program is a responsible, compassionate alternative to help suffering Iowans, who currently must use legal but ineffective or dangerous medicines, break the law by obtaining medical cannabis illegally, or leave their homes, families and jobs to move to a different state. According to a recent Des Moines Register poll, Iowans strongly believe that their friends and neighbors with debilitating conditions deserve the same access to medicines already legally available to more than half of all Americans.
In response to the federal government’s failure to act, 23 states, including Minnesota and Illinois, have created regulated systems to provide their citizens with access to medical cannabis. Iowa can draw from the best of these state-level programs. It’s time that suffering Iowans also have access to medical cannabis in a safe and secure manner.
It was a pleasure to see Hillary Clinton at the Statehouse on Wednesday.
HELPING IOWANS WITH DISABILITIES LIVE INDEPENDENTLY
Iowans with disabilities often wish to live as independently as possible. The ABLE Act will help them do just that.
The ABLE -- Achieving a Better Life Experience -- Act was approved by the U.S. Congress in December. It allows people with disabilities to establish tax-free savings trusts into which money can be deposited to pay for future disability-related expenses. To be eligible, the disabling condition must have occurred prior to age 26.
The trust can be used for expenses that help maintain health, self-sufficiency and quality of life, including modifications to a home to enhance independent living, specialized medical and dental care, education and transportation. These trusts are even more attractive because people with disabilities can save up to $100,000 in their account without losing eligibility for other services, including Social Security benefits.
Under current federal gift tax limitations, as much as $14,000 may be deposited annually. Donors can deduct deposits from income tax calculations, and any gains are protected from income taxes. Each state must create its own program before its residents can establish ABLE savings accounts.
The state Senate is working to be sure that Iowa is ready to implement the program as soon as federal rules are finalized. Iowa’s program will be modeled after the College Savings Iowa 529 program and administered by the State Treasurer. You can track progress of the bill, SF 439, which was approved by the Senate Ways & Means Committee this week, as it moves through the Legislative process at www.legis.iowa.gov.
Learn more about the ABLE Act and the benefits of an ABLE account from the National Disabilities Institute at www.realeconomicimpact.org/News.aspx?id=460.
ENSURING CLEAN AIR FOR GOOD HEALTH & ECONOMIC GROWTH
Businesses and Iowans depend on the work of the air quality bureau in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to protect the health of Iowans by ensuring that air emissions meet the standards set out in law.
Iowa businesses turn to the bureau to help them meet these standards and provide them with the approval needed to operate.
DNR’s air quality program plays a vital role in helping bring new businesses to the state. When a company is looking to locate in Iowa, the air quality program will work with them to ensure they have the permits they need and that they can meet air emissions standards when they open for business. When the air quality bureau operates efficiently, it helps bring jobs to the state and enhances Iowa’s image as a great place to do business.
Funding for the air quality program has fallen over the last few years. The program depends on fees assessed on Iowa companies based on their emissions. As companies have reduced emissions and made our air cleaner, their air quality fees have dropped off. This has created budget shortfalls, which hurt the air quality bureau's ability to efficiently provide businesses with operating permits. Delays prevent companies from expanding their operations and building new facilities, hurting Iowa's economic growth.
SF 488, a bill to provide adequate funding for DNR’s air quality program, was developed by stakeholders, including businesses and air quality advocates. They developed a funding model for the air quality program that is sustainable and ensures that those who receive services help pay to support those services. The legislation continues stakeholder involvement by requiring DNR to meet with them annually to set the fees that fund the program.
SF 488 is good for Iowa’s air quality, job creation and economic growth. It passed the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote and is now under consideration in the Iowa House.
PROTECTING GRIEVING FAMILIES FROM FUNERAL PROTESTS
Iowans should be able to grieve and honor lost loved ones at a funeral without interference from protesters carrying hateful signs and shouting vile words. A bill that won unanimous support in the Iowa House and Senate will help ensure that happens.
House File 558 requires that those who are demonstrating and being disruptive must stay at least 1,000 feet away from a funeral service, procession, burial or memorial service.
The bill is headed to the Governor for his signature.
HELPING VETERANS ACCESS THE BENEFITS THEY'VE EARNED
Our veterans deserve to know all the services, benefits and programs they qualify for. House File 414 will help them more easily access information on ways to apply for benefits they have earned through their military service.
The Senate and House both approved the bill unanimously. It now goes to the Governor for his signature.
The bill requires that private individuals or businesses offering to help veterans get their benefits for a fee must give all prospective clients a written statement disclosing that veterans may apply for these same services at no charge through a local service organization or county offices. Before entering into an agreement or contract, the veteran must sign the disclosure statement to acknowledge they are aware that they can receive similar help free.
The Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs will develop a consumer friendly written disclosure for use by private providers of benefits services for veterans. It will include a statement that veterans benefits services are offered at no cost by federally chartered veteran service organizations and by county commission of veteran affairs offices, and will have contact information on how to access those free services.
A person who violates these requirements faces a maximum civil penalty of $1,000 for each violation. Any civil penalties recovered will be deposited in the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund.
For more information on all programs for veterans, service members and their families, contact the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs at 515-252-4698 or go to www.va.iowa.gov.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Give Back Iowa Challenge encourages employer-supported volunteering
Give Back Iowa is a six-week challenge running from April 14 through May 31 to engage Iowans in employer-supported volunteering. Employers can register at any time during the challenge. Employer-sponsored volunteering helps meet community needs, while improving employee engagement, organizational commitment, job satisfaction and retention. Complete information is available at www.volunteeriowa.org/employers.
Funding available for roadside plantings
Through May 15, funding is available to rural communities and counties for planting projects along roadsides and trails. Money comes from Iowa's Living Roadways program to plant native trees, flowers and grasses with low long-term maintenance and costs that will restore wildlife habitat, improve community landscapes and pedestrian safety, and limit storm water run-off.
The program is a partnership between Trees Forever, the Iowa Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the Living Roadway Trust Fund of Iowa. Further details and applications are at www.treesforever.org/ILR_Projects.
Share the road with farm equipment
As the spring planting season begins, we need to watch out for slow-moving equipment on Iowa’s roadways. Iowa Department of Transportation data shows 158 Iowa crashes involved farm equipment in 2014, including seven fatalities, dozens of injuries and lots of property damage.
Drivers: Be alert and slow down as soon as you see the triangular-shaped slow-moving vehicle emblem. Be patient because the equipment operator may not be able to move aside to let you pass.
Farm vehicle operators: Use signal lights or the appropriate hand signals when turning, drive slow-moving vehicles in the right-hand lane as close to the edge of the roadway as safely possible, pull over where it is safe to let traffic go by, and proceed through a highway-rail grade crossing only if you can clear the crossing without stopping.