The Ottumwa Courier

Ottumwa

March 4, 2013

Despite their differences, legislators fighting for rural Iowa

Republicans and Democrats alike focus on aid for more than just Iowa’s big cities

OTTUMWA — The League of Women Voters doesn’t take a position on every issue. But they do when it comes to allowing people to vote. Luckily, they had five elected officials from southeast Iowa whom they could talk to.

The League and the Ottumwa Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored a legislative forum at Bridge View Center on Saturday.

Legislators didn’t agree on all answers, but the discussion remained generally friendly between a Bridge View Center audience and 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.

So what do legislators feel about the push to make those without photo IDs get one?

“If we cannot trust our votes, our whole form of government collapses,” said Chelgren.

But he agrees that no citizen should be kept from the polls because they can’t afford an ID. Supplying identification to voters without one is important enough to be paid for by taxpayers, he said.  

Sheets would be OK with requiring a photo identification or other method of positively identifying a voter.

“It’s worthwhile to keep our vote sacred,” he said.

Hanson thinks the issue doesn’t require a lot of attention — or at least as much focus as it’s been getting.

“I think it’s largely a political issue,” he said.

A high school teacher asked about the funding increase formerly known as allowable growth and if schools would be told what their budget will be “before” they need to submit a budget plan to the state.

The legislators said that there is supposed to be a due date for the announcement from Des Moines. You never make it, said the teacher.

“I’m sorry to report that we don’t follow our own rules,” said a disappointed-sounding Curt Hanson.

That makes it tough for schools to plan, the former educator acknowledged.

On the plus side, the panel agreed, there’s a good chance there will be growth this year. It might not be the 4 percent that had traditionally been discussed, but some recent years have seen “zero growth” when schools scrounge to pay for contracted raises and increases in gas prices for buses.

“No one is talking about less than 2 percent,” said Rozenboom. “I’ll say ... it’s safe to plan on 2 percent.”

“I hope it’s at least two percent,” Gaskill said. “I’m hoping for 4 percent.”

Whatever is done for schools, said Sheets, there needs to be a bigger change. He’d been asked a question about schools, too,  including the subject of home schooling and providing a bit of competition for the public schools so they have to improve.

And yes, the legislator said, he was aware that educational reform had been initiated. But he agrees with those who say the current plan doesn’t go far enough.

“We used to be in the top nationally, and now we’re in the middle,” he said. “But that doesn’t tell the whole story. We used to be the top among nations.”

There has to be a push to regain that educational excellence, he said.

What about the lack of attention to Iowa’s Constitution? asked an audience member. Both Gaskill and Chelgren pointed out that isn’t always happening. For example, Senate or House bills are supposed to come through the House asking for one thing: One new law, one change to an existing law, one new expense approved.

What happens is that a whole bunch of rules and requests for money come through as one bill. If you are in favor of funding a new jail, you may have no choice but to vote in favor of the “sweetheart deal” tax cut some politician is getting for a buddy — or voting for the now legendary “bridge to nowhere.”

That’s not constitutional, Gaskill and Chelgren said.

“I’m with Mark on that,” said Gaskill. “I think we need to vote on one subject at a time. It’s already a law ... but I think it’s been very loosely enforced.”

You swore to uphold the U.S. and Iowa constitutions, the questioner had said.

Sheets seemed to lighten the mood when he half-joked to the questioner that he’s behaved so far.

“I’ve been in the Senate all of seven weeks now,” he said, “so I don’t think I’ve violated the Constitution all too often.”

A supervisor from Davis County asked the panel what the chances were county governments could get some much needed help with rural road repair.

To be honest, most legislators answered, it probably will not happen this year.

Hanson said he’d pushed for a one-time grant totaling $120 million to the counties for rural roads. But the lobby didn’t seem to care because it was just one-time money. Party leadership doesn’t seem interested in putting it forward for discussion, either, he said.

“I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” Hanson said.

One of the really annoying things about government, said one visitor Saturday, is that the language used in new laws is barely recognizable as English. Can’t we simplify things — and maybe have one tax paid by everyone?

We should, said several lawmakers.

“Because of the convoluted nature of the Iowa tax code,” said Chelgren, “a [small business owner likely] can’t do their own taxes. As for the language ... when the founders of this country wrote the Constitution, they wrote it at a sixth-grade level ... so anybody could read it. They wanted the people to participate in government. How can the people participate when they can’t understand the language?”

Finally, the League itself asked about health care in the state. The governor has said he doesn’t want to expand Medicaid. He wants to renew the “Iowa Cares” program. That provides no medicine for the poor, and barely any service for the poor in southeast Iowa, since the lowest income residents here have to go to Iowa City for treatment. So, Medicaid or Iowa Cares?

“It’s not that simple,” said Sheets.

He and Rozenboom agreed that both programs had enough drawbacks that maybe we should be looking for something better.

Medicaid expansion may sound good, Rozenboom agreed, because the Federal government says they’ll fund it at 100 percent for several years. But will feds do that? They don’t always fund the things they say they’ll fund. And the states are left holding the bag.

“Do we want to put 160,000 Iowans on the Titanic?” asked Sheets.

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