Now that the 2016 legislative session is completed, and the governor has signed the appropriations bills, it’s time for our annual review of the 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.

Iowa is one of only seven states with control of the legislature split between the parties. Democrats controlled the Iowa Senate 26-24, and Republicans controlled the Iowa House 57-43. Typically this means fewer bills are passed by both chambers and go to the governor for his or her signature.

The 2016 legislative session began on Jan. 11 and ended April 29. By recent standards it was a fairly short session. As usual, there were successes and disappointments!

Making it over the finish line

Gov. Branstad signed several bills with provisions supported by the Iowa Catholic Conference.

As a part of a final compromise between the chambers in HF 2460, the human services budget bill, the state tax credit for adoptive parents was doubled from $2,500 to $5,000. The ICC supported this increase, as it will be helpful for parents who adopt a child.

The House had attempted in HF 2460 to set up a state program for family planning that would not send money to abortion providers; however, the Senate did not go along. The ICC supported a last-minute amendment to “defund” the abortion industry that failed on a tie vote in the Senate, 25-25. We believe public funds should not subsidize the abortion business when there are many other health care providers available. Among the main movers of this effort were Rep. Matt Windschitl (R-Missouri Valley), Joel Fry (R-Osceola) and Walt Rogers (R-Cedar Falls).

It should also be noted that HF 2460 continues the State of Iowa’s policy of not paying for abortions with Medicaid funds.

In the same bill, $300,000 in state funding was approved to expand the RefugeeRISE program to additional locations in the state. This was a priority item of the ICC as well. The money will help the EMBARC group provide job readiness skills and other resources to refugees by pairing teams of one native English-speaking person with one refugee. EMBARC also receives a national Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant. Sen. Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines) was the lead legislator on this.

In addition, HF2460 included an allocation of $100,000 in matching funds to Iowa food banks.

In a piece of good news for private schools, HF 2459, the standings appropriations bill, eliminated the July 2020 repeal of provisions that require the state to accept the accreditation of a nonpublic school by one of six accrediting organizations (in addition to state accreditation). In other words, nonpublic schools will have several state-approved accreditation options for the foreseeable future. The ICC supported this but the Iowa Association of Christian Schools did the heavy lifting.

The legislature created a new office in the Department of Public Safety to fight human trafficking.

The final version of the justice systems budget bill included “intent” language supported by the ICC requiring several of the corrections districts to retain their drug courts. The goal of a drug court is to offer non-violent offenders with addictions an opportunity to avoid prison and change their lives with the help of an intensive treatment and rehabilitation program. Catholic Charities assists with these programs in some parts of the state.

Governor Branstad also signed SF 492, which will set up an Iowa-based case management system to help people following a disaster.

The House and Senate had passed the bill during the last day of work in the session. Along with other groups active in disaster recovery, including the Iowa Community Action Association, we have been working to get this bill through the legislature for more than a year. The bill looked dead but the House majority leader, Rep. Chris Hagenow (R-Windsor Heights) brought it back after Democrats backed off from trying to attach “medical marijuana” amendments on every bill left on the House debate calendar, including SF 492. Catholic Charities is often part of the statewide recovery network that serves in the event of emergency. Legislators who were key supporters in this effort included Sen. Liz Mathis (D-Cedar Rapids), Rep. Rob Bacon (R-Slater), and Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt (D-Cedar Rapids).

We were pleased that Gov. Branstad signed HF 2386, which allows the termination of parental rights if a court finds that a child was conceived as a result of sexual abuse and the parent who was abused requests the termination of parental rights.

ICC staff was pleased to be present for the signing of SF 2288, which makes most court records of juveniles confidential. This law will help people avoid carrying along the effects of a relatively minor mistake made while a juvenile. This turned out to be a very bipartisan matter with only one “no” vote being cast in the chambers.

Let’s take a look at other issues of interest to the Catholic Conference …

EDUCATION COMMITTEE

In collaboration with Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education (Iowa ACE) and the Iowa Association of Christian Schools, there have been ongoing efforts to develop a grassroots campaign to support Education Savings Accounts and other methods to assist parents in exercising their right to choose the kind of education best suited to the needs of their children.

The most disappointing part of the session for ICC staff was the lack of action on additional funding for nonpublic students and parents. Current levels of funding were maintained. One success is that virtually every legislator can tell you what an “Education Savings Accounts” is.

House File 2284 proposed a pilot program for ESAs in two public school districts allowing some low-income parents to receive $5,854 from the state into a savings account set up for educational expenses. The bill passed out of a House subcommittee but made no further progress. We know some heard inflated figures about how much the bill would cost. As drafted, the cost to the state would be less than a million dollars. In the context of the state’s $5 billion education budget, it would be an affordable way for the state to help some parents.

Democrats’ and Republicans’ agreed-to education budget failed to include Gov. Branstad’s proposed small increase for textbooks/technology funding for nonpublic school students. A cap of $20 per student has been in place since 1990.

Funding for the transportation of students to nonpublic schools continues to be capped at about $8.6 million. That only pays for about 80 percent of claims. The original purpose of the funding was to make sure students get to school safely.

Literally thousands of people sent messages to their legislator on these issues. There was a sustained lobbying effort through the three organizations. However, we never got the final commitments from leaders in either chamber to allocate additional funding.

Unfortunately, Gov. Branstad vetoed a provision in SF 2323, the education budget bill, to delay the mandated implementation of the “Smarter Balanced” assessment among public schools. While most Catholic schools in the state are expected to eventually use this test or a similar one, it is extremely expensive and our schools would like some time to ramp up. We are working to encourage the state to fund the assessment for nonpublic schools.

Catholic Schools Week and National School Choice Week were also celebrated in January. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke at a school choice event held at the State Historical Building and Gov. Branstad signed proclamations to mark the events.

This year’s Education Celebration for nonpublic schools at the Iowa State Capitol on March 1 was the best attended ever with about a thousand students and parents. Speakers included Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) and Rep. Hagenow. The event was held in the rotunda at the State Capitol to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the School Tuition Organization Tax Credit Program. Nearly $100 million has been distributed in scholarships through the STOs.

The next School Choice Summit sponsored by Iowa ACE is set for Wednesday, Sept. 14 in Des Moines. The school choice coalition will be assessing our strategy and proposed legislation in the coming months.

 

HUMAN LIFE AND DIGNITY

Abortion/Pro-Life

One of our priorities identified before the session was to encourage the legislature to prohibit the transfer or sale of fetal tissue in Iowa after an abortion. In March the Iowa House passed such a bill, HF 2329. Our position is that abortion is a grave moral evil and that makes the use of fetal body parts following the abortion unethical. Rep. Joel Fry (R-Osceola) was one of the key movers of this legislation.

The House adopted an amendment to HF 2329 to allow current fetal cell lines derived from abortions to be used for research. The purpose was to permit the University of Iowa to continue research on cells derived from an aborted fetus.

Most of the opposition to the bill during debate was based on an “end justifies the means” argument in support of all research. However, as a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin Medical College wrote last fall, “We do not agree that research using human fetal or embryonic tissue from abortions or procedures such as IVF is ethical or a requisite approach for advancing scientific inquiry or preventing suffering.”

Regrettably, HF 2329 was passed too late for the Senate to take any action before a legislative deadline.

Doctor-prescribed suicide

Bills in the House and Senate to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide did not advance past the first legislative deadline. Stay tuned for more on our efforts to fight this legislation.

Economic concerns

There were attempts in both the House Commerce and Ways and Means committees to legalize another form of high-interest lending. The proposals would have authorized “flexible credit” lending by allowing companies to set up relatively small loans with an annual interest rate of 288 percent a year.

For example, the first month’s interest on a $1,000 loan would be $120. The bills eventually advanced out of the subcommittee but no further. The Iowa Catholic Conference registered in opposition to the bills because of the impact on low-income customers by trapping them in long-term high-interest debt. For example, about 50 percent of current payday loan customers in Iowa receive 12 or more loans in a year.

As you may recall, last year 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. There was no movement on the bill this year.

Environment

Pope Francis, in his encyclical letter “Laudato Si,” has called us to protect creation and care for our common home. One way to do this would be to help nonprofit corporations make needed energy-efficiency improvements. The ICC supported Senate File 2182, which would have provided $1 million for matching funds for nonprofit organizations to complete energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. This is similar to a bill supported by the U.S. Catholic bishops at the federal level.

Many nonprofit agencies are in older facilities and a grant program would assist their energy efficiency efforts. Nonprofit organizations such as parishes are not eligible for state and federal tax credits, which means that many cannot afford to undertake these types of projects because of the cost burden. SF 2182 passed the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee but did not advance further due to budget concerns.

Family Life

The ICC successfully opposed Senate Study Bill 3033, which would have eliminated the state’s 90-day waiting period before a divorce. We believe the state has a legitimate interest in a waiting period, including providing both parties the opportunity to thoroughly contemplate the impact of divorce. A waiting period helps ensure that all issues are addressed and no advantage is taken of either party, particularly when there might be children involved. When it comes to marriage, government should do no harm.

The Iowa House Government Oversight Committee passed House File 2450 regarding educational conferences and the state’s “human growth and development” curriculum. The bill advanced no further.

Currently public school parents are supposed to receive information annually about the human growth and development curriculum that will be provided to their student, and have an opportunity to “opt-out” of such education. HF 2450 would have changed that around by requiring schools to ask all parents to “opt-in” and also require the school to annually provide any information that would be presented to pupils at an educational conference for which the school district facilitates pupil attendance. At the subcommittee hearing for the bill, ICC staff spoke in support of helping parents exercise their right to be the primary educators of their children.

Food

One in eight Iowans is considered “food insecure,” meaning they do not have an adequate supply of nutritious and safe food. Senate File 2307 would have appropriated a total of $900,000 for food donation programs, including those supported by the Iowa Food Bank Association. Food banks provide donated and purchased food to other nonprofit organizations, such as food pantries, emergency meal sites, church meal sites, and emergency shelters.

From a previous state appropriation, nine million meals were provided to hungry Iowans in all 99 counties. The bill did not advance due to budget concerns.

Health Care

Medicaid is the government health insurance “safety net” for about 560,000 Iowans. On April 1 the state transitioned to a “managed care” system for Medicaid (from “fee for service”) in an attempt to promote accountability of providers for health outcomes as well as hold down the rate of increase in Medicaid costs.

Many legitimate concerns have been raised about the continuity of care for Medicaid recipients. As a result, the final human services budget bill included compromise language regarding additional legislative oversight of Medicaid.

Earlier in the session, the Senate Democrats passed a bill to stop the transition process because they believed the state is not ready. House Republicans did not take action on the bill.

Our Catholic tradition teaches that health care is a natural human right, essential to protecting human life and dignity. The bishops decided not to take a formal position on the state’s decision to move to a managed care system but encouraged Catholics to contact legislators about making sure that Iowans on Medicaid get the health care they need.

Immigration

House File 2318, introduced by Rep. John Kooiker (R-Boyden), would have provided for provisional driver’s licenses to be issued to immigrants regardless of authorization status. However, the bill was introduced at the legislative deadline and did not advance. An Iowa statewide poll found majority support of driver’s licenses for all immigrants, regardless of immigration status. The ICC has been working in support of this issue with other groups for several years with little success.

House File 2276 was opposed by the ICC. The bill passed the House Public Safety Committee but did not advance further. The bill would have stopped state, county or local governments from limiting or restricting enforcement of federal immigration law in any way. Essentially the bill tried to push about two dozen Iowa counties to comply with all federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to hold undocumented people longer than their offense would normally allow.

Some proponents said this bill would stop “sanctuary cities.” To be clear, whether someone is here illegally or not, nothing in current law prevents any individual from being prosecuted and convicted for crimes.

The Catholic bishops have not taken a formal position on how law enforcement should respond to those requests by ICE. However, we were concerned about the bill for several reasons. The legislation seemed unnecessary because federal policies already require much collaboration among law enforcement agencies. The ICC expressed concern about the effect of separating family members and suggested that decisions about the usage of law enforcement resources are better left to local communities.

Religious Freedom

The ICC co-sponsored the third annual Religious Freedom Celebration with the Iowa congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Wednesday, April 20 at the State Capitol. The nonpartisan event, called “Strengthening Families, Citizens, and Communities in a Pluralistic Society,” celebrated the positive role faith communities played in a diverse society when religious freedom is protected for all.

We support religious freedom and how it benefits all of us for religious groups to serve in charitable ways.

Restorative Justice/Corrections

The ICC supported Senate File 2141, which would have required the reporting of sexual abuse by non-caretakers of children of all ages by mandatory reporters. Current law only requires reporting of abuse by non-caretakers of children 11 years or younger. The bill was passed by the Senate Human Resources Committee but it was stopped by sexual assault advocates who were concerned victims would not reach out for care if they suspect the abuse will be reported.

The ICC supported a bill to restore voting rights for felons, SSB 3101. Ex-offenders have a responsibility to participate in the political process once their obligation to society is complete. There have been studies showing that voters are less likely to be repeat offenders.

CONCLUSION

The staff of the Iowa Catholic Conference thanks you, the members of our legislative network, for contacting legislators on important issues. 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.