Part 3 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. Friday’s Part 2 allowed each elected official to specifically address the areas of state infrastructure, health care, mental health and economic development. The final entry affords Jones and Johnson the opportunity to address education, environment and agriculture.
Legislators talk ag, education, environmental issues
DES MOINES — Though the 2018 legislative session in Des Moines officially begins Monday, local legislators, Iowa District 2 Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, and Iowa District 1 Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, have spent the last few months out of session balancing their private sector lives with the responsibilities associated with their elected positions. Meeting with constituents, attending meetings and gatherings, and working to further the issues important to their local voter base. As they begin the 87th Iowa General Assembly both feel there is a great deal of work to do and issues in need of resolution.
Johnson did not hold back any punches when it came to reviewing the 2017 session’s impact on education.
“State aid for K-12 education would have made Scrooge proud,” he said. “Research dollars for our public universities are disappearing. Community colleges, the postsecondary institutions we depend on for higher-paying skilled jobs, took it on the chin again. Families with children are emptying out of Iowa’s rural areas, as are the early-childhood services they need. Long story short: find something positive in that picture.”
“While nearly every other area of the state’s budget received a cut or a status quo budget, we were able to increase funding to education by $40 million,” she said. “... Additionally, last session we were able to broaden the conversation on education to more than just funding. We gave schools more flexibility in how they can spend their resources and also gave them home rule authority to be innovative.”
Jones noted K-12 education — regent universities and community colleges excluded — account for 44.5 percent of the state’s budget. When higher education is taken into account, education funding is over half of the state’s budget.
“Unfortunately, school funding is always a partisan issue,” Jones said. Last session, we were able to protect K-12 education from any budget reductions and provided education with an additional $40 million, and it was still partisan.”
She added, “House Republicans are committed to appropriating the first piece of the budget to education while staying within the means of the budget.”
“First, let’s end the partisanship,” Johnson said. “When I attended Iowa schools, education was valued as a building block for our communities. Former Govs. Bob Ray and Harold Hughes both saw schools as doorways to opportunity. Today, it’s the most important economic-development tool in the machine shed. One-party rule last session led to the destruction of well-established rights for public workers, and that is going to lead to the exodus of needed middle class jobs, especially in our rural areas.”
Johnson said of particular interest to him this session is making sure “community colleges get their due dollars.”
“Employers needing skilled workers have stepped up to the plate,” Johnson said. “It’s way past time for the state to do the same.”
Johnson said he also plans to work on future recruitment of highly qualified K-12 teachers and college and university personnel.
“I’m introducing a bill addressing the K-12 situation that especially affects school districts in border counties in hiring teachers educated out of state,” he said.
“In meeting with several school districts and administrators, they are very concerned about SAVE and supplemental state aid,” Jones said. “... We currently pay a one cent sales tax that is designed for school infrastructure. That penny is set to expire in 2029. Each year that progresses, the school districts become less able to bond against that money.”
“It’s critical that we eliminate, which I favor most, or extend the penny sales tax for school infrastructure,” Johnson said. “Also known as SAVE, this statewide penny expires in 2029. It’s impossible to bond for projects without sufficient future revenues. Anti-tax legislators need to be held accountable if this situation isn’t fixed.”
He continued, “For the past couple years I have sponsored bills calling for eliminating or extending the SAVE ‘sunset’ date.”
“The extension of SAVE or the removal of the sunset will likely be coupled with tax reform,” Jones said, “although I am open to any ideas or concepts.”
She added, “I’ve also heard from a lot of parents who would like to see more school choice options available to their students.”
Jones also has a couple of pieces of legislation she has been championing after being approached by constituents.
“Over the course of the last several years, I have worked to improve safety for our students, particularly when it comes to the sexual exploitation of minors by school employees,” she said. “This issue was brought to me by a constituent and I have worked and will continue to work across the aisle on this issue. Additionally, the issue of concussions continues to be a bipartisan issue. This was also brought to me by a constituent and it is great to see so many legislators interested in helping to keep our kids safe.”
Johnson cited a couple of other concerns he would like to see addressed in the 2018 session.
“We need to find a way to equalize the disparity among school districts in transportation costs,” he said. “Districts with higher costs struggle to offer a world-class education in the classroom.”
Johnson also noted that many constituent discussions include “fear of another round of school consolidation.”
Entering 2018, Johnson strongly suggested it’s time for Iowa to put its money where its mouth is.
“Looking back, it’s positively shameful that under three governors and 10 general assemblies, it’s been all talk and no meaningful action on improving water quality, including access to safe drinking water,” he said.
The senator continued, “If we’re going to be serious about our waters, let’s throw the egos overboard. There are promises being made, mostly in the House, that a water quality bill will be passed in the first two weeks of the session. What that means: It will only be a majority-party bill, with no input from minority members. Or from environmental groups, utility interests and sources of science-based, evidence-based facts.”
Johnson cited the 2010 “election landslide” where 63 percent of voters approved a constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust. Up to 60 percent of those funds would go to improve water quality.
“It’s time to fund the trust with a fractional increase in the state sales tax, which was recommended by a citizens task force after three years of study,” he said. “A dedicated tax to a dedicated fund would not take money away from education, health care, human services and other government operations.”
“Protecting our environment and recycling is not a partisan issue, but sometimes it becomes more of an urban versus rural issue,” Jones said. “Hopefully we can come together for the betterment of our state.”
Jones will be pursuing recycling options in the coming session.
“Folks are very concerned about recycling and making it convenient, clean and a realistic opportunity for everyone,” she said. “... We made tremendous progress on a bill that would have provided greater access and funding for recycling efforts in our state.”
According to Jones, approximately 10 percent of Iowans have no access to recycling. Still others want to see a change with the current bottle deposit plan.
“I am currently working on a sustainable recycling bill,” she said. “Increased access to recycling would really be helpful to House District 2, especially those in the rural areas who do not have access to recycling or do not have reasonable access to recycling.”
Jones sees Johnson’s water bill concerns as a carry over — spanning both environment and agriculture.
“Water quality should not be a partisan issue,” she said. “While there are a few different routes being proposed on how to get the best bill, it isn’t about partisan politics. ... While we were not able to come to an agreement on the water quality bill, the discussions that took place helped to move the issue into the spotlight and forward.”
“Whether it’s the House version or the Senate version, we need a bill,” she said. “We need to have a sustainable water quality bill. The House has been a leader on this topic, passing a water quality bill each of the last two years. I would have voted for either bill last year because I think we need to take action on water quality. However, I think the bill that is currently sitting in the House, which we passed in 2016, has the most support and will probably be sent to the governor in short order. I think everyone cares about water quality and we should be able to build off of common ground.”
The Ocheyedan senator suggested not much got done legislatively on the agriculture front.
“Some good legislation was never considered,” Johnson said. “... There is a growing disregard for the rights of all when it comes to agriculture. A new law last session basically took away the rights of rural residents, including farmers, to file nuisance lawsuits against livestock producers. As a former Senate Agriculture Committee chair, it’s one of the worst laws I have seen. Kiss ‘Iowa Nice’ goodbye, and you can quote me.”
Johnson is concerned with “the continuing decline in the number of midsize farms.”
He explained, “Large ag operations are getting bigger; the average Iowa farmer is getting older. Some of the nation’s largest pork producers are in expansion mode in Iowa and some are skirting the rules, creating a new chapter in a largely rural fight for quality of life. At my last count, 21 county boards of supervisors have asked for a review of the so-called master matrix, a scoring system for CAFO siting and operation. The matrix was developed 16 years ago and has not been amended since. Meantime, the pork industry has undergone sweeping changes. Last session powerful ag interests shut down legislation to address those issues. We need an open, nonpartisan discussion.”
Johnson pointed out, “There’s only one controlling party, and that’s the majority party holding both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office. The best road to finding common ground is to elect more independents seeking to bring lawmakers together. After all, Iowans registered ‘no party’ outnumber Republicans and Democrats.”