FAIRFIELD — Constituents in Fairfield were given the opportunity to speak with legislators on Saturday during a legislative briefing hosted by the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce.
The briefing was held at Boarders Inn & Suites by Cobblestone Hotels and attended by Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Ottumwa), Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant), Rep. Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield) and Rep. Joe Mitchell (R-Mt. Pleasant). Funding for mental health, public education and keeping young people in rural communities were among the topics discussed Saturday morning.
Invest in Iowa Act
Gov. Kim Reynolds recently unveiled a plan she has named the Invest in Iowa Act that holds a variety of ways investments can be made throughout the state. One of the plans within the act is to raise sales tax by 1%. Half of the money would go toward mental health funding and the other half toward watershed and conservation efforts.
Sen. Miller-Meeks said she was not sure if she was in favor or not of said tax because she said on the Republican Party side, the consensus was that if there was to be an increase in sales tax it should be offset with a decrease in property tax. However, sales tax can fluctuate and is not a steady income while property tax remains stead.
“In order to make our state competitive for businesses and workplaces to grow economically which allows us to expand budget appropriations for all the things you all think are important, especially, education and health care, we do need to look at how our income tax structure and our property tax structure effect businesses coming into our state,” she said.
Sen. Rich Taylor agreed that he was unsure about the tax increase as well. His concern was that there was no guarantee this tax would continue to fund mental health past the first year it was passed.
“This could be this year we do it and the next year we don’t,” he said, explaining mental health in Iowa is currently set up in regions. “The way I see this working is if the state takes over our regions, they’re also going to take over control of our regions.”
Taylor said he was concerned the lack of local control would harm the system that is currently in place and is working well.
Michell agreed with Taylor, saying he wanted to ensure there was consistency in who was going to continue to pay for the mental health portion.
“My main thing is that we make sure we’re sticking true to our promise and make sure that we’re adequately funding mental health which we’ve talked about for the last four or five years. (Finding out) if we need to raise the levy a little bit more to make sure counties can still put an adequate amount of money in to make sure we are funding our access centers is my concern,” he said.
Shipley said he had his own trepidations about mental health because the suicide rates seem to be climbing despite best efforts to reverse that.
“I am sometimes very skeptical if the professionals are equipped to handle it or if they actually fully understand these illnesses or maybe we are in too much of a rush to prescribe different psychotropic or serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications. I really want to cure mental health,” he said, explaining he did not feel “pharmaceutical dependence” was the proper fix.
Sustainable state aid (SSA) rate
The sustainable state aid (SSA) rate in Iowa is currently at 2.5% and according to school officials is less than what they need to adequately fund public schools. Taylor said he agreed with school personnel he heard from that the SSA was too low.
“If it were up to me and I had the magic wand, we would raise it to 5% this year and get caught up. Then maybe once we’re caught up, we can settle on a 3% yearly and tie this to the rate of inflation and at least keep up with the rate of inflation,” he said.
Miller-Meeks disagreed with Taylor, saying she understood the rate of inflation to be at 2%. Ninety million dollars were separately allocated to schools last year, aside from SSA.
“When I hear that we’re not fully funding schools, I don’t know what fully funding schools means. When you look at those dollar amounts, it’s the highest part of our budget,” she said.
Shipley said he voted against the SSA increase when it came up as a “protest vote” because he did not feel there was a good argument on either side. The state code outlines that it must provide a “good education” but he felt the state as simply providing a “good enough” education.
Mitchell said 55 percent of the state budget is spent on education, making it the number one priority. However, the problem comes back to math, he said, in trying to figure out where and how to allocate the dollars to.
Attracting younger people to small towns
Rural parts of the state are suffering from a lack of younger people settling there. Shipley said this can be caused by multiple situations from aging populations to schools closing.
Taylor agreed, using the example of the Harmony and Van Buren Community School Districts merging to represent how small towns can diminish.
“If you lose your school district, your town dries up. We’ve seen it all over Iowa and we have to do more to make the kids want to stay here and one of those things is pay,” he said.
Mitchell agreed, saying a higher starting pay for teachers could help attract them to the more rural parts of the state, but recreational activities need to increase as well. Young professionals are moving to the more populated parts of the state and taking pay cuts, he said, because there are more things to do.
“One of the things we need to work on is creating social spaces for our young people to be able to hangout and creating places like breweries and distilleries and wineries and fun places that are family friendly but are also fun to be at,” he said.
Miller-Meeks said she also did not want to see small towns dying out and felt that a recently introduced broadband bill could help with commerce and education.
Relating back to the earlier topic of mental health, she said she felt the increased mental health issues in schools stemmed from problems at home.
“We are so afraid to look at the core issues because we don’t want to say what’s good parenting,” she said. “There is nothing more important to a society than raising good children.”