Making it over the finish line

The 2015 Iowa Legislative session saw hundreds of proposals introduced, but only a relative few made it from the chambers to Governor Branstad’s desk to receive his signature and become law. Only a few bills of close interest to the Iowa Catholic Conference made it to the finish line in a largely “status quo” year.

SF 227 set Aug. 23 as the earliest start date for public and private schools in Iowa and will prohibit high schools from adopting a year-around “continuous learning” calendar. The ICC supported the ability of local schools to set their own calendar.

In a compromise between the Senate and House in the final version of the human services budget bill, SF 505, lawmakers agreed to require abortion providers to offer the mother an opportunity to view an ultrasound image of the baby before an abortion. Performing an ultrasound is already standard, but the additional requirement may help women make a more informed choice.

The annual standings bill, SF 510, incorporated parts of SF 450 that will fund outreach programs to help the public and government employees recognize and report incidents of human trafficking.

The legislature passed and the governor signed into law SF 448 that, while providing different sentencing options, unfortunately included the option of sentencing a minor convicted of a crime to a life sentence without parole. This does not allow for the possibility that, with maturity, some who commit such serious crimes as juveniles may be able to rejoin society.

From the beginning

The 2015 Iowa legislative session began in January with Democrats in control of the Senate, 26-24, and with Republicans leading the House 57-43. Iowa is one of only seven states with a legislature that’s not controlled by a single party. As you might expect, that means it’s more difficult to pass bills through both chambers.

The usual deadline to end the session is when the per-diem payment for expenses by legislators runs out – this year on May 1. However, the session bogged down on a dispute over public school funding levels. The legislature finally adjourned on June 5 after reaching agreement on final details of the state budget.

Gov. Branstad signed the final budget bills from the session last week. He also vetoed several line items in those bills. The ICC had supported two of the items that were vetoed, including $100,000 in funding for a refugee pilot program, and an increase in the number of parents who would be eligible to receive child care assistance.

However, receiving the most attention was the governor’s veto of an additional $56 million in “one-time” funding for public schools. Democrats are calling for a special session of the legislature to address the issue. Legislators can call a special session if two-thirds of Senators and Representatives agree; however, this seems unlikely in the absence of a bipartisan agreement on funding.

Now that work on the legislative session is completed, it’s time for our annual review of the 2015 session from the perspective of the Iowa Catholic Conference and its two committees: Education, and Human Life and Dignity. The amount of space taken to explain an issue does not necessarily correspond to its priority during the session.

EDUCATION

One of the most hard-fought issues – a funding increase for Iowa’s public schools – was finally resolved by the legislature the first week of June. Or so they thought. Legislators agreed to a compromise that included an increase of $55.7 million of “one-time money” from the state’s savings account, and a $50 million or so increase which will be included in the base funding for the fiscal year starting July 1. But as it turned out, Gov. Branstad vetoed the $55.7 in one-time money. The governor’s veto message said, “By using one-time money and not providing supplemental state aid for the second fiscal year, the legislature compounded the uncertainty that school districts faced this entire legislative session.” The governor’s action surprised many legislators.

The state spends nearly $3 billion on K-12 education from the general fund. Public schools also receive funding from property taxes and the federal government.

The final version of the Department of Education budget included status quo funding for textbooks and technology for nonpublic school students – $650,000. The bill also allows public and nonpublic schools additional flexibility in how they spend state funds on preschool.

The annual “standings” bill makes adjustments to appropriations that are required by state law. This year’s version, SF 510, contained status quo funding of $8.6 million for the transportation of nonpublic school students. (If fully funded, the appropriation would be $9.96 million.) School districts control how this money is expended either by providing the service themselves, contracting it out, or reimbursing parents.

The final version of SF 510 kept the status quo of an “opt-out” for public school parents regarding information on human growth and development used in classrooms. The ICC supports public policies that help parents in exercising their right to choose the kind of education best suited to the needs of their children. There had been an “opt-in” proposal.

Catholic Schools Week and National School Choice Week were celebrated in January. Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds spoke at a school choice event held at the State Historical Building and Gov. Branstad signed proclamations to mark the events. The Iowa bishops also released a statement in support of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) during Catholic Schools Week.

ESAs, identified as a top priority by the bishops, would allow parents who choose not to enroll their children in a public school to receive a deposit of public funds into a savings account set up by the state. The money could be used for nonpublic school tuition, tutoring, online courses, etc.

Early in the session, an Education Savings Account bill, HSB 203, passed a subcommittee but did not come up for a vote in the House Education Committee because of budget concerns. Thousands of Iowans sent a message through our VoterVoice system to their legislator in support of the bill.

In SF 227, the legislature set Aug. 23 as the earliest start date for public and private schools in Iowa. The law also forbids high schools from beginning a year-around “continuous learning” calendar. The ICC had supported the ability of local schools to set their own calendar date but was unsuccessful.

In the final analysis, the months-long fight over public school funding simply made it impossible for legislators to address support for nonpublic school students. Already we are working with our partners at Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education and the Iowa Association of Christian Schools, as well as supportive legislators, to fine-tune proposals to help parents choose the kind of education best suited to the needs of their children. The next session begins in January, and we’ll be ready!

 

HUMAN LIFE AND DIGNITY

Abortion/Pro-Life

The ICC supported HF 573, which passed the Iowa House in March by a vote of 57-39. The bill required that prior to performing an abortion, a physician must certify that the woman has undergone an ultrasound imaging of the baby and that the woman was given the opportunity to view the ultrasound image. This is a standard medical practice. HF 573 supported an informed consent process for women and studies in other states suggest this would reduce the number of abortions.

The Senate did not take action on HF 573; however, some provisions of the bill were contained in the final version of SF 505, the human services budget bill. The initial House version of SF 505 included an amendment that would eliminate government family planning funds from going to abortion providers. In the final compromise, this provision was eliminated. However, the chambers agreed to require that before an abortion is performed, that the physician would certify that the woman has been given the opportunity to view an ultrasound image of the fetus as part of the standard of care. We have been working on this issue for years and appreciate your support in helping get this done!

An “Unborn Wrongful Death” bill was filed near the first legislative deadline and did not advance. Iowa is one of about 10 states where a mother has no legal remedy against someone who causes the wrongful death of her unborn children. It would allow a mother to file a lawsuit against someone who wrongfully caused the death of her unborn child (e.g. such as a drunk driver).

SF 55 did not advance in the Senate. It would restrict funds in the Affordable Care Act from being used to pay for abortions or pay for health insurance that contains abortion coverage.

Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the Iowa Board of Medicine’s rule prohibiting “webcam” abortions. So abortions following a video consultation will continue.

Assisted suicide

A bill to legalize assisted suicide (doctor-prescribed suicide), HF 65, did not advance past the first funnel deadline. We opposed the bill. Along with other groups, we have been preparing for this legislation for the past couple of years. The Iowa Catholic Conference has formed a committee to work on resources for Catholics on health care decision-making.

Economic concerns

The ICC supported SF 269, an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $8.75. The bill passed the Senate but never reached the House floor. The House Democrats used a procedural vote to try and put SF 269 on the calendar for floor debate but the measure failed. Obviously raising the minimum wage does not solve all of our economic problems but the ICC supported the increase as a way to help families.

The House Commerce Committee passed HSB 138, related to the regulation of payday loans. The ICC supported the original version of HSB 138, which allowed borrowers a 90-day period to pay off the debt without the repeat borrowing that characterizes the industry. Unfortunately, the committee approved an amendment that would allow payday lenders to continue to lend to people who are in debt. The bill was still a step in the right direction as it offered the opportunity of a repayment plan for people who can’t pay their payday loans. However, if customers failed to execute the repayment plan, they would be worse off than before. The bill did not advance to the House floor.

The ICC supported SF 460 regarding regulation of debit card for payment to employees. The bill passed the Senate but was not addressed in the House. State law has not specifically regulated the growing use of debit cards for payment of wages. Some employees have found it difficult and more costly to check a balance and compare hours worked to actual payment when being paid by a debit card. The bill would provide employees with an option not to be paid by a debit card. Our message to legislators was that the state should help assure that people are paid what they’re due (already state law), and can easily access the money they’ve been paid.

Disaster response

SF 492 passed the Senate and a House appropriations subcommittee but regrettably never made it to the House floor for debate. The bill set up a framework and training for implementing ongoing case management services (in addition to direct individual assistance) following a disaster. Case management is an important part of helping families following the initial responses to a disaster. Catholic Charities is often involved in the community response following the declaration of a disaster. The bill is still eligible for the legislature to consider next year.

Human trafficking

SF 450 provided for additional human trafficking training and outreach. Millions of people are trafficked every year, including some in our own Iowa communities. SF 450 passed the Senate but did not make it out of a House committee. Some legislators felt the training requirements for law enforcement personnel were too broad. We were pleased to see that the final version of SF 510 included the human trafficking provisions of SF 450, including funding for outreach programs to help the public and government employees recognize and report incidents of human trafficking.

Immigration

At the federal level, most of the effort by the U.S. Catholic bishops has been focused on immigration reform and stopping efforts to de-fund the administration’s deferred action initiatives. There is no prospect of federal comprehensive reform, good or bad, being enacted anytime soon.

Here in Iowa, the ICC supported SSB 1092, which would allow residents to obtain a provisional driver’s license if they meet certain criteria. They must have an unexpired passport or an official identification card issued by a foreign government. They also must pass the same driver’s license test you or I would. Unfortunately, SSB 1092 did not advance.

Many immigrants without documentation are in a difficult position: they want to be able to fulfill their basic obligations to their family, but do not want to risk family separation by being detained or deported for driving without a license. We think the bill would improve roadway safety by ensuring that all drivers are tested regarding their driving skills, know the rules of the road, and have access to mandatory insurance.

Marriage and family

The ICC was pleased that the human services budget bill, SF 505, included an increase in the number of parents eligible to receive child care assistance, from 145 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) to 150 FPL. Gov. Branstad vetoed this provision.

SF 375 provided that employers treat an employee who chooses to adopt in the same manner as an employee who is the biological parent of a newborn child. This bill passed the Senate and a House subcommittee but its progress stopped there. The purpose of the bill was to give adoptive parents the same time off with their babies as biological parents. This bill was contained in the Senate version of the “standings” appropriations bill but unfortunately was not a part of the final conference committee report.

Another legislative initiative which stemmed from the work of the ICC Human Life and Dignity Committee was HF 142. The bill, which did not advance, would reduce the application fee from $35 to $5 for a marriage license based upon the completion of premarital counseling. We looked at this bill as a positive way to support stronger marriages.

The ICC opposed SF 334, which prohibited sexual orientation change therapy for minors. SF 334 passed the Senate but stalled in the House. The scope of the bill went beyond its intent and could prohibit speech regarding what the Church teaches about human sexuality and counseling young people to refrain from sexual activity. It also limited the treatment choices that parents may feel would be helpful for their children.

We also opposed HF 141, which would have required drug testing of Family Investment Program (welfare) recipients. Those who test positive for drugs would lose eligibility for benefits and could not re-apply for a year. Dependent children could still receive assistance. It is challenging to develop a policy that supports people in need without enabling dependence. Nevertheless, we were concerned that some parents would be discouraged from applying for assistance at all and end up inadvertently hurting their children. The bill did not advance.

Refugee services

Senate File 369 would have allocated about $2.2 million to help community organizations train refugees who have been in Iowa for a while to assist new refugees in accessing community resources such as food, clothing, shelter, employment, English language training, and orientation to a new community and culture. New refugees in Iowa are speaking more than 80 different languages. This has left many communities with an influx of refugees who are in desperate need of help.

Catholic Charities helps resettles about 300 refugees a year in the state. SF 369 passed the Senate Appropriations Committee but did not advance to the floor. The human services budget bill provided $100,000 for the pilot program but the funding was vetoed by the governor.

Restorative Justice

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in July 2014 that mandatory sentences for children are unconstitutional under the Iowa Constitution. The Iowa Court relied on a U.S. Supreme Court decision which said a child facing a prison term must receive an individualized sentencing hearing during which factors such as age, maturity, role in the crime, and potential for rehabilitation are considered.

In response, the legislature passed SF 448, which was signed by the governor. Unfortunately, the law included the option of a life sentence without any possibility of parole. We believe that some young people – even those who commit terrible crimes – may be able to rejoin society outside of prison. The law should carefully take into account the moral and cognitive development differences between a juvenile and an adult.

The final version of the justice systems budget bill, SF 497, contained status quo funding for victim assistance grants. A million-dollar cut proposed by the Iowa House would have impacted Catholic Charities’ and other domestic violence programs.

The ICC opposed SF 239, which would have reinstated the death penalty in Iowa for certain crimes. We believe society can defend itself against unjust aggressors without having to use the death penalty. As the Iowa bishops said in 1998, “We oppose reinstatement of the death penalty to send a message that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for life.” The bill did not advance.

A bill to extend the statute of limitations for civil actions related to childhood sexual abuse was filed early in the session. The ICC opposed the first version of the bill that included a retroactive “window” for civil suits regarding sexual abuse of a minor that would have allowed any lawsuit to come forward for a period of three years. We opposed this because statutes of limitation have been a part of the law for centuries for good reason. The passage of time makes it very difficult for any accused person or institution to defend themselves, including those instances where the institution was not aware of any abuse.

The final version of SF 447 extended the period of time someone can bring a civil suit after being sexually abused as a minor to 25 years, and extended the discovery period to 25 years as well. The ICC registered as undecided on the bill. SF 447 passed the Senate but didn’t move in the House.

Currently, Iowa’s law allows people the opportunity to file a lawsuit against perpetrators and institutions until the person’s 19th birthday, or alternatively, four years after they discover the injury caused by sexual abuse. This discovery can be many years later.

Taxation

House File 604 passed the House Ways and Means Committee but did not advance further. It provided for an alternative income tax system in Iowa with a 5 percent flat rate on all taxable income. The taxpayer who elected this alternative would not be able to claim any refundable or nonrefundable credits allowed in the current system. Proponents of the bill said this would return about $521 million to Iowa taxpayers.

We registered as undecided on the bill itself but presented the Iowa bishops’ 2003 statement on taxation. The principles in that document led to a few concerns about HF 604:

  • Impact on state revenues that could affect services for the poor and vulnerable, as well as education funding for public and nonpublic schools.
  • Ensuring that people contribute according to his or her ability to pay. Many judge that a regressive system (as they consider a flat rate) is the least just because low-income people end up paying a higher proportion of their income for their basic needs. A mitigating factor in HF 604 is that it increased the standard deduction for those who elect the five percent rate and protects a greater amount of income from taxation.
  • Effects from the loss of refundable tax credits for donors to charitable programs such as School Tuition Organizations fundraising

CONCLUSION

The staff of the Iowa Catholic Conference thanks the members of our legislative network for their assistance in contacting legislators on important issues, as well as our board, committee members and consultants. We would not be able to represent the Church’s perspective at the state capitol without you!

You can keep up with our work before the next session at www.iowacatholicconference.org, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/iowacatholicconference, and on Twitter @iacatholicconf.