Adjournment Delayed, Still Time to Help Iowans
Competing Tax Proposals
The Legislature is heading into the second week of overtime, despite passing multiple budget bills in the middle of the night last week. This week, majority party leaders are working behind closed doors to try and strike a deal on budget and taxes to end the 2021 legislative session.
So far, there has not been notable progress. The biggest sticking point seems to be on tax policy. While there are some tax changes under consideration that most lawmakers agree on, such as child care and rural economic development, there are some significant, controversial changes being proposed on property taxes and mental health funding.
Legislators have heard from many Iowans concerned about the legislature breaking its promise to backfill property taxes when it passed a huge cut to commercial property taxes back in 2013. The long-term results of that bill have caused large property taxes increases for homeowners and farmers alike.
Instead of fixing that unfair property tax shift, Republican leaders are considering a plan to exacerbate that problem by ending the backfill and raising property taxes on homeowners and farmers for a second time.
The second big tax shift is related to mental health funding. One GOP plan proposes that all funding of the mental health system should be taken over by the state, which is currently funded through a mix of state and local funding. After decades of neglect and underfunding by the Legislature, the plan won’t solve the mental health crisis Iowans face today and puts future funding for the system at risk.
State Budget Work Grinds to a Halt
While it’s unclear what a final tax package may look like as Republican leaders work behind closed doors, it is certain to have a big impact on the state budget. The uncertainty surrounding the tax agreement has essentially brought all work on the state budget to a standstill.
However, below are a few highlights from some budget bills passed last week in the Iowa House that are still likely to undergo changes before adjournment:
- The Economic Development budget, HF 871, funds the Department of Cultural Affairs, Economic Development Authority, Iowa Finance Authority, Public Employment Relations Board, Iowa Workforce Development, and other job creation programs. On a positive note, an additional $3 million was allocated to help build more childcare centers around the state. Democratic lawmakers advocated for an increase in funding to Cultural Affairs to help museums and cultural programs that attract workers to Iowa but it was rejected on a party line vote.
- The Education budget, HF 868, provides no funding increase at all to Iowa’s three public universities. On top of the $8 million cut last year in the middle of a pandemic., it’s certain to put financial pressure on the universities as they try to serve students. While attempts to match an increase in funding to the Governor’s proposed level were offered, it was rejected on a party line vote as well.
- In HF 860, the Agriculture and Natural Resources budget, there is a small increase in basic funding but otherwise maintains the current funding for environmental projects around the state. A hugely successful initiative called the Resources Enhancement and Protection Fund (REAP) was significantly underfunded in the bill at $12 million. The program, which helps protect natural spaces for Iowans to enjoy and provide grants for conservation work around the state, should receive $20 million in annual funding.
As the budget process continues to unfold, House Democratic lawmakers are going to stay focused on working families and enacting their Build Back Iowa plan to help Iowans recover from the pandemic.
Reynolds Cancels Assistance for Iowans Who Lost Their Job Due to Pandemic
During the pandemic many Iowans were laid off or were forced to stay home to care for family members or children. To help the families struggling to pay bills and stay in their homes while looking for a new job, federal lawmakers passed a bipartisan plan to provide additional support for Iowans who lost their job due to the pandemic.
In a surprise move this week, Governor Reynolds announced she is canceling the pandemic unemployment assistance Iowans were scheduled to receive through September and sending back the federal money beginning June 12th.
While the Governor cited it as a solution to Iowa’s workforce shortage, independent researchers and experts have the data to prove that logic untrue. As Iowa’s population has flat-lined, the state’s workforce shortage problem has been growing for years. Before COVID-19, Iowa had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and was still experiencing a worker shortage.
Lawmakers Call for Prison Review be Open to Public
Last month, investigators from South Dakota and Minnesota began an external probe into the March 23rd attacks at the Anamosa State Penitentiary that led to deaths of correctional officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte.
Iowa Corrections officials said the investigation should result in a report by December 1, 2021, but it may be a confidential report. After lawmakers have repeatedly been denied requests for additional information and updates on prison security from the Reynolds Administration, lawmakers are working on legislation to make the report public. The legislation would also require new safety training in Iowa prisons based on the Anamosa Correctional facility’s comprehensive safety measure review.
Currently, Iowa’s prison system is 10% over capacity while 9% staff positions remain vacant. Since 2009, staff levels have dropped by 17% throughout the state’s correctional facilities while offender assaults on staff have increased. For the last several years, the Reynolds Administration and DOC have disregarded several warning signs leading up to the Anamosa tragedy. These signs include: rising violence, prison overcrowding, staff reductions, and continued budget cuts.
Last month, Democratic lawmakers toured the Anamosa State Penitentiary and reported seeing overcrowded cell blocks, as well as inadequate surveillance and radio equipment. Following the tour, lawmakers called on the Reynolds Administration to take immediate action to improve the facility’s safety. Iowa Democratic lawmakers have also requested an independent, federal investigation into the deaths and rising violence in Iowa prisons.
Thirty Percent of Iowans Vaccinated
Last month, all adults 16 and older became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination and soon Iowans ages 12-15 will be eligible for the vaccine. The vaccine is safe, effective, free, and now widely available across Iowa.
Public health officials are encouraging Iowans to get the vaccine as soon as possible to stop transmission of the virus, save lives, and get life back to normal.
Vaccine navigators at 2-1-1 can assist in multiple languages to help set up vaccine appointments. Iowans can also visit vaccinate.Iowa.gov to find a vaccine provider. Many providers including Hy-Vee and Walgreens are now allowing drop-in vaccinations and an appointment is no longer needed.
Governor Returns $95 Million in Federal Funds to Stop COVID in Schools
Earlier this year, billions of dollars were sent to Iowa in the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan to help Iowans recover from the pandemic. Governor Reynolds announced that she would be returning $95 million in federal COVID relief funding that could have been used to stop the spread of COVID in schools across Iowa.
Instead of working with Iowa schools to determine what they need for testing to help prevent the spread of the virus, the Governor instead chose to return the funding to make national headlines. At the same time, the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) was working with federal officials to determine if the funds could be used to cover other costs or strategies to contain the virus. As of May 5, over 43,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19.
In response to this egregious act by the Governor, the Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate have requested to convene the Government Oversight Committee to review the action. Iowans deserve to know where the federal money is going, what it is being spent on, and the total amount of funds that are being sent back. The Governor needs to be held accountable to the taxpayers for her rash decisions, but unfortunately, Republican leaders have no plans to use their statutory power to do this.
Other Iowa News
GRANTS FOR RESTAURANTS AND BARS: The Small Businesses Administration (SBA) is now accepting applications for grants through Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Restaurants, bars, food trucks, caterers, bakeries, breweries, wineries, and other licensed facilities who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 can apply for a grant through the SBA. Grants can be used to cover a variety of expenses including payroll, rent, cleaning materials, and food and beverage expenses. Eligible businesses can receive up to $10 million depending on pandemic-related revenue loss. The SBA is accepting applications however they are only processing and funding businesses that fall into a priority group. Businesses within the priority group must be at least 51% owned by a woman, a veteran, or the business must be located in a socially and economically disadvantaged area. Starting the end of May, the SBA will process all applications until funds are exhausted. As part of the American Rescue Plan, Congress appropriated $28.6 billion for the program. Businesses can apply online on the SBA’s website, sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/covid-19-relief-options/restaurant-revitalization-fund.
LEGISLATURE EXTENDS SUNDAY ALCOHOL SALES: Iowa House lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation allowing alcohol sales to begin two hours earlier on Sunday mornings, which creates uniformity for local businesses Iowa consumers. Under current law, businesses must obtain a special permit to sell alcohol on Sundays, and are prohibited to sell booze before 8 a.m. HF 384 would allow Sunday sales to begin at 6 a.m. Before 1973, alcohol sales were banned in Iowa on Sundays. Starting in 1992, beer, wine and liquor could only be sold before noon on Sundays. HF 384 unanimously passed the Senate; received one “nay” in the House; and has been sent to the Governor for signature.
NEW SUMMER FOOD PROGRAM FOR KIDS: This summer, the American Rescue Plan updated the USDA’s summer food program to feed more low-income children. The plan will provide about $375 to buy food for each eligible child over the summer months. Kids under 6 who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and children who receive free or reduced-price lunch qualify for the program. They’ll be enrolled automatically and receive a Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer card (P-EBT) in the mail. The card can be used to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, breads, cereals and other foods. Expanding the initiative will help ensure kids get fed over the summer, and will funnel money back into the economy when families purchase food from local grocers.
HISTORICALLY DRY APRIL INCREASE DROUGHT RISK: Precipitation across the state totaled just 1.61 inches in the month of April. That is 1.9 inches below normal. This low total ranks April 2021 as one of the 20 driest Aprils in nearly 150 years of records. The state typically receives almost two-thirds of the total annual rainfall from April through August. Over three-fourths of the state is now experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions. Stream flows across much of the state are below normal, including the Skunk, Des Moines, Raccoon, and West Fork Cedar Rivers. Shallow groundwater reserves have begun to be affected in northern and north western parts of the state. The full Water Summary Update can be found at iowadnr.gov/WaterSummaryUpdate.