Courier Staff Writer
If the state makes a promise to local government and to its citizens, it needs to keep and fulfill that promise, said area legislators.
At the League of Women Voters of Ottumwa’s first legislative forum Saturday, area legislators fielded questions from citizens about their main concerns in the upcoming legislative session, mainly mental health reform, commercial property tax reduction and the education system.
Legislators included state Sens. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, and Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, as well as state Reps. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, and Larry Sheets, R-Moulton.
Mental health reform ‘another big mess’
All legislators agreed that the cost of medications should be included in the core services that regions must provide to their mental health clients.
“It seems ridiculous to me that we would send someone to a psychiatrist, who says they need medication, then we tell them there’s absolutely no way they can get those medications,” Gaskill said. “What’s going to happen to them? They end up in jail, and the deputies and jail people have to deal with them.”
Hanson said there’s inequity in the new regionalized system.
“One problem is when people are on drugs and they get to feeling better, they feel OK and they go off of their medication,” he said. “That’s when terrible things happen. Funding of those drugs is very beneficial and cost-effective compared to putting these people in a locked-up situation.”
Sheets said that one way or another, Iowans have to pay for mental health services, either in the form of medication or jail time.
“Those people are out on the street trying to live a normal life,” Sheets said. “When they don’t have medications, it comes back to us in the form of jailhouse stays, because there’s no other place to sleep or way to behave.”
Chelgren said he would like to leave this up to counties to decide.
“Counties like Wapello County made the decision that it was best for their individuals to include the cost of medication,” Chelgren said.
His concern lies with the state government mandating that counties include medication in their core services and then patients using the medication for illegal practices, instead of as prescribed.
When Senate File 2315 passed last year, Jennifer Vitko, Wapello County’s CPC, said transitional funds were supposed to be available for those counties shifting to a regional system. It also indicated that new per capita requirements will lower the levy to 47.28, with the state backfilling the rest.
“But the governor has appropriated no money for those two priorities,” Vitko said.
Rozenboom, former Mahaska County supervisor, said a year ago he was on the local end of this debate.
“The state does not keep its promises very well,” he said. “I intend to change that culture before that culture changes me. I’m a big believer in local control and I resent the state telling cities and counties what to do, and then not provide proper funding to do that.”
Hanson said the state “replaced one big mess with another big mess” with last year’s mental health reform.
“The transition funds supposed to be allocated were grossly inadequate and were consumed by one large county,” Hanson said. “The governor then said he’d come up with a supplemental budget to help, of $3.8 million. The people looked at this and said we need more like $20 million to make a smooth transition.”
Considering an increase in allowable growth
Ottumwa science teacher Kevin McGinity asked if the Legislature would consider increasing allowable growth now before tackling education reform.
Hanson said the legislature is not following the law if it doesn’t set allowable growth by the end of February.
Gov. Terry Branstad has included no increase in allowable growth for the 2013-14 school year in his budget.
“Ninety-nine percent of superintendents surveyed think allowable growth should be set a year-and-a-half in advance,” Hanson said. “We’re holding school districts and superintendents hostage while we talk about education reform.”
But Branstad has said he’d like to see education reform approved before considering an increase in allowable growth.
Sheets, who previously served on the Moulton-Udell School Board, said without allowable growth, “the rural and small community schools will just start disappearing.”
“All the small schools are trying very hard to keep the reserve of authorized spending positive, because once it goes negative two years in a row, the Department of Education comes in and closes the school,” Sheets said. “Both allowable growth and school reform should be done by the governor by the end of February. The sooner the better. The superintendents of schools are required by law to come up with their budgets to plan the schools, and they’re not able to do that.”
Chelgren said he’s not sure yet if he supports 4 percent allowable growth.
“Forty years ago, we spent $930 per student,” Chelgren said. “But we were also No. 1 in the nation in education. Forty years later, we now spend $6,240 per student ... and we’re now 25th in the nation. More money is not the only answer. I support giving schools more money; I think it’s important. At the same time, we want to make sure we have concrete plans in place so we have expectations that our schools improve. If we just throw money at it with no expectations to change, there will be no change.”
Rozenboom agreed, noting that in 1992, 37 percent of the state budget went to education and Iowa was No. 1 in the country. Today, the state spends 43 percent of its budget on education, and Iowa has slipped to 25th.
Spur growth with commercial tax reductions
“I’m hoping when we’re looking at that, we truly need to focus on helping smaller businesses grow,” Gaskill said of commercial property tax reduction.
Hanson said the breakdown of last year’s discussion will be the basis for the start of this year’s.
“We need to make sure we’re not just benefiting the big, big industries in Iowa, leaving Main Street in the dust,” Hanson said. “Cities, towns, counties and schools are worried about not getting any help if commercial property taxes are relieved and made smaller. What happens to their budgets? They’re concerned about the legislature backfilling those amounts.”
Sheets said Iowa is not a good state to start a business.
“Some stores, their property taxes approach half a million dollars a year. That doesn’t seem right,” he said. “Someone who wants to start a business has to deal with the highest income tax as well as the third highest property tax.”