Ames legislators identify three focuses for current legislative session

Matt Wettengel

The Iowa Legislature keys in on what is considered the current year’s focus.

Along with continued work on the budget and drive to create more well-paying jobs in the state, education reform, property tax reform and redesigning the state’s mental health and disabilities services system are the three things that Sen. Herman Quirmbach, Rep. Lisa Heddens and Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell believe will garner the most debate.

Gov. Terry Branstad’s $25 million plan for education reform focuses on holding students and teachers in the state to higher standards. As it currently stands, the package includes the following changes for students:

  • Retention of third graders “who do not meet basic literary requirements.”
  • End of course exams in core high school classes, which could eventually be used as a component of students’ graduation. 
  • Replacing the Iowa Test of Educational Development for 11th grade students with the ACT or SAT test, which would be paid for by the state.
The plan will also hold educators to higher standards by:
  • Requiring educators entering the teacher preparation programs to have a cumulative college GPA no lower than 3.0.
  • Requiring new educators to pass a pre-professional skills test in the top 75 percent nationally.
  • Increasing required student-teaching time to 15 weeks.
  • Requiring annual evaluations of educators in the state.
  • Weighing educators’ performance over seniority when considering layoffs.

“Education reform seems to have some support where you may not guess it would be, but people on both sides oppose and favor different parts of it, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out,” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

Quirmbach added that plans to increase funding to the Regent universities, which have received cuts from state funding for the past four years, will be up for discussion.

“The governor is recommending restoring $20 million to the Regent universities,” Quirmbach said, adding that he views this as a “pretty minimal effort. … I forsee the Senate passing an appropriation bill that would return more money to the Regents somewhere between $30 and $40 million.”

When it comes to property tax reform, Wessel-Kroeschell noted the issue is something that has come up each of the eight years that she has served in the Iowa House. In the past, legislation has been passed by both the House and the Senate, but no legislation has received support from both entities.

Lowering of property taxes would have a positive impact on small businesses and would foster job creation, which Wessel-Kroeschell believes is important given the current economy. The governor’s current plan of reducing commercial property taxes without impacting residential and agricultural taxes and limiting what local governments can raise for revenue will impact local services like firefighters, sanitation, police, etc., Heddens said, though it remains to be seen to what extent.

Redesigning the mental health and disabilities services system in the state would take it from the current 99 county system to a centralized system directed by the state. This would be done by an undesignated board of regents who would manage the system, which would continue to provide services at local levels.

Heddens emphasized that the Legislature must be careful throughout the process of reviewing, approving and implementing such changes to the system.

“There has to be enough money infused in the system to get the results we’re wanting and maintain services to [this] vulnerable population,” Heddens said.

Heddens estimated that a bill for these changes would be released for review in the House sometime next week.

Though it is the beginning of the session, both Quirmbach and Wessel-Kroeschell have seen movement toward common ground in both the Senate and the House. According to Heddens, if partisanship levels down even just a little bit, it will be better than last year’s session.

“I’m hoping for more consensus this year,” Heddens said. “I expect people to stick to their beliefs but to look for commonalities where they can be found, versus sticking their feet in the ground and [refusing to budge from their position.]”