Iowa Catholic Conference Newsletter - Legislative Wrap-Up Edition, June 11, 2013

To: Iowa Catholic Conference Legislative Network

It’s time for the annual edition of our newsletter covering the highlights of the 2013 Iowa legislative session from the perspective of the Iowa Catholic Conference. The session convened on Jan. 14 and adjourned “sine die” on May 23.

The Iowa Catholic Conference plans its legislative advocacy with several committees comprised of staff members from the four dioceses. The committees are: Communications, Education, Family Life, Pro-Life and Social Concerns. We also have an Immigration Subcommittee. The committees propose legislative concerns for the bishops’ approval and help us get the word out in the Catholic community about how parishioners can impact issues at the capitol.

Following last November’s elections, the Democrats controlled the Iowa Senate by a 26-24 margin and the Republicans had a 53-47 edge in the House. Surprisingly the chambers agree on several big pieces of legislation including health care for low-income people, property tax cuts and education reform.

Let’s take a look at the session through the lens of the social teaching of the Church.

EDUCATION

One of our goals is to encourage the state to provide parents with the resources to choose the school their children will attend. I talk with many parents who would like to choose a Catholic school for their children, but they think they just can't afford it. 

One of the ways our state already helps lower-income parents to make this choice is through the School Tuition Organization (STO) tax credit. Donors who give to scholarship funds can take 65 percent of their gift amount off of their Iowa income taxes! This helps the STOs raise money for scholarships. If your family's income is less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, you may qualify for a scholarship. Make sure you check it out with your local Catholic school.

After months of consideration, on the final day of the session the legislature approved House File 625, which contains an increase in the STO tax credits statewide from $8.75 to $12 million. The bill also makes the tax credits for donors available to additional types of business corporations. The vote was 49-0 in the Senate and 96-0 in the House. This will make it possible for additional students to receive a scholarship or receive a bigger, more effective scholarship. The governor signed the bill today. We appreciate his support and people like Rep. Tom Sands (R-Wapello), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, for getting the process started, and Sen. Michael Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs), Senate Majority Leader, for leading the way in the Senate in the final days of the session.

Most importantly, I thank the readers of this newsletter who sent an email (or maybe several) to their legislator. Literally, this bill would not have passed without your efforts! 

An education reform bill, House File 215, wound its way through the legislature before approval in the final days of the session. In any education bill, one of the first things we assess is whether it preserves the ability of Catholic schools to fulfill their mission and helps parents choose the right school for their student(s). We are also supportive of having a quality public education option for all parents. 

We supported a few specific provisions found in House File 215, including an optional system for posting teaching opportunities and the availability of “Teach Iowa” grants for qualifying new teachers in Catholic schools.

The bill also makes it possible for nonpublic schools to be accredited by an approved independent accrediting agency rather than the state board of education. This portion sunsets on July 1, 2020.

Regarding public schools, House File 215 contains a career pathway system for public school teachers that is optional for school districts, and increases the minimum salary for public school teachers to $33,500. The supplemental state aid in public schools’ budgets was set at four percent for FY 2015. 

The ICC filed in support Senate File 323, which would implement Education Savings Accounts (ESA). The state would deposit around $3,700 per child into a government-authorized savings account to cover part of private school tuition costs or homeschooling expenses for all parents who were interested. The bill did not advance.

If you think about it, government funding supports a variety of providers in many other areas – health care, food stamps, and Section 8 housing to name a few. These ESAs would level the playing field for parents who lack the resources to make changes in their child’s education or who feel stuck in a school that doesn’t reflect their values or meet their child’s needs.

An effort to add Education Savings Accounts to Senate File 452, the standing appropriations bill, failed on a tie vote.

However, there were several pieces of good news that were included as a part of SF 452. On final passage it included a needed increase in funding for transportation of nonpublic school students, from $7 to $8.6 million. This money reimburses public schools or parents, depending on who provides the transportation.

We were pleased that a cut in funding for Area Education Agencies was reduced from $20 to $15 million, and that public schools will receive a bump in funding to help teach students for whom English is not their first language. Some studies show that it might take as long as 10 years for these students to become proficient in English.

The educational appropriations bill, House File 604, included a small increase in funding for textbooks for nonpublic school students, for a total of $600,000. 

FAMILY LIFE 

The ICC successfully opposed House Study Bill 11. It proposed to essentially eliminate the waiting period before a divorce. We believe that a waiting period can give both parties the opportunity to really consider the impact of divorce and help insure that all issues have time to be addressed. Recent research done in Minnesota, for example, found that for at least 40 percent of couples, at least one spouse was interested in possibly reconciling. Every attorney I’ve spoken with has told me that some couples reconcile during the divorce process. Further, as has been shown, women and children often suffer economically and in other ways after a divorce. This is properly a concern of the state.

There is still a provision in the Iowa Code for granting a divorce decree more quickly on grounds of “emergency or necessity." 

As in the past few years, the ICC supported an amendment to Iowa's Constitution that recognizes marriage only as a union of one man and one woman. However, the proposal did not advance in either chamber. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this month on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act as well as Prop 8 in California, which defined marriage only as between a man and a woman. Next year’s effort depends in part on what the court does. 

One of the difficulties in addressing the issue is helping people understand why marriage by its nature is between a man and a woman. The Church does not believe marriage is only a public recognition of a relationship between adults. A good resource about our Church's teaching on marriage is available at www.marriageuniqueforareason.org.

The Iowa Catholic Conference opposed Senate Study Bill 1068, which would legalize casinos to offer poker over the Internet. The bill did not advance out of committee.

We opposed the bill because it would present such a big expansion of gambling beyond the 21 casinos already in the state. While we recognize that gambling can be a legitimate recreational activity in an atmosphere of moderation and control, the addictive nature of online games along with gambling is a risky combination for families.

The stated reason for the bill was to protect players who are currently playing illegally from getting cheated. From our perspective, it makes little sense to expand and legalize an activity that's unhealthy for many families.

The ICC also filed in opposition to House File 567. It proposed to eliminate the requirement for the state Racing and Gaming Commission to conduct a study of the socioeconomic effects of gambling every eight years. The bill did not advance.

PRO-LIFE

The Iowa Catholic Conference supports the protection of human life and dignity as a foundational principle. We oppose abortion, no matter the method.

However, since abortions do take place, we believe the informed consent and safety of the women involved should be among our concerns, as well as limiting the number of abortions as much as possible. Many people don’t realize that in Iowa, abortion is legal throughout pregnancy for any reason. The state does not inspect abortion clinics or require informed consent before an abortion takes place. Therefore we have a lot of work to do.

During the session the ICC supported House File 173, which would outlaw “webcam” abortions. House File 173 required a physician to be physically present during an abortion but did not interfere with other practices of telemedicine. However, this method of abortion is particularly impersonal and disturbing, not to mention potentially harmful to the woman’s life and health.

Here's how it works a “webcam” abortion works: during a video consultation with a physician at a different location, two pills are delivered to the pregnant woman when the remote physician activates a switch that opens a drawer in front of the mother. The drawer contains two pills, and she takes the first right away at the doctor's direction.  The second pill is taken later, at home, on a prescribed schedule. If the abortion is "successful," the woman delivers a dead baby at home.

Unfortunately, many abortions in Iowa take place over a webcam (videoconference). Authorizing the procedure over a video connection saves money for abortion providers and has the potential to become a profit center.

HF 173 passed out of subcommittee but did not advance further. However, I appreciate the many messages that were sent in support of the bill. I had one legislator tell me he got "20,000 emails overnight." While that is an exaggeration, we did have a lot of messages sent through our system.

Here in Iowa, it has proven difficult to pass abortion-restriction legislation when 1) A great majority of Democrats oppose further regulation; and 2) a few Republicans will not vote for restrictions on abortions or regulation of clinics because they believe it is legitimizing legal abortion.

Senate File 446 is a $1.7 billion bill that funds the state’s human services. A provision in the bill requires the governor's office to authorize funding after the fact for each individual abortion consistent with options under federal law.

Legislators have said the state government paid for 22 abortions last year. Federal law requires states to follow the “Hyde Amendment,” which requires coverage of abortion for Medicaid recipients when the life of the mother is endangered, and in cases where the pregnancy resulted from a rape or incest. Iowa pays for more abortions than the federal government requires by funding abortions in cases of "fetal deformity." It should be recognized that children are still children in all of these instances, even if they are gravely ill.

The ICC encouraged the Iowa Legislature to narrow the scope of these exceptions and to prioritize Medicaid funds so they would go to other health centers before they go to abortion providers. These efforts failed.

The Conference supported House Study Bill 205 and Senate File 267, which would have offered tax credits to donors to a nonprofit organization doing research in regenerative medicine. We support such research when it is done in an ethical way without destroying embryos. As drafted the legislation would help raise money for the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Coralville. The bills did not advance.

The Conference recommended your opposition to Senate File 76, which would have reinstated the death penalty in Iowa. The Catholic bishops in the United States have been calling for an end to the use of the death penalty for more than 25 years. We believe the sentence of life without the possibility of parole is a just and sufficient means of protecting citizens while also respecting human life. The bill did not advance. The Iowa Legislature abolished the death penalty in 1965 but imposes a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murderers.

SOCIAL CONCERNS

One of the priorities of the Catholic Conference in Iowa has been to support state initiatives that would make health care more readily affordable to all Iowans, including immigrants and their children. The Iowa bishops said in their recent statement, “It is in this spirit we reiterate our Catholic tradition that teaches that health care is a natural human right, essential to protecting human life and dignity.” According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (447) "inadequate measures for guaranteeing basic health care" are among the causes that contribute to poverty.

The health care issue played out throughout the legislative session as the chambers debated whether to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid as offered through the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Governor Branstad was reluctant to accept the money because of concern about the federal government’s ability to fulfill its promise to fund the vast majority of the expansion.

Generally speaking the ICC position was to support expanding Medicaid as a step in the right direction, and encourage improvements in the governor’s alternative plan. We are grateful that the governor and the Iowa Legislature finally came together on a plan in the last days of the session. The human services budget bill mentioned earlier, SF 446, included an extension of health insurance to about 150,000 lower-income Iowans.

The bill will put into place some reforms of Medicaid at the state level and accepts additional federal dollars. Iowans with an income of less than 100 percent of federal poverty level (FPL) will be covered by health benefits comparable to that of state workers. Those with an income of 101 to 138 percent of FPL will have their private health insurance purchased with new federal dollars. Iowans with an income of 138 to 400 percent of the FPL will receive tax credits to purchase health insurance through an “exchange” marketplace.

In the past, Medicaid was available only for some very low-income families with dependent children, and pregnant women. 

We were not successful in getting any traction among legislators to exclude health insurance plans containing abortion coverage from the exchange. Our concern is the fact that tax dollars are used to subsidize those plans.

One of the positive aspects of the 2013 legislative session was the lack of legislation that would make it more difficult for immigrants who are here illegally to support their families.

The Iowa Catholic Conference supported the Iowa Department of Transportation’s change in policy earlier this year that allowed recipients of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or “Dreamers” to be issued driver’s licenses. Generally these are young adults who are not citizens but were brought here as children by their parents.

The ICC also recommended your support of two bills in this area that did not advance:

Senate File 283 would authorize a limited driver's license for those without a social security number or authorized presence, but who have a valid passport or consular identification document. We believe the passage of this legislation would assist immigrants and provide for a greater measure of safety on our highways.

Senate File 80, the state version of the “Dream Act,” which would offer in-state tuition rates at state universities for undocumented students who have grown up in Iowa. The premise of the Iowa version of the Dream Act is that immigrant youth should not be hindered from working towards a more promising future solely because they were brought to the United States by their parents at a young age without legal status. This has been a long-time priority of the Conference. The bill did not offer free college tuition to anyone.

Regarding the issue of payday loans, the ICC also supported Senate File 450. It passed out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee but it went no further 

Payday loans are short-term cash advances, usually for $100 up to $500, based on the borrower’s personal check held for future deposit (the next payday), or on electronic access to the borrower’s bank account. Because many loans are not repaid at the due date, they are renewed by paying the lender’s fee again. The bill limited interest rates for payday loans by businesses in Iowa to 36 percent. We believe that current interest rates of 300 percent are unjust.

This bill would help break a cycle of debt where payday lending customers end up getting 12 loans a year on the average, and pay much more in fees than the original loan. If payday loans were only used occasionally, this bill would not as necessary.

The Conference supported Senate File 399, which would limit the restraint of pregnant inmates. The Iowa Catholic Conference recommended support for the bill for humanitarian reasons as the prisoner would pose little risk for escape and it contained exceptions if the public would be at risk. Shackling of the inmate can reduce the physician’s ability to evaluate the physical condition of the mother and the baby, and similarly make the labor and delivery process more difficult than it needs to be. Restraining pregnant prison inmates increases the potential for physical harm, especially an accidental trip or fall.

SF 399 passed out of committee. However, the bill was pulled from the debate calendar after several senators filed an amendment to eliminate any state funding of abortions for inmates. The amendment had the effect of stopping the bill’s progress 

The Iowa Catholic Conference encouraged the legislature to modify the sentencing possibilities of a minor who commits first-degree murder. Currently anyone in Iowa who is convicted of a first-degree murder receives a life sentence without the possibility of parole. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a state cannot require a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

We support the possibility of a sentence other than “life without parole.” The underlying principle is that we shouldn’t treat minors as if they were adults. We believe that offenders who commit very serious crimes when they are juveniles may gain with maturity an understanding of the gravity of their crime and be able to rejoin society under some conditions. They may not have had the benefit of a fully-formed conscience, and therefore, their culpability may be lessened. It’s also true that some people need to be locked up forever for their safety and the safety of others. Ultimately no action was taken by the legislature on this issue.

The ICC recommended opposition to House Joint Resolution 4, a proposed amendment to Iowa’s constitution. It prohibited licensing, registration, or special taxation of guns. The amendment did not move forward.

An item on our legislative concerns list has been support of efforts to expand renewable sources of energy in the state. The Conference filed in support of Senate File 414. It is a loan and grant program for small wind and solar energy projects. Nonpublic schools were included as being eligible for the program. The bill passed out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee on a voice vote but did not advance out of the Appropriations Committee.

As Emeritus Pope Benedict has said: “[T]here is a need to encourage research into, and utilization of, forms of energy with lower impact on the environment and ‘a world-wide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them.’”

The ICC monitored House File 478, which passed the Iowa House but was not taken up by the Senate. It would provide for a flat tax of 4.5 percent as an option for taxpayers alongside the current system of a higher tax rate and consideration of multiple deductions and credits. Taxpayers would calculate their tax liability under both systems and choose the system that produces the lowest state income tax liability.

The Legislative Services Agency estimated the bill, if passed by both chambers and signed by the governor, would mean the state would take in about $400 to $550 million less in revenue. The ICC encouraged legislators to consider what the bill would mean for future budgets and any necessary services for the poor. Catholic moral teaching raises essential questions that apply to all economic policies, including taxes: 1. Does this policy maintain or enhance the life and dignity of the human person? 2. How does this policy affect the poorest and most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters?

For a perspective on taxation from the Iowa Catholic Conference, go to www.iowacatholicconference.org and click on “Statements.”

Finally, the chambers approved a compromise property tax cut. We were pleased the bill included a provision to double the state Earned Income Tax Credit to help low-income workers. Supporters estimate this would help more than 500,000 people in Iowa. 

AND FINALLY,

During the legislative session, the Church received a new pope and the Iowa Catholic Conference welcomed the appointment of a new archbishop of Dubuque. In March, Senators David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan) and Rita Hart (D-Wheaton) co-sponsored a resolution in the state Senate, SR-12, to commemorate the election of Pope Francis 

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the installation ceremony for the Most Rev. Michael Jackels as he began his new ministry as the archbishop of Dubuque. I am sure he would appreciate our prayers.

Tom Chapman

Executive Director

Iowa Catholic Conference

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Tags: Iowa Catholic Conferece, Tom Chapman

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