Area reps reflect on '12 session

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The 2012 legislative session included significant achievements, though some business was left unfinished, according to area legislators.

Outgoing Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg; Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan; Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Okoboji; and outgoing Rep. Royd Chambers, R-Sheldon, took some time Friday to evaluate the budget, education reform, mental health reform and the lack of property tax reform, among other issues.

"The biggest success was again, for the second session in a row in a split legislature, holding down what has been out-of-control spending," Johnson said. "I believe we spent too much in the end, but it was a compromise that had to be reached for us to adjourn and keep the wheels turning across the state."

According to Kibbie, the budget represented 97 percent of the revenue the state takes in, which was close to Gov. Terry Branstad's proposed budget.

Smith added that the budget was underneath Republican spending targets, while adding about $250 million in new education dollars over the past two years.

Kibbie touted big strides in funding community colleges and the regents, but voiced frustration over 0 percent allowable growth for K-12 schools, after 2 percent allowable growth was passed last year and 4 percent was proposed by Senate Democrats.

Undated photo provided by the Iowa Senate. (AP Photo/Iowa Senate)

"That's something they could address next year and hopefully they do," he said.

Education reform efforts fell short, according to the area's Republicans.

"I think we only took a bite of half the apple when it came to education reform, but we can keep moving ahead on that," Johnson said.

He is in favor of assessment requirements for third graders and seniors, as well as more teacher evaluations, but those aspects of reform did not make the final cut.

"I'm very pleased about the education reform package," Chambers said. "It's not as strong as I would have liked, but a very good starting point for future discussions on K-12 education."

The area's legislative contingent agreed that property tax reform should have been accomplished, though they disagree on the type of reform.

Kibbie favored a plan that replaced a projected $140 million in lost tax revenue for cities and counties, while Republicans contended the changes would result in economic growth that would help offset revenue losses.

"I didn't think the Senate Democrats' plan was the best we could do," Johnson said. "I believe it ignored what looks to be a huge property tax increase coming in the near future. That's because we haven't dealt with issues of coupling residential and agricultural land. Also, it didn't go far enough for commercial property tax relief, which I believe we need in this state to keep businesses here and expanding and attract new businesses."

Johnson predicted a special session could be possible to reach an agreement on the issue. While Johnson was the only area legislator to suggest that option, Smith said he was disappointed the Senate did not act on House bills during the regular session.

"We passed four different bills and they chose not to take up any of them," Smith said. "When they had their own bill, they didn't even ass that. I think it's something we need to take up if we want to grow the economy and create jobs."

While property tax reform talks stalled, the general assembly reached compromise on mental health reorganization.

The plan allows for counties to transfer funds into mental health budgets in order to transition to the new regional delivery system.

"We believe Medicaid-eligible Iowans are covered," Johnson said. "It's the non-Medicaid Iowans seeking mental health and we were trying to resolve that issue. I believe we have something that's workable."

In addition, Kibbie trumpeted $12 million in Resource Enhancement and Protection funding, while bemoaning a shortfall in the Department of Public Safety and the lack of a gas tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements.

Overall, he gave the session an 8 rating, a one-point improvement over the previous session.

"There were more tough issues to tackle and the governor didn't cave into the House's budget number like he did last year," Kibbie said.

Johnson went the other way with his rating, downgrading it to a 7.

"We utterly failed to address property taxes, so I can't put it up there as an 8 like I did last year," Johnson said.

He had thought the use of taxpayer funds for abortions would end, but when that provision was struck from the human services bill, he voted against it.

Johnson also lent his voice in support of Northwest Aging Association when the Iowa Department on Aging had recommended a five-region system including a 49-county western region. Officials have since broken that area into two more manageable regions.

Chambers agreed with Johnson's 7 rating. Throughout his 10-year career, he is proud of his support of the community college system, Iowa Tuition Grant for private colleges and the state income tax exemption for veterans.

This year, his disappointments include the failure of "Stand Your Ground" gun legislation and a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Smith had rated the session at a 5 as a freshman, without anything to compare it to, but ticked that number up to a 6 this year.

"I still think we have better days to come," Smith said. "I'll move it to a 6 because we did make some headway. I'm still not satisfied with where I think we need to be so we need to keep pounding away until we get that done."

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