Part 2 of 3 — The Voice of the People
In this three-part series, local legislators Sen. David Johnson and Rep. Megan Jones weigh in on what they anticipate heading into the 87th Iowa General Assembly when they return to Des Moines for the opening gavel on Monday, Jan. 8. Thursday’s Part 1 offered a basic overview of the coming session and our two elected officials. Part 2 will allow each elected official to specifically address the areas of state infrastructure, health care, mental health and economic development. Monday’s Part 3 will have Jones and Johnson address education, environment and agriculture.
Medical, mental health issues continue to be front and center
DES MOINES — As the 2018 legislative session in Des Moines looms on the horizon, local legislators, Iowa District 2 Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids and Iowa District 1 Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, offered some thoughts on a number of areas ahead of the first gavel of the 87th Iowa General Assembly Monday. The two local legislators, take a look at infrastructure, mental health, health care and economic development from a legislative perspective.
Jones said she hasn’t received a great deal of recent input from her constituents on the area of infrastructure but said this part of the state has benefited from continued state dollars.
“We have been very fortunate in this area to be the recipient of funding from the DOT to fix Highway 71,” Jones said. “However, there are always projects on the to-do list. Highway funding for these projects is decided by the Iowa Transportation Commission and not the Legislature, I will continue to be an advocate for our area.”
“The most important infrastructure is our valuable soil, and we need to start thinking that way,” Johnson said, “all of us.
“Budget cuts are diminishing our ability to do more than just sustain the status quo. Regenerative farming has replaced sustainable agriculture. It’s in everyone’s interest to protect and improve our soils.”
Jones cited another issue — one which she feels has received bipartisan interest and support to solve.
“We probably need to put the issue of traffic cameras to rest,” she said. “While I have received very few communications on it, traffic cameras seem to be the left-over issue when it comes to transportation. Traffic cameras seem to have deviated from a concern for safety to a concern for revenue.
“I think one of the reasons the issue of traffic cameras was not resolved last year is because it wasn’t a partisan issue, there were members of parties on both sides of the issue. That said, traffic cameras have united members of the parties to resolve this lingering problem.”
Johnson said from an infrastructure standpoint, there weren’t a lot of takeaways from the 2017 session, suggesting it’s been a couple of years since any really impactful measures have been accomplished at the state level.
“The real action was in 2015, when we raised the fuel tax by 10 cents,” Johnson said. “I voted for the raise, which was strongly supported by agriculture and industry. Getting those additional revenues to where they are most needed will take time. Western Iowa, including our area, has a looming crisis when it comes to the poor condition of our bridges.”
Jones targeted one issue of local interest in 2017, the closing and subsequent re-establishment of service to Spencer area drivers.
“For our area, being able to reopen a driver’s license station was very important and I am glad we were able to make that work,” she said. “We were very lucky to be able to get the bill which opened a driver’s license station in Clay County passed last year.”
Another hot topic on the local, state and national front are the challenges facing mental health care.
Johnson said his constituents in northwest Iowa have shared concerns “about maintaining access to mental-health treatment.”
The Ocheyedan senator pointed out, “Another community mental health center, one that was touted for its services, recently closed in rural southern Iowa.”
Jones agreed, “Mental health is an issue in which nearly every state is facing. We don’t want our prisons and jails to become mental health treatment facilities. ... We need to better fund mental health services in our state and attract more mental health professionals to our state.”
She pointed to HF 593 which emerged last session as a positive step.
“The bill allows mental health professionals to perform examinations, prescribe treatment or medication — if their license allows them to — and submit written statements and reports for commitment proceedings for people with substance abuse issues or serious mental illness,” she explained.
“The bill also allows mental health professionals to examine a person when they need to be detained due to a serious mental impairment or when necessary to preserve their life.”
Jones indicated mental health is an issue all legislators — regardless of party — should be able to work together to resolve.
“Mental health has always been a bipartisan issue and I would hope it remains bipartisan,” she said. “There should be common ground on the issue of mental health.”
As the legislators continue to navigate the issue, Jones said she will continue to collect input from her constituents and others with possible solutions.
“I have met with several people — providers, law enforcement, attorneys and families — who have been impacted by mental health concerns,” she said. “I am always ready and willing to listen to issues of concern from my constituents.”
Last year’s issues with Managed Care Organizations carries over into the 2018 legislative session, according to both Johnson and Jones.
“I have been a sharp critic of putting the administration of Iowa’s Medicaid program in the hands of private insurance companies bent on making profits,” Johnson said. “Those who agree with me were at least pleased to see some key Republicans at least begin to express their doubts about the managed care companies. So do most of the dozen candidates currently running for governor. That doesn’t include the current governor.”
“I don’t think anyone is happy with how the process of the MCO’s was rolled out,” Jones said. “I’m open to changes with the MCO system, but it’s difficult to see how we can go back to our previous system at this point.”
Looking back, Jones noted Iowa’s individual insurance market “is a disaster because of Obamacare.”
“Unfortunately, this is what many of us predicted when it was first passed,” the Sioux Rapids rep said. “Before Obamacare, Iowa’s insurance market was stable, had low premiums, and had lots of choice.”
Jones noted nine insurance carriers in 2014.
“Now, Iowans are faced with skyrocketing premiums and only one insurer,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we can work with CMS and Iowa’s Insurance Commissioner to see what we can do to improve this situation.”
Seeking resolution, she pointed out, “The cost of the old system was growing at a rapid pace and was taking resources away from other core government functions like schools, prisons and the court system. I am happy to work with constituents — providers or individuals to help seek resolution to the issues they are facing with MCO’s and billing.”
Both legislators addressed Medicaid issues specifically.
“With 1-in-5 Iowans on Medicaid, human services funding has a tremendous impact locally,” Jones said. “Both providers and clients of the Medicaid system want to ensure the system is run efficiently, works effectively and is not misused.”
Johnson said his constituents have shared a desire for he and his Des Moines peers to “end the confusion of health insurance coverage, including mental health.”
“The White House and Congress continue to make a mess of health care, leaving states in a guessing game as to the future,” Johnson said. “Federal or state, whatever is done, must ensure access to health care in all parts of Iowa. A hospital or clinic in Sibley is just as important as those in Des Moines.”
“Hopefully the federal government is able to address the issues that our state, and many others, are facing,” Jones said. “If so, we need to be able to work within federal constraints to get the insurance market back to work for Iowans.
“The amount of money spent on Medicaid will probably be the most partisan human services issue this session. We have to be realistic about the constraints of our budget while protecting those who need it most.”
Both area legislators also shared concerns regarding human services in the state.
“The tragic deaths of two 16-year-old girls in the Des Moines area are proof that Child Protective Services at the Department of Human Services has failed our most abused and troubled children,” Johnson said. “Not the field staff, mind you, who are doing the best they can with limited resources and support, and unimaginable caseloads. You get what you pay for. That’s a sad commentary on how we view the least among us.”
Jones agreed. “We need to continue to have strong oversight over human services and the way in which our foster care system is run. We owe Iowa’s kids better.”
Johnson called for “an end to building budgets behind closed doors.”
He commented, “I have never seen so few Health and Human Services budget meetings canceled as I saw last session.”
The senator offered a positive takeaway from the 2017 session. “Legislators grew increasingly aware of the deadly toll of opioids.”
“In the House, we also took some big steps to combat the opioid epidemic in Iowa,” Jones said. “I’m hopeful that we can take another look at those bills and move some other ideas forward.”
Looking ahead, Johnson cited another specific issue he would like to see resolved sooner rather than later.
“We need a workable medical cannabis law,” he said. “We keep falling short year after year.”
“Last session, we were able to open up cannabidiol to more people, put a stronger system in place and provide a mechanism for accessing the oil to Iowans,” Jones said.
Jones offered several thoughts in the area of economic development, including tax code changes and career and tech education support in schools.
“We need a tax system that is simple, fair and more competitive for all Iowans,” Jones said. “Our tax code is uncompetitive with other states as we have some of the highest rates in the country.”
She noted the taxes are fifth highest on individual income and the highest on corporate income. From last session, Jones pointed to SF 488 which made changes to the workforce housing tax incentive program by reserving $5 million of $20 million for workforce housing in small cities, while remaining under the tax credit cap for the IEDA.
“Small city projects can claim up to 20 percent of the qualifying new investments,” she said. “This is really important to helping build a skilled workforce in rural Iowa.”
Jones indicated Iowa would be much better served by “a simpler, fairer tax system, where Iowans keep more of their money and employers can reinvest in their businesses and employees.”
But she cautioned, “Any tax reform will need to be realistic and live within the state’s budget constraints. We can’t do something at the expense of core government functions.”
While looking at the funding formulas, Jones also brought up career and technical education in schools, noting a concern she’s received from employers about the need for individuals and a skilled workforce.
“I have heard from administrators and teachers locally that they need greater funding flexibility when it comes to career and technical education funding,” Jones said. “... I’ve been working with members of the Administrative Rules Review committee to address this issue and how we can have more flexible funding for this program.
“I hope that building a better and stronger workforce is not a partisan issue. ... Funding flexibility in education is generally a pretty popular concept, but I would think this one would be especially popular because it helps develop our workforce.”
Celebrating 25 years — Eggs and Issues kicks off Jan. 20
The 25th year of Eggs and Issue sessions will begin on Saturday, Jan. 20, at council chambers at Spencer City Hall. Doors to the public will open at 8:30 a.m. with the public forum start time scheduled at 9 a.m. This session will be sponsored by Winther-Stave & Co. with Arvin Druvenga, as the guest moderator. Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan; (above left) Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids; Rep. John Wills, R-Okoboji and (above right) Iowa State Auditor Mary Mosiman have all confirmed they will participate. The question and answer session will be from 9-10:30 a.m.