March Madness is well underway in the world of basketball, and the atmosphere here at the State Capitol has become a little maddening at times as well.
This is normal, however. It is the time of the year when major pieces of legislation get debated, and the state budget begins to take form. Add to that the fact that the Legislature was forced to make budget reductions to the current fiscal year because of lower revenue numbers, and one can see how things can get a little tense around here.
Debate is healthy, and we are working to finish up the session about the middle of April, so even though some of the discussions may become heated, the work must be done.
As I mentioned, we were forced by law to balance the fiscal year budget we are currently in, so the House and Senate agreed to make about $25 million in reductions to about 40 agencies and departments. Most of these amount to a reduction of less than 1%, and this is not an across-the-board cut.
Everyone was put on notice last fall that there would most likely need to be some adjustments, so even though it is late in the fiscal year, most agencies were prepared for cuts, and should be able to weather the storm. This is not an easy thing to do, but it was necessary because the revenue projections were higher than actual dollars coming in.
This measure will now go to the Governor for her signature, and lawmakers will start to put the finishing touches on next year’s budget.
Standing committees are done meeting for the session. The exceptions are Ways and Means, and the Appropriations committees. Members of these two committees are always on call, and could be summoned into a meeting at any time.
I am a member of the Appropriations committee, and even though we have only had a couple of bills come before us this year, our heavy lifting is about to start. The entire state budget must be approved by this committee. That takes a lot of time, and sometimes, late nights.
The Ways and Means committee handles all things dealing with taxes, and they have several important bills in front of them as well. One of these deals with School Infrastructure dollars and another is the Governor’s tax reform package. Progress is being made on both bills.
Since committees are not meeting, that means we are spending most of our time in caucus discussing bills that will be coming to the floor for debate. We caucus for a couple of hours, and then go upstairs and debate a handful of bills, go back to caucus for a while, and then bring up another batch of legislation.
Nobody really likes to sit in caucus for a couple of hours, but since a member only sits on probably three committees, this may be the only time we get to see some of these bills before they are debated. It is a tedious process, but it works well.
Here at the Capitol, one person cannot know everything about every single bill, so it is best to talk about each one individually so people have a chance to ask questions in order to be able to make a correct decision.
Good committee work and ample caucus time produces the best legislation….and eliminates some things that are not yet ready for debate and passage.
This week, the House and Senate passed a Joint Resolution to the Iowa Constitution that says the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.
This resolution is a proposal that would put this language before the people of the state of Iowa for a vote. It must pass the General Assembly next year too, and it would then be placed on the ballot for a vote. If the vote is successful, the language would be placed in the Iowa Constitution. I supported the resolution in order to give the people the right to vote and decide.
The House also passed a bill which basically allow individuals to purchase healthcare benefit plans outside of the Affordable Care Act — or as some call it, Obamacare. In Iowa, the ACA has not worked, and many companies have left the market.
There are a lot of self-employed people who are paying over $30,000 for health insurance per year, and they really do not have much coverage. The bill which passed with allow these people the opportunity to purchase a health benefit plan that best fits their needs and comes with a much lower premium.
Some of the stories we are hearing from rural areas are tragic. Some people who cannot afford extremely high premiums are leaving farming to seek coverage for themselves and their families in other jobs.
This bill is by no means perfect, but it is a start. It will at least give people some more options when searching for healthcare coverage. I voted for the bill.
The Senate passed a bill which will greatly improve mental health services in Iowa. It passed unanimously, and will now go to the Governor for her signature since the House has already acted on the bill.
This is much-needed legislation, and I believe will be very beneficial for rural Iowa. This is something Iowans have been asking for, so I am glad we were finally able to get something passed, and I am confident the Governor will sign it.
Finally, if your tax refund from the State was late last year, it will probably be late again this year.
Once again, the state has stepped efforts to prevent fraud. The state has more money in the cash flow accounts than last year, so it is not a question of not having the funds.
Last year, the state identified $44million in fraudulent activities, so I am glad they are trying to do whatever they can, even though I know it is frustrating for Iowa citizens.