Forum shows gulf between parties on issues
The divisions between the Democratically controlled state Senate and the Republican-led state House of Representatives on everything from education reform to the health care were spelled out during a Saturday morning forum in Fort Dodge.
State Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, said he and his colleagues would prefer to separate school funding from an education policy reform proposal, pass a budget that spends even less than what is allowed by the Iowa Constitution and expand Medicaid.
State Rep. Tom Shaw, R-Laurens, said the House Republicans want accountability for any increase in state aid to public schools. He added that they want to spend even less than the Senate Democrats have proposed for 2013-2014 and avoid a costly expansion of Medicaid.
The wide-ranging discussion during the Eggs and Issues forum at Iowa Central Community College also included the issue of elderly sex offenders in nursing homes.
State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, has unsuccessfully introduced legislation to have the state government begin planning for a specialized nursing facility to house elderly sex offenders. However, the only bills moving in the House merely called for public notification when a registered sex offender is placed in a nursing home, she said.
”To me, that notice is not quite enough,” Miller said.
She called for public lobbying to encourage legislators to focus on the issue.
Near the end of the forum, Shaw said Iowans need to be alert to any possibility of Muslim sharia law being enacted.
”Sharia law seems like it’s something that happens somewhere else,” he said. ”Sharia law is incompatible with the American way of life, and it’s something we need to be eternally vigilant against.”
About 70 people attended the forum. Eggs and Issues is sponsored by the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance and the college.
Gov. Terry Branstad started the education reform debate earlier this year when he sent legislators a proposal that features new teacher leadership positions and increased starting pay for teachers. He requested that the lawmakers address the reform package before approving any more money for public schools through what’s commonly called allowable growth.
The House passed a version of the reform plan on Feb. 20. The Senate passed its version on March 26. The senators also approved a 4 percent increase in allowable growth for schools.
A 10-member conference committee is now working out the differences between the two bills. The House Republicans recently offered to approve a 4 percent increase in allowable growth if the Senate Democrats approved the House version of the bill.
”I think the House Republicans believed that all they had to do was say 4 percent and the Senate would go along with it,” Beall said.
He said the increase the House Republicans are offering isn’t a full 4 percent.
Beall said the House Republicans basically issued an ultimatum which he summed up as ”OK, here’s your money, now do everything we say.”
”That’s not bargaining in good faith,” he said.
Shaw disagreed with Beall’s account.
”We passed this in the House in February, and it went over to the Senate where it languished for over 44 days,” he said. ”When we were told what they wanted was 4 percent we agreed, and we sent it back over. Now all of the sudden there’s all kinds of excuses why they don’t want to accept it.”
”It appears they want to accept the money, but they don’t want any increased responsibility or accountability for the money,” Shaw added.
Legislators are working on a roughly $6 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
State law allows the legislature and governor to spend up to 99 percent of revenues.
Beall said the spending plan from Senate Democrats would spend 94 percent of revenues while doing things like investing in lake restoration projects and hiring 19 additional state troopers.
Shaw said the Democratic budget relies on using a surplus he refers to as an ”overpayment by the taxpayers.”
As the overall budget debate continues, Miller is attempting to add $500,000 to the $1 million budget proposed for the Iowa Great Places program.
That program provides state money and advice to communities for quality of life improvements. Hamilton and Webster counties were accepted into the program in 2009 for an initiative called Where the Rivers Run Wild, but Miller said the two communities have so far seen little benefit from it.
Medicaid is the joint federal and state insurance program for the poor.
Beall said expanding it as allowed under the federal health care reform law would provide coverage to 73,000 more Iowans.
Shaw said expanding the program poses a big financial risk, especially since many of the federal health care reform rules have yet to be written.