by Steve Peterson
Iowa legislators State Senator Randy Feenstra (R-Hull) and State Representative Dwayne Alons (R-Hull), both of whom represent the Hawarden area, addressed several issues at their forum Feb. 1 in Hawarden.
“I’m in the minority again this year in the Senate as there are 24 Republicans in the Senate and 26 Democrats,” said Alons. “It’s a little tough to do things.”
“This year the biggest topic is we have too much cash,” he said. “We haven’t heard that in years. We had a structural deficit of a billion dollars when Gov. Terry Branstad took over two years ago. Now, through sound budgeting practices and fiscal restraint, our cash reserves and economic emergency funds are full. Additionally, at the end of the fiscal year, it looks like the State will have over collected nearly $800 million in tax dollars.”
“That is huge topic. Do you spend it? Do you give it back, give it to schools, transportation? And everyone says they should have part of it. That is the huge challenge. I introduced a bill that would give a portion of that back. If you’re an income tax payer, you would get a tax credit of $375 and $750 for families. The idea was blocked by the Senate Democrats before the vote could be taken on the floor,” said Feenstra. “We’re hoping the House of Representatives will take it up.”
“The other main issue is education. The governor has an education reform bill he wants to have passed. It includes having mentors in teachers’ classrooms. It’s a good idea, and also to increase the wage of new teachers to $35,000. The reason he wants to do that is he wants to get more people in the education field. People aren’t going into education because the pay for starting teachers is so low. It will be an interesting discussion.”
There is also Allowable Growth, and in the Senate we passed it. For every child going to school, the district gets $6,000. At 4 percent Allowable Growth that would give them $181 more per child, he said.
“I’m on the Transportation Committee and (transportation) is a huge topic again. We’re seeing a little bit of a reduction in revenue coming in due to cars going more miles (per gallon). There is also a big topic, the gas tax. Frankly a bigger topic than the gas tax is where will that money go: Highways 20 and 30, other things, a passenger rail. People see the money from a gas tax and say, ‘what are we going to do with the money.’ If we have excess this year, we should use it for roads and bridges,” said Feenstra.
“I’m on the Veterans Affairs Committee. We’re looking at some additional things we can do for veterans such as encouraging the state to retain both retired and if they’re serving, to keep their address here in Iowa. One of the bills is to carry the no state income tax over into the retirement benefits. We’ll have a committee meeting on that soon and we will work on a bipartisan basis. A lot of times veterans’ issues do get handled in a bipartisan way.
“Some of the tax money coming in (due to over collecting) has come in because of the ‘Fiscal Cliff.’ The Revenue Estimating Conference, a group of three people, hasn’t set a number for an estimate of what we have to set our budget on in Fiscal Year 2014. They had to use the figures from December with the expected expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. Iowans would pay more federal tax and less state tax, and there would be a decrease in our revenue. With the Bush-era, tax cuts extended that revenue will still come to the state for $45 million in this current fiscal year and $85 million the next fiscal year. There is a catch to that. The law says you have to abide by what was said in December. It is not technically available but there are people eyeing that. You just put the word ‘notwithstanding’ in and it is protected in the Constitution. Iowa House has no interest in going that way and spending more. The growth in government is already at a sustainable level.
“Another issue, which is wrapped around the Affordable Care Act, is an issue relating to state insurance exchanges or whether or not the state will play in it. There will be a federal website where people can go and choose their best coverage. Then there is the issue of Medicaid expansion. More people will be unable to continue insurance coverage and the lower income folks will have quite a raise in their premiums because in the Affordable Healthcare Act, the range of premiums are fairly level across all the tax brackets. All these issues are quite concerning to the state, because what will happen is a lot of additional cost. If you expand Medicaid, you could pick up 150,000 people that would have to be covered between federal and state dollars, between $150 and $500 million. Adding $500 million onto our budget is a huge increase and well above typical amounts of normal growth. It’s troubling to say we will pick up all these people on Medicaid without looking at all the options,” said Alons.