Area legislators fielded questions from citizens over an early breakfast Thursday morning. The Ashford University-sponsored event, held a few days prior to the kickoff of the 2012 state legislative session, revealed several concerns pertinent to the area.
Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, and State Reps. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, and Steven Olson, R-DeWitt, attended the meeting in Ashford University’s cafeteria. Moderated by Tom Determann, the elected officials discussed education and mental health reform, as well as the possibility for changes in commercial and industrial property tax structures.
The potential for property tax rollback for new business has caused concern in municipal governments since being proposed last year. While the reduction, which may be up to 40 percent, is designed to bring new business and employment to the state, small- to mid-sized cities contend that the lost property tax revenue could be devastating. Clinton County would lose around $8 million annually if a 40 percent reduction is incorporated, according to figures from County Auditor John Moreland.
Wylie Pillers, local attorney and member of the Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs committee, told Bowman, Wolfe and Olson that the reduction needs to be handled delicately.
“This is a two-edged sword,” Pillers said of the potential rollback. “We have to do something for economic development downtown. At the same time, we can’t take $8 million from the (county.)”
Bowman said the bill being mulled by the Senate is more mindful of potential harm to local governments, and would not detract significantly from pre-existing building’s tax obligations, but would instead focus on making new construction more favorable. Olson said that the House of Representatives was also looking at ways to achieve the stated goal without putting all of the burden on local taxing bodies.
“I do know for a fact that the House chief of Ways and Means made significant changes to his proposal,” Olson said.
Education reform was named another priority by Gov. Terry Branstad. He, along with Education Director Jason Glass, unveiled a sweeping education reform plan last year. Though the updated version, to be presented today, has culled several controversial elements, like a pay-for-performance teacher pay scale, worry remains for educators and legislators.
“I think there a lot of controversial issues in there,” Olson said. Chief among those issues, he said, “How will we fund the thing?”
Less prominent, but no less complicated, has been a reform of the mental health care system. As it stands, convoluted bureaucracy can confuse patients, and care levels differ drastically from county to county. An interim committee has been tasked with writing legislation that will hopefully establish uniform care across regions.
Wolfe said that since diving into mental health legislation, she has found it to be challenging and multi-layered. Trying to raise lower-performing counties to the level of higher performing ones, and not vice-versa, has proven to be a difficult mandate, she said.
“The more I get into it, the more I realize how overwhelming it is,” Wolfe said, adding that she has developed a greater respect for mental health care professionals.
Also discussed was the potential for the a gas tax increase. While it was acknowledged that the private person may oppose for financial reasons, infrastructure issues may demand some change. The gas tax has not been increased since the late 1980s, and the call for change is growing louder.
County Auditor Eric Van Lancker also requested that state legislators look into municipal election guidelines regarding absentee ballots. New rules require absentee ballots to be postmarked by a certain date to be counted. However, Van Lancker said what the United States Postal Service decides to add a postmark to is inconsistent. He said he did not blame the USPS and recognized the financial difficulties of the organization, which does not benefit from tax revenue, but believes that a consistent rule needs to be in place for the integrity of the election process. Not addressing this problem turns absentee voting into a “lottery,” Van Lancker said.