This is our complete report on the 2014 Iowa legislative session from the perspective of the Iowa Catholic Conference. The following pages review our key legislative and advocacy work during the 2014 session. The amount of space taken to explain an issue does not necessarily correspond to its priority during the session.
The second year of the 85th General Assembly opened Jan. 13 and adjourned “sine die” on May 1. The Iowa House was controlled by Republicans, 53-47. Democrats controlled the Iowa Senate by a 26-24 margin. As usual, divided control made it more difficult to pass legislation through both chambers.
Before the session, ICC committees met to discuss strategy.We completed the merger of the Family Life, Social Concerns and Pro-Life Committees into a new Human Life and Dignity Committee. We continue our Education Committee for advice on issues that relate to Catholic schools. While we no longer will have an official Communications Committee, we collaborate with the communications staff of the dioceses and they are invited to participate in the Human Life and Dignity meetings.
The 2013 session was widely-regarded as one of the most substantial in recent memory, with agreement found on reforms in the areas of health insurance for low-income people, property tax cuts and K-12 education.
2014 will not be remembered in the same way. Legislators were able to agree on the state budget, a tuition freeze for state universities, and additional benefits for veterans. The session ended with reserve funds being full and an anticipated ending surplus in the state’s general fund.
We were pleased to see some of our legislative concerns make it to the governor’s desk:
House File 2468 will provide a $2,500 state tax credit for parents with adoption expenses. We began working on this bill last September and are pleased to see it make its way through the process, even though it took until the last week of the session.
As we reported last year, a presumed drafting error by the legislature included the nonpublic schools in the school start date requirements without any possibilities for a waiver. Schools by law are required to start no earlier than the week that contains the first day of September unless a waiver is approved.
One of our first priorities this session was to make sure nonpublic schools could apply for a waiver. This was accomplished in House File 2170, which was signed by the Governor in March. The bill allowed nonpublic schools to receive the same waiver as public schools and clarified what can be counted as instructional hours.
The legislature passed a $50,000 increase for textbook/technology funds for nonpublic school students, for a total of about $650,000. We’ll continue to work to restore an across-the-board cut made several years ago.
Human trafficking is a crime against the fundamental rights and dignity of the human person. According to a statement made by the Vatican and other religious leaders, “Modern slavery and human trafficking are crimes against humanity. The physical, economic and sexual exploitation of men, women and children condemns 30 million people to dehumanization and degradation.”
Senate File 2311 strengthened Iowa’s law against human trafficking. It creates a fund for victims and allows county attorneys to refer prostitutes who are juveniles to the Department of Human Services as a “child in need of assistance.” The bill also extended the statute of limitations for human trafficking crimes. Joan Thompson represented the Conference at the signing ceremony in the governor’s office.
The final version of the state’s human services budget bill, HF 2463, contained a proposal allowing recipients of child care assistance to count both work and school hours (rather than one OR the other) towards a “28-hour” requirement. We believe this proposal better reflects the needs of those who qualify for child care assistance.
The justice appropriations bill, HF 2450, fully funded drug courts along with a statement that it’s the intent of the legislature for the judicial districts to maintain drug courts. Some judicial districts did not choose to fund these drug courts in the past. The goal of a drug court is to offer non-violent offenders with addictions an opportunity to change their lives with the help of an intensive treatment and rehabilitation program. The offender can avoid prison time if successful in completing the program. Catholic Charities assists with these programs in some parts of the state. If offenders can be rehabilitated without prison this also saves the state money.
The first version of HF 2450 contained cuts in domestic violence victim assistance grants. However, funding remained at the status quo in the final version. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Des Moines operates a regional domestic violence assistance program covering the southwest part of the state.
The final version of the human services budget did not make permanent the “family planning waiver” passed several years ago. This waiver provides government-funded pregnancy prevention services for men and women who are under 55 years of age with an income of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. These services will continue to be funded by the waiver. One of our ongoing goals is to encourage the legislature to fund other health centers before abortion providers.
One of the final bills of the session was a “one-time spending” bill, Senate File 2363, which appropriated about $140 million dollars for miscellaneous projects, including paying off bonds. We were pleased to see that one such project was a $2 million appropriation for LIHEAP, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP helps lower-income people pay heating bills and assists with emergency propane deliveries. The community action agencies of Iowa were asking for a one-time appropriation for LIHEAP to help replace funds used during the extreme cold of last winter and enable the pre-purchase of propane when it’s cheaper this summer.
Finally, due to a quirk in Iowa’s law, volunteer coaches were not included in Iowa’s law against sexual exploitation by school personnel. Along with the public schools we supported a successful effort to fix this problem.
Several bills passed one chamber but not the other:
HF 2175, a ban on so-called “webcam” abortions, passed the Iowa House in February by a bipartisan vote of 55-42. The Senate did not take action on the bill.
The “webcam” chemical abortion procedure begins with a video consultation between the physician and mother at different locations. Pills are delivered to the pregnant woman when the physician activates a switch that opens a drawer in front of the mother at a remote site. She takes the first at the doctor’s direction, during the remote interview. Another pill is taken later, at home, on a prescribed schedule. If the procedure is “successful,” the woman loses the baby in the following days.
We oppose all abortions, no matter the method, but when abortions are taking place, the safety and informed consent of the women involved should be among our chief concerns.
A Polk County District court has stayed enforcement of a rule passed by the Iowa Board of Medicine last summer that would have established a standard of practice for physicians who perform chemical/medical abortions, effectively ruling out webcam abortions. The lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood against the rule is scheduled for a hearing on May 30, 2014.
Senate File 2190 passed the Senate unanimously in February and would have required the state Department of Corrections to make rules limiting the shackling of pregnant inmates. The House did not take action on the bill. The ICC has supported this bill for humanitarian reasons and to help protect the health of the mother and child.
The ICC supported HF 2390, which allowed for additional permissive use of administrative funds in the state’s preschool program. The bill also allowed the community partners of school districts – many Catholic preschools among them – to use 10 percent of the state funding for administration rather than five percent. HF 2390 was passed by the House unanimously but did not advance in the Senate.
Finally, we registered as undecided on a bill to extend the statute of limitations to bring a civil lawsuit in cases of sexual abuse. SF 2109 passed the Senate, and a House subcommittee, but stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.
The ICC monitored SF 2350, which passed the Senate unanimously but was not addressed by the House. The bill regulated debit cards/pay cards as a relatively new method of payment for wages. Unfortunately, abuses are taking place. Some workers are reporting getting shorted on their pay, not receiving pay stubs and being required to pay sizable fees to find out how much money is on the pay card. Many of these abuses are already against the law.
Pay cards are not bad in and of themselves, however, they seem to be more opaque to users and may be more easily abused by some unscrupulous employers. Our main message to legislators was that we should ensure workers are paid what they’re due. There wasn’t much opposition expressed to the bill as business groups testified that most businesses are following the “best practices” found in SF 2350 already.
Other issues passed a legislative committee, but did not reach the floor, including:
Senate File 2260 passed the Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee. It would have increased the state’s minimum wage over time to $10.10. The ICC supported an increase as a way to help provide sufficient resources for individuals to form and support families.
Senate File 2270 passed the Senate Education Committee. SF 2270 would have funded training of refugees to be resource people for other refugees. We plan on meeting with a group of advocates to put together another version of the bill for next year’s session.
Refugees are present in the U.S. legally. They are individuals who have fled their countries of origin and who meet the United Nations’ criteria of having a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
As you can imagine, refugees’ initial needs are many: food, clothing, shelter, employment, English language training, and orientation to a new community and culture. In the first 90 days, the U.S. government provides transitional assistance.
Catholic organizations around the country resettle about 30 percent of the refugees who enter our country every year. Catholic Charities here in Iowa will most likely resettle about 250 people this year.
The ICC was initially favorable to Senate Study Bill 3146 (later, SF 2309) as it eliminated lengthy mandatory sentences for juveniles and provided for individualized determination of sentences. The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the sentences of inmates who were convicted of committing serious crimes as juveniles must be reviewed.
We support the possibility of a sentence other than “life without parole.” The underlying principle is that we shouldn’t treat minors as if they were adults. We believe that offenders who commit very serious crimes when they are juveniles may gain with maturity an understanding of the gravity of their crime and be able to rejoin society under some conditions. Nothing in the bill prevented minors from being held properly accountable for their actions and remaining in prison if necessary. As it went through the process, the bill got worse instead of better by taking away the ability of judges to determine sentences on an individual basis.
Bills that passed a subcommittee but no further:
House File 2090 would have created “Educational Savings Grants” of about $5,600 for parents not enrolling their child in a public school. The bill passed a House subcommittee. The state would deposit around $5,600 per child into a government-authorized savings account to cover part of private school tuition costs or homeschooling expenses for all interested parents. A similar bill in the Senate (SF 2154) did not advance. We believe the overall annual cost of the entire bill would be less than the annual budget increase being suggested for public schools.
If this bill had been enacted, and a student changed from a public to a private school, the state “per pupil” money would follow them from the public school to their Education Savings Account. Public schools would not be impacted by the creation of Education Savings Accounts for current private school students because public schools do not receive funding for private school students. The public schools would retain their standard property tax levy.
We believe that this proposal would offer true freedom of choice in education to all families. As you would expect, there has been a great deal of enthusiasm about the Education Savings Account proposal among Catholic school leaders and parents.
In a bit of a surprise, House File 382, regulating payday loans, passed a House subcommittee. An installment plan called for in the bill would help customers avoid the debt cycle by allowing them to pay off the debt without repeat borrowing.
Payday loans are short-term cash advances based on the borrower’s personal check held for future deposit (the next pay day), or on electronic access to the borrower’s bank account. Interest rates on payday loans can reach up to 400 percent.
SF 2094 would have limited the effective interest rate of payday loans to 36 percent, but did not advance.
House Study Bill 554 would have required every school employee, including lunch personnel and janitors, to gain a license from the Board of Educational Examiners. The admirable purpose was to avoid situations where an I.T. person, janitor, etc. could be let go for an inappropriate relationship with a student but the next school would never know. We were part of a group working to find a solution to that problem short of requiring a license for every school employee, but ran out of time before the funnel date.
Some issues of interest did not advance at all:
House Study Bill 598 would have created a civil cause of action (a possible lawsuit) when a mother loses her unborn baby due to the wrongful act of another. Iowa is one of about 10 states where that is not currently possible.
We were disappointed that the legislature refused to address the underfunding of transportation services for nonpublic school students. The status quo funding of $8.56 million is about $1.1 million shy of full funding. Depending on the local school district’s method of providing the transportation, either the district, the nonpublic school, or nonpublic school parents get shorted.
During the last day or so of the session, we were part of discussions regarding an amendment to the “standings” appropriations bill to increase this funding. However, it became clear that the House was going to use procedural maneuvers to rule amendments out of order.
Senate File 2087 would have made a driver’s license available for some persons without a social security number or authorization to be legally present in the United States. We think this would improve roadway safety by ensuring that all drivers get tested regarding their driving skills, the rules of the road, and helping achieve access to mandatory insurance. It would have helped people get to work and provide for their families.
We had hoped to work on funding to help avoid the “cliff effect” for individuals receiving child care assistance. Currently there are circumstances where a person gets a pay raise or a new job, starts making more money, and loses all of their child care assistance, resulting in a net loss. This is a negative incentive to people improving their financial situation through work. Legislators, as you have seen, addressed the child care issue in another way.
We worked with legislators on last-minute amendments to further restrict funding of abortion providers. Our goal was to refine these amendments in a way that they could stand up to a court challenge and not jeopardize other Medicaid funding. As it turns out, the amendments that were filed in the House were withdrawn from consideration.
We also encouraged an amendment to exclude health insurance plans with elective abortion from the ACA marketplace.
Interestingly, a last-minute provision in last year’s human services budget bill that required the governor’s office to authorize payment (after the fact) for each individual abortion has resulted in no requests for reimbursement from the University of Iowa Hospitals. Iowa pays for abortions in cases to save the life of the mother, and in cases of rape, incest, or “fetal deformity.” Although they are all children in these cases, current Iowa law represents a substantial limitation on what abortions are paid for by the state.
One of the seven core principles of Catholic Social Teaching as identified by the U.S. bishops is “care for creation.” Two bills related to this principle were introduced, HF 2028, and HF 2029. The Iowa Catholic Conference monitored HF 2028, which would put into place a moratorium on silica sand mining for fracking of shale oil or gas, and require the state to conduct a study of the mining for its effects on water, air and road quality. House File 2029 would simply require the study and we advised support.
Neither bill had a subcommittee hearing, but were an opportunity to offer the Church’s perspective on an important principle. The creation of jobs and energy is important but needs to be balanced against any consequences to the environment where future generations and we will live. The ethical and moral dimensions should not be overlooked.
The Iowa Catholic Conference advised opposition to House File 2041. It would have required random drug testing for participants in the state family assistance, food assistance or Medicaid programs. There was no provision in the bill for children to get assistance if their parent is disqualified. Some drug-using parents would be discouraged from applying for benefits at all, which would have an obvious impact on their children. A similar bill that passed in Florida several years ago was struck down in the courts.
I would like to thank the Iowa bishops and our board and committees for their support. I also wish to thank Angela Thrailkill and Joan Thompson for their hours of service and dedication to the Iowa Catholic Conference, and consultants Paul Jahnke and Larry Murphy for their assistance.
Executive Director, Iowa Catholic Conference