Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Panora, spoke on the education appropriations bill as the House debated late into the night April 18, 2024. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa lawmakers debated budget bills into the early morning Friday as they aim for the end of session in the coming days.

Though legislators spent much of their days in party caucus meetings Thursday, members of both the House and Senate moved through dozens of bills during debate, in addition to meetings of the chambers’ committees on taxes and spending. 

The high volume of action comes in hopes of ending the 2024 session in the coming days. Lawmakers passed their end date goal earlier this week, with their per diem expenses no longer paid as of Tuesday. Though the official 100th day of session passed by, legislators are aiming to finish close to this deadline and have plans for lengthy floor debate in the coming days.

Starting in the afternoon, the Senate met to pass several spending bills – the bills funding Iowa’s state government that must be passed before the Legislature can adjourn for the year. Beginning at 11:15 p.m., the House moved to approve some of those same bills, with agreements already reached in closed door negotiations between the two parties.

The House adjourned at 1:50 a.m. Friday. Members of both chambers will reconvene just a few hours later, working on the few remaining bills that legislators plan to move forward in the final stretch. Bills expected to come up Friday include both appropriations bills and pending policy goals – bills like the tax omnibus bill passed through committees earlier Thursday, and legislation changing the statute of limitations for participants in the Boy Scouts child sexual abuse settlement.

Here are some of the bills that lawmakers passed Thursday (and early morning Friday) in the final days of session:

Budget bills

Education appropriations: Senate File 2435 makes appropriations for the Iowa Board of Regents and the universities it governs, the Iowa Department of Education and Department for the Blind.

A previous version of the bill would have allocated no additional general funding to state universities for the new fiscal year. As amended, the University of Iowa would receive more than $223 million in general university funding, Iowa State University would receive more than $178 million and the University of Northern Iowa would receive almost $102 million. 

In the House debate on the legislation, Rep. Adam Zabner, D-Iowa City, criticized the bill’s floor manager Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Panora, saying that Republicans were not adequately funding the regents universities – leading to higher costs for Iowans seeking to attend public colleges in the state. 

But Nordman argued that House Republicans have prioritized keeping colleges affordable, pointing to measures in the budget like the grants for high-demand jobs and several loan repayment programs.

“I believe this budget accomplishes many priorities House Republicans set out to get done this year, and it is consistent with the responsible budgeting practices we have set forth over the past decade-plus,” he said.

The amended bill would also prohibit state universities from creating, maintaining or funding diversity, equity and inclusion offices, which are defined in the bill as “division, office, center, or other unit of a public institution of higher education that is responsible for creating, developing, designing, implementing, organizing, planning, or promoting policies, programming, training, practices, activities, or procedures related to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” unless required by state or federal government or for accreditation. 

Private universities would be required to submit annual reports to the General Assembly, Iowa College Aid and Iowa Workforce Development on the number of enrolled students receiving an Iowa Tuition Grant and what they study, as well as an estimate of how many graduates from the previous year who received aid went into a high-demand job and stayed in Iowa. If the school doesn’t file a report, students who attend won’t be eligible for tuition grants the next year, according to the bill. The bill would raise funding for tuition grants for students in private universities by 2.5% to more than $52 million. 

Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said that while the education appropriations bill primarily deals with higher education, there are still “critical needs” in Iowa’s K-12 school system that need to be addressed.

She said one of the biggest shortfalls in the budget was the lack of funding for mental health support programs for K-12 students. 

She said funding for mental health support in K-12 schools is even more necessary following the law signed by Reynolds in March, making changes to Iowa’s Area Education Agencies. AEAs provide special education services, but also have staff workers like school psychologists and social workers that operate in Iowa schools.

“With the efforts that have been removed from our AEA, we should have stepped up to the plate with funding for them in this budget,” she said. “We should prioritize emotional, mental and behavioral support in elementary to high schools. That’s what our kids need and deserve, and this budget doesn’t address that.”

The House amended the legislation clarifying about the role of the employees working for the Division of Special Education within the Department of Education, who will be hired to take over oversight and supervision duties currently performed internally by AEA employees. The amendment also makes changes to the funding appropriated for Iowa community colleges.

The legislation would also adopt rules for school districts related to chronic absenteeism and truancy, setting up a procedure for schools to work with parents and students through a “absenteeism prevention plan,” and would require the county attorney’s involvement in further involvement and intervention measures. Parents can face criminal charges for their child’s truancy.

Sen. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, said the approach to “chronic absenteeism” outlined in the bill would not help Iowa students and schools address or stop the problem.

“As an educator, I have seen the unintended consequences of prescriptive chronic absenteeism policies firsthand,” Donahue said “They don’t work. What happens is when parents are threatened with unrealistic consequences from county attorneys, they pull their kids out of the school to home school them, as a way to avoid the consequences, for both the parents and the students. This is … a terrible outcome for students, we want them in school.”

Health and Human Services: The House passed funding for the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services and related services shortly after midnight Friday.

House File 2698 offers a $88.6 million increase in funding compared to FY 2024, Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola said. The additional funding includes a $14.6 million increase put toward increasing reimbursement rates for home and community-based service providers, Medicaid programs that work with adults with disabilities and older Iowans. This allocation in part backfills funding previously provided through the federal American Rescue Plan.

The bill also includes $5 million in state funding to increase long-term services and supports for Iowans with intellectual disabilities, creating 70 additional waiver slots for these services. An additional $2.1 million is put toward mental health care Medicaid reimbursement rates and $3 million for adjustments toward home health provider rates working with older Iowans.

“This is the largest budget increase since I’ve chaired the budget,” Fry said.

The legislation also incorporates parts of previous bills, including a measure that would establish joint training sessions with nursing home staff and inspectors about the most common complaints. It also includes language from a bill adding registration requirements for temporary staffing agencies that employ workers at Iowa nursing homes – but does not include the proposed 150% cap on maximum allowable charges for workers based on the statewide average wage to nursing services workers.

Democrats introduced multiple amendments, requesting additional funding for proposals focused on changing Hawki reimbursement rates for dental care to funding pediatric cancer research.

Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, introduced an amendment to raise the Medicaid personal needs allowance for people living in nursing homes and other care facilities from $50 a month to $75. 

Care facility residents have regularly called for lawmakers to increase this amount. Personal needs allowance is what people use to pay for items that facilities often do not provide to residents, including items like snacks and gifts and other costs like cell phone services or haircuts.

Isenhart read a letter from a constituent who was dependent on Medicaid who called for raising the personal needs allowance, writing that $50 is “no longer able to adequately meet our needs when you consider that a winter coat or a pair of supportive shoes easily cost $50 or more.” He said the Legislature needs to fund support for Iowa seniors.

“I can guarantee every legislator in this body has dozens, if not hundreds, of people this impacts in your counties in your districts,” he said.

Fry said that while he understood Isenhart’s perspective, he estimated that the cost of raising the personal needs allowance by $25 would take roughly $1.5 million, asking lawmakers to reject the measure as it is not funded through the agreed-upon budget.

Isenhart disagreed, saying he believes “it’s a dollar amount we can afford given everything else we’ve spent money on over the last 23 years.”

The amendment was voted down 35-56.

The HHS appropriations bill, as amended, was approved 56-35, and heads to the Senate for consideration.

House debate

Behavioral health system: House lawmakers sent Reynolds’ proposal to change the structure of the state’s mental health and substance abuse services to the governor’s desk Thursday. 

House File 2673 would establish the Behavioral Health Services System (BHSS) in Iowa. This new system would take on the duties of the existing Mental Health and Disabilities Services (MHDS), as well as incorporating substance abuse and other addiction recovery services. From this, MHDS would move it into an advisory role with disability care going under the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services’ division of disability and aging services. 

The new system would also combine the current 13 mental health and 19 substance abuse regions into seven total districts for all relevant care.

Legislators concurred with a Senate amendment and approved the bill in a 88-8 vote Thursday. 

Fry said the merging of these two public health systems will help improve psychiatric and addiction recovery services and availability in Iowa.

“I have worked on a variety of different pieces related to mental health and substance abuse … in my last 14 years here,” Fry said. “And this is a great opportunity for the state of Iowa to see these two worlds merge, and to have a system statewide that I believe will benefit Iowans in some pretty dramatic ways.”

In earlier meetings on the governor’s bill, lawmakers and advocates spoke about the need to make mental health care more accessible in Iowa. According to a Treatment Advocacy Center report published in January, Iowa has a rate of two in-patient psychiatric beds managed by the state available per 100,000 residents. The advocacy group said that 50 beds per 100,000 residents is the base needed to provide “minimally adequate treatment” for people with severe mental health needs.

Reynolds praised the Legislature for passing the bill.

“Iowa has made significant progress in behavioral health care in recent years, from expanding adult services to establishing the first children’s mental health system and increasing funding,” the governor said in a statement. “But more must be done to align services, making it easier for Iowans to get the help they need and for providers to better coordinate their care. This legislation takes the next step to strengthen the system by aligning services statewide.”

Opioid Settlement Fund: Iowa’s settlement funds gained through lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and pharmacies accused of contributing to the opioid crisis by encouraging doctors to prescribe opioids to patients.

As of this year, the state has $26.8 million in settlement funds, according to the state treasurer’s office. An additional $144 million is expected to come from settlements in coming years, with half going to the state government and half to local governments.

Senate File 2395, as amended by the House, would create a grant program for use of the settlement funds through Iowa HHS, awarding and distributing one-time funding grants annually to applicants for the use of opioid addiction treatment and prevention services. The bill also establishes an advisory council to review and make recommendations to lawmakers about the funding of grant applications each year.

Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, said the bill is “a year too late,” as funding became available to states in 2023. But he also praised lawmakers for taking the time to “get everything right” on distributing the money, as well as allowing for future changes with the advisory council’s oversight.

“We may have to recraft a few things and tinker with a few things to make sure that we’re really making sure that this money is being used in the way that is really going to help those that need the help,” he said.

The bill also directly appropriates money to specific nonprofits through the settlement fund. It allocates $3 million to Youth and Shelter Services and $8 million to Community and Family Resources to build infrastructure needed to provide addiction recovery services, Fry said. The bill also provides roughly $1.54 million in funding to the state Attorney General’s office, dedicated to supporting the office’s work with the “billion pill pledge” program and efforts to help doctors and pharmacists move away from prescribing opioids post-surgery.

The Senate version of the bill would have directed three-fourths of the Opioid Settlement Fund money to Iowa HHS each year, with the remaining 25% going to the attorney general’s Office.

As House lawmakers unanimously passed the bill, sending it back to the Senate for consideration, Fry asked for his colleagues to contact senators and urge them to support the bill.

“I do want to just echo the fact that the goal here is to help Iowans around opioid addiction,” Fry said. “I believe this bill will do just that. We are sending money out the door as we pass this bill today, or as the governor hopefully will sign it eventually, and we’re also making sure that the money for the future Legislatures is there to help future Iowans who may also have this addiction.”

Pay increase for lawmakers: After moving the bill through committee Wednesday night, lawmakers in the House approved a measure to raise legislator and state elected officials’ pay by $10,000 Thursday.

House File 2700, passed in a 58-38 vote, would raise legislators’ salary to $35,000 annually beginning in the 2025 legislative session. Pay would also increase for those in leadership positions, with the House speaker, Senate president, and majority and minority leaders in both chambers earning $47,500. 

Statewide elected officials, including the governor, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state and treasurer would also get a $10,000 bump. This increase would raise the governor’s salary to $140,000 and attorney general to $133,669. All other statewide offices would see their salaries rise to $133,212 annually.

The bill also includes annual cost-of-living adjustments to lawmakers’ pay beginning in 2026 based on average adjustments negotiated by public sector bargaining units.

Fry said in floor debate that “perspective” is needed to understand the need to raise legislators’ pay – the current $25,000 rate was set in 2005, going into effect in 2007, and has not increased since despite inflation and rising costs of living.

“It’s my belief that if we want to continue to maintain this bright future that Iowa has, with the brightest leaders that we can find, this is a key piece of how we’ll retain – we attract and retain – some of those bright leaders in the state of Iowa,” Fry said.

Senate debate

School security funding: The two chambers have yet to reach agreement on pay for security at public schools, including arming staff. The Senate passed House File 2652 Thursday on a 33-14 vote and sent it back to the House with significant changes. 

While the original version of the legislation would have provided $3 million in state appropriations to finance the additional security and training available to school districts, senators amended the language to take out the $3 million in funding. Instead, their version would allow schools to designate funds dedicated to professional development to finance the firearm trainings needed for staff seeking permits to carry firearms on school grounds.

Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, referenced comments made earlier in April by Sen. Lynn Evans, R-Aurelia, on a related school safety bill. Evans, a former school administrator, said he would want “every tool in the toolbox” available to him to ensure his students’ safety.

“This is an amazing tool that we can offer our schools,” Zumbach said. “It’s not just a tool, but it’s a tool with the tools. It’s a full toolbox.”

This measure builds off House File 2586, the bill outlining a permitting process for school staff to carry firearms, alongside language giving school staff and districts qualified immunity from liability for damages “pursuant to the application of reasonable force.” The measures seek to address the problems some school districts have faced trying to implement policies allowing staff to carry. 

The Senate also removed the funding component from this school safety bill, striking a section that would have created a grant program providing schools with up to $50,000 in matching funds to use for hiring police or security officers for school campuses.

The bill discussed Thursday also included a change to the previous legislation, that was sent to the governor Thursday, on the permitting process. While the original language had the Iowa Department of Public Safety directly providing the training for school staff, the Senate amendment would only require the department approves training courses – meaning school staff could go through training processes through outside providers to gain a permit.

Winckler said Democrats take school safety seriously and support other safety measures like alarm systems and firearm detection technologies mentioned in the bill.

“We wish that this bill included more funding for those programs,” Winckler said. “But we can’t support a bill that facilitates putting more guns in schools.”

The school security funding bill returns to the House for approval of the changes.

Open meetings, open records: The Iowa Senate unanimously voted in favor of a bill setting steeper penalties for violations of Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws.

The legislation comes in the wake of multiple alleged violations of these laws in Davenport last year. The Davenport city government has been criticized for a lack of transparency surrounding building inspections records following the collapse of a six-story apartment building in May 2023 that resulted in three deaths.

A January lawsuit alleges the city of Davenport and former city attorney Tom Warner broke open meetings laws in a separate instance, by reaching settlements with three city employees without the city council’s approval. The council later ratified that decision following a closed session.

Sen. Scott Webster, R-Bettendorf, said the bill was brought forward in response to the alleged Davenport violations. He also said the bill was important for all Iowans, as it makes sure “that when city councils and city governments and county governments are having conversations, that those are done in (the) open, and not done in the privacy or the darkness of the night.”

House File 2539 raises penalties for violations of the state’s open meetings laws from fines between $100 and $500 to fines between $500 and $2,500. Knowing violations of open meetings laws would increase from fines of between $1,000 and $2,500 to $5,000 and $12,500 under the bill.

The Senate removed House language requiring elected officials to go through training on public records and open meetings laws. Senators also adopted an amendment clarifying that the definition of “meeting” would not encompass events hosted by political candidates, groups or civic organizations that elected officials are all present for.

House lawmakers concurred with the changes. Zabner said while he preferred the bill with the training component included, that he still believed the legislation was important to advance.

“I thought the training was a really important piece, but I still think it’s time that we look at these penalties and make sure that we’re seeing sunshine when it comes to government,” he said.

The House voted to approve the amended bill 87-6, sending it to the governor.

Committees advance final bills

Film production tax credit: The Senate Ways and Means Committee approved House File 2662, a bill to create a film production incentive program and fund for the state.

The incentive program and fund would provide tax rebates for film production facilities in Iowa, launching a pilot program offering 30% tax rebates on qualified expenditures related to the production of a movie. The rebate would exclude some taxes and could be applied to spendings up to $10 million per fiscal year.

The tax incentive program for filming in Iowa comes in the wake of reports that Iowa’s previous film tax incentive program was severely abused by those claiming rebates. Former Iowa Auditor David Vaudt found nearly $26 million of the $32 million awarded through the film tax credit program that ran from 2007 to 2009 was improperly spent.

House lawmakers said during debate in March that the new program created by the bill could not be misused in the same way, as it more specifically details what counts as qualified facilities and expenditures for rebates, in addition to requiring production companies have a certified public accountant examine their submitted qualified expenditures to ensure they are in accordance with the program.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said the bill contains “plenty of guard rails” to prevent future abuse. But he said he was excited to see the state work to bring the film industry back to the state.

“It’s important that we all know that occasionally you can hit a home run with a film project, like the Field of Dreams,” Dotzler said.

Grain Indemnity Fund: Senate File 2401 was adopted by the Senate early this month and received committee approval in the House on Thursday by a 19-6 vote. The bill would roughly double the fund’s operating balance and will expand its coverage to credit-sale contracts. The fund reimburses farmers for their losses when a state-licensed grain dealer buys their corn or soybeans but goes defunct before paying.

Flat tax amendment: The House Ways and Means committee passed Senate Joint Resolution 2004 16-9, a measure that would enshrine a flat individual income tax rate in the Iowa constitution.

The measure is one part of a larger proposal introduced by Dawson and Kaufmann earlier this year. While the Senate resolution deals with flat income tax rates, House Joint Resolution 2006 would add a two-thirds vote requirement for passing increases to individual income tax in Iowa.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville said he felt the “same punch in the gut” with this legislation as he did when the House voted to advance the amendment setting a higher threshold for tax increases. He cited other issues that he said were important to Iowans and should also be put before voters as constitutional amendments.

“If we … want to allow the people to vote on the flat tax, then I think we also need to allow the people in Iowa to vote on IVF,” Jacoby said, referring to in vitro fertilization. “We need to allow for people in Iowa to vote on minimum wage. We need to allow the people of Iowa to vote on all things as far as women’s health care. But today, this is in front of us. And I don’t think it warrants a change to the strongest state constitution in the United States.”

If passed by the full House, the measure would start the process for amending the state constitution. Proposed amendments must clear the Legislature in two consecutive general assemblies before being put before Iowa voters on the ballot for final approval.

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