Last week was the sixth week of the 2021 legislative session. The Iowa Senate passed several bills during the week and discussed a number of topics, such as education funding, increasing flexibility of continuing education requirements, and the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Education Funding: The Senate and the House came to an agreement on the K-12 education funding increase for next year, allocating an additional $49.4 million for the next fiscal year. Superintendents and schools boards across the state know how important it is to get this number, a number they can count on, early in the legislative session so they can start budgeting, planning, hiring and negotiating for next year. This amount includes money for per-pupil and transportation equity on top of the $3.5 billion Iowa invests in K-12 education each year. As the chairwoman of the Education Budget, this week I will begin working on the additional $1 billion that we invest in the Department of Education, the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, the Iowa School for the Deaf, Community Colleges, the three Regent Universities (University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa), as wells as Birth to Five programming, iJag and other programs that help students get the training and education they need to succeed after they graduate from high school.
Preschool Funding: Last year, the state of Iowa saw an drop in enrollment of around 6,000 students. Data from the Iowa Department of Education shows that around half of this drop in enrollment was in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Since Iowa’s funding formula is on a per-pupil basis, Senate File 269 on its own resulted in a reduction to the statewide preschool program of around $7 million. However, the Senate and the House are actively working on an additional PK-12 one-time funding proposal in a separate bill. The one-time funding will help cover the cost of the one-year drop in enrollment and preschool funding will likely go up by a large amount next year when parents begin to enroll their students once again.
Taxation: Another bill the Senate passed was Senate File 364. It conforms state income tax code to the most recent federal tax change, allowing the deductibility of qualifying expenses for forgiven Paycheck Protection Program loans for fiscal year filers. This deduction is already allowed under Iowa law for calendar year filers, but this would make it effective for both fiscal and calendar year filers.
Updating Iowa’s Bottle Bill: One of the topics that has come up again this year is the Bottle Bill. Iowa’s Bottle Bill program has been around since 1979 when it was implemented as a way to control the amount of litter thrown in into roadside ditches. As a method to reduce litter, help clean up the environment, and raise funds for the community, the Bottle Bill is very popular. In the 1990s, recycling really took off in Iowa, with drop-off sites eventually progressing into the single-stream curbside recycling most communities have today. However, the Bottle Bill remains relevant, and for many years now, legislators at the Capitol have been working on ways to update the law in light of changes in recycling and consumer behavior over the last 40 years.
Election Reform Bill: The United State Constitution specifically empowers state legislatures with authority over election law. The Iowa Senate takes that responsibility seriously and has made a number of changes over the last four years to improve the reliability and security of Iowa’s elections with common-sense reforms like requiring a voter identification at the polls, and a similar requirement for requesting an absentee ballot.
In 2020 a few county auditors attempted to violate Iowa law and circumvent the security measures implemented on Iowa absentee ballot request forms. County auditors are directed to implement election law, not write it. In response, the Iowa Senate advanced SSB 1199 last week to improve the administration of elections and ensure one set of consistent and fair election laws are in place across the state regardless of if the county is urban or rural, Republican or Democrat.
This bill also prohibits ballot harvesting. This practice typically involves partisans from a campaign or party soliciting the collection of absentee ballots and delivering them to the auditor. A number of stories have been told, even some in Iowa, of partisan actors failing to deliver voters’ ballots to the auditor, thus disenfranchising those voters. Postage is paid on all absentee ballots and caregivers and members of the same household are still able to help deliver a ballot.
SSB 1199 changes the beginning of early voting from 29 days before an election to 18 days before an election. According to the National Conference of State Legislators the average window for early voting in the US is 19 days. This change puts Iowa closer to that average.
A strong republic depends on the confidence of the people in the selection of their leaders. SSB 1199 continues to improve Iowa’s election law in an effort to bolster the confidence of Iowans in the electoral process by making it easy to vote but hard to cheat.