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It was an active week in the Iowa Senate as we spent most of our time in floor debate and voting. This is quite a contrast from past weeks, which were dominated by a heavy load of subcommittee and committee work prior to the first funnel deadline. Our floor work this week was quite extensive; from Monday through Thursday we debated more than three dozen bills with most of those bills passing the Senate with bi-partisan support.
However, three bills created a lot of debate and some passion. One of those issues dealt with the matter of Governor Branstad’s intention to close the mental health facilities at Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda. Senate File 402 mandated that those facilities remain open “until a suitable and comprehensive and long-term care and treatment plan is developed by the department (DHS), and approved by the general assembly”. In my view, the Department of Human Services has developed a modern plan to provide the facilities and the services our mentally ill citizens need. It’s also worth noting that the Governor’s plan will save state taxpayers $15 million a year.
Essentially SF402 was an attempt to keep the brick and mortar, and also the employees, of those institutions in place. Senate Republicans offered an amendment that would simply “ensure placement of all eligible patients such that all such patients receive the most appropriate and highest quality care possible, whether in a state mental health institute or in a home and community based setting. In the end, the majority party defeated the amendment and passed the bill, which appears to place a higher value on the institution itself than the care of the patients.
A second lengthy debate ensued over the issue of school start dates. This became an issue when Governor Branstad asked the Dept. of Education to stop granting waivers to the September 1 school starting date established in state law. Virtually every school in the state was requesting the waiver so classes could begin earlier; some schools were beginning much earlier, which led to conflicts with the State Fair and other economic interests that depend on tourism. In the Senate, the debate focused on a bill that simply turned the decision over to the local school boards rather than establish an arbitrary August 23 start date as the House did. It was interesting to watch some Senators, who usually believe that the state always knows best, speak in support of local control during this debate. In the end, the Senate voted 32 -18 to turn the decision of school starting dates over to the local school boards, which was consistent with my view. Now we’ll have to see how the differing solutions between the House and the Senate will be worked out.
A third piece of legislation that inspired a lot of reasoned debate was Senate File 166, a bill that defines fantasy sports as games of skill rather than games of chance, and legalizing payouts to participants for winning fantasy contests. In fantasy contests, people draft teams of real-world college and professional athletes. Based on statistics collected by those athletes in real contests, a fantasy sports manager will win or lose to other managers in their fantasy league or game. The bill would also permit Iowa casinos to offer fantasy sports with cash payoffs, but casinos would still be banned from allowing gamblers to bet on athletic events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball playoffs. The games are offered through major league sports websites as well as other online providers such as ESPN and Yahoo. An estimated 354,000 Iowans participate in fantasy games.
Many in the Senate supported the bill, while others warned that we should be wary of future developments in this industry. Many years ago Iowa established the riverboat gambling industry, which has expanded from a few boats offering gambling cruises with limited bets to 21 Iowa casinos offering Las Vegas-style gambling. Some consider this an even greater expansion of the gambling industry with a lot of Iowa dollars leaving the state, and this activity actually becoming a detriment to Iowa’s economy. Those arguments resonated with me and led to my “no” vote. The bill eventually passed on 32-16 vote, and it remains to be seen what will happen to the legislation in the House.
Education funding remains a very significant issue as schools boards across the state need to finish and certify their annual budgets by April 15. The matter is still being debated in the House/Senate conference committee, and will probably be influenced by the March 19 report of the Revenue Estimating Conference. By law the legislature has to use the December REC revenue estimates for setting the state budget unless the March estimates are lower, in which case the March numbers must be used. Hopefully the school funding impasse will be broken soon after the REC report is known.
Floor action and committee work will continue next week as the legislature prepares for the second funnel deadline.
Senator Ken Rozenboom
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