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Budgets, mental health top issues

Legislators talk about their concerns at MIDAS luncheon

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Iowa House Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge, center left, fields legislative concerns and potential priorities from constituents at the Midas Council of Government’s Legislative Luncheon on Thursday.

Budgets, taxes and mental health emerged as the top concerns for legislators and local government representatives at Thursday’s MIDAS Council of Governments luncheon.

With a budget surplus of upwards of $280 million, state Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, said the Republican majority is attempting to replenish rainy day funds, “wean” school budgets off of backfill payments over time and pass a constitutional amendment to limit spending to 99% of the state’s revenue.

“When we took control of the Senate in 2016 … we had to de-appropriate $140 million,” said Kraayenbrink.

Last year, the senator said spending was at about 97 percent of state revenue.

Further tax cuts may also be on the way, he said, if the state meets “triggers” prescribed by previously passed bills, such as 4% GDP growth and a specified amount of state revenue. As of now, he said the state is on track to hit both of those marks.

With a “trifecta” in state government, Republicans may also try to reduce the corporate tax rate to attract more businesses to Iowa, which Kraayenbrink implied would lead to helping retain younger populations to stay in smaller towns. Currently, Iowa ranks near the top of all states for its higher corporate taxes.

“In a small town, everyone knows who gives out the full Snickers bar,” he said, using a timely Halloween analogy. “They know Iowa gives away stuff,” such as tax credits, property tax abatements, and free lots to build on.

“My thought is, let’s be seventh or eighth or ninth (best ranked), and not give away all the free stuff,” he said.

If the current situation with regard to trade and ethanol improves in a state where a full quarter of the economy relies on agriculture, Kraayenbrink said Iowa would receive an “unbelievable” amount of revenue from high performance, icing on the cake of Iowa’s current financial health.

Creating an economy that offers high paying jobs and offering amenities to retain young people will be critical to Iowa’s future. It could also prevent further urbanization and rural depopulation that would lead to disappropriately centralized interests in the state, he added.

Lowered property taxes, slashed in 2013, led to precarious circumstances in school district budgets that required the state to provide backfill. Those payments helped prevent local school districts — particularly vulnerable ones in rural areas and small towns– from needing to slash services and staff or dramatically hike property taxes.

From 2015 to 2017, Fort Dodge Community School District alone received more than $1.3 million in backfill payments, according to the Department of Management. Annual backfill payments given to cities, counties and schools are now capped at $152.1 million annually.

“There’s a lot of rumbles about how they want to wean off of it,” Kraayenbrink said, warning that “something will happen.”

“I’m not saying they’re going to pull the rug from those depending on backfill,” he said, “but there will be a three to 10 year weaning off period.”

The amount of time given would likely vary depending on factors like the district’s size, enrollment and financial health. Larger districts such as those in the metro Des Moines area might be given less of a wean off time than districts like Fort Dodge’s, he said.

But fiscal health wasn’t the only thing on most attendees’ minds.

Legislators on Thursday said they want to hear from the experts to find solutions to pressing mental health problems, particularly in schools.

Various ideas surfaced on how exactly to address that issue.

“We’re seeing more mental health problems than when I went to school,” said Kim Alstott, Fort Dodge City Council member. “It’s getting worse.”

Some recommended training teachers to be able to recognize symptoms for faster responses on the front lines, such as “mental health first aid” courses similar to those that jail administrators are trained in.

“It seems logical that (teachers) would be better trained to find those cues before it’s too late,” said panelist Alissa O’Connor, director of Humboldt County Development Association.

But Kraayenbrink cautioned against adding yet another requirement to teachers’ plates, suggesting that the best solution would be to get mental health professionals in schools.

“We have to get in front of it, but do we really know what the front of it looks like?” he asked.

Recruiting qualified mental health professionals in schools is a task in itself, though. Many schools can hardly find one to share with other districts, let alone find one just for themselves.

To that end, some are suggesting that public medical schools in Iowa start to make Iowa residents half of their enrollment, to spur an increase in professionals more likely to stay in the state.

“If we’re taking people from outside Iowa, they’re going to take their health care training back home,” said Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge.

Other ideas discussed included providing tax credits, scholarships and loan forgiveness to mental health professionals if they stay in Iowa.