As a member of the State Government Committee, I participated in a meeting with Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. We wanted to know how three valid Iowa ballots in the 2012 election ended up not being counted. What we’ve learned so far tells me that we have some work to do to prevent this type of voter disenfranchisement from happening again.
ENSURING EVERY ELIGIBLE VOTER’S BALLOT COUNTS
Iowans expect our elections to be secure, accurate and efficient. After all, our democracy is based on citizens making their voices heard.
That’s why it came as a big disappointment when the Cerro Gordo County Auditor brought to our attention that the 2012 general election ballots of three voters in his county had had been wrongly thrown out because of inaccurate information provided by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. The auditor told us that these individuals had had their voting rights restored and that their votes should have counted.
If three voters in one county could be disenfranchised, how many individuals could this happen to statewide? It is the Legislature’s responsibility to make sure that Secretary of State Matt Schultz, as the state commissioner of elections, does a better job of ensuring that the ballots of all eligible voters are counted.
Iowans are proud of their high levels of voter participation, so it is of utmost importance that we take measures to protect the integrity of our system. In recent years, Iowa has made many improvements to our voting process, including allowing voters to register on Election Day at the polls. As a result, Iowa ranked fifth in voter turnout in the 2012 General Election with 73.3 percent of registered voters casting their ballot.
SENATE VOTES TO BOOST INVESTMENT IN LOCAL SCHOOLS
Iowa educators tell us that predictable, sustained state investment in education is the most effective way to increase student achievement.
That’s why I voted this week for a 6 percent increase in local school funding for the 2015-16 school year (SF 2079 and SF 2077). This money would pay for the basics: up-to-date textbooks, heating bills, teacher salaries and gas for the buses. We also approved additional state dollars to prevent any related property tax increase (SF 2078).
Developing the state budget is the one thing I am required to do in my job as a state senator, and the largest part of that budget goes to education. State law requires us to set school funding 18 months ahead of the academic year so that school boards, administrators and educators can plan for local needs and make the best use of state resources.
A 6 percent increase would be welcome news for our local schools. It would help them bounce back from several lean years while also implementing the education reforms we approved in 2013. Since 2011, school funding in Iowa has suffered. As a result, our state has fallen to 37th in the nation when it comes to per pupil spending. Iowa is more than $1,500 below the national average in terms of how much we invest in each student.
However, we have the money to reverse this trend. Our reserve accounts are full at more than $650 million, and we have a surplus of $842 million. The major U.S. financial rating agencies all give Iowa the highest rating of AAA. Only seven other states match us with an across-the-board AAA rating.
Now is the time to invest wisely in student achievement. If the House and Governor also approve the legislation we passed in the Senate, here’s how much our local school districts will get for the 2015-16 school year:
(editor’s note: I could not get the table to transfer to this format. Here are a couple of examples:
School District FY 2016 (estimate) Change from FY 2015 (estimate)
Muscatine $48,896,010 $2,567,231
Burlington $43,736,443 $2,374,987
West Liberty $11,076,032 $813,624
STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT DEPENDS ON TIMELY ACTION
With this week’s vote on school funding, the Senate obeyed state law requiring the Legislature to set education funding 18 months in advance of the school year. I hope the House and Governor will follow our lead. We must put politics aside, follow the law and support the students who are the future of a strong state economy.
The Legislature is expected to set school funding within 30 days after the Governor presents his state budget. For the 2014 session, the deadline is February 13.
Iowa superintendents overwhelmingly believe state lawmakers should meet that deadline and set funding for the 2015-16 school year, as the law requires. In a recent survey, 98 percent of the 214 superintendents who responded oppose the House and Governor’s plan to wait until next year to decide on funding.
In recent years, the House and Governor have defied the advance budgeting law, allowing K-12 education funding to become entangled with other issues and even held hostage for reasons unrelated to students or schools. The message we’re hearing from superintendents this year is clear: Don’t delay school funding again! Nearly every superintendent (99 percent) we surveyed said education dollars would be used more effectively if lawmakers followed the law and set school funding well in advance.
We’ve made some big changes with recent education reforms. Now we must provide financial stability so schools can successfully enact those changes and make sure all Iowa kids graduate with the skills to land a good job. Asked how they would use our proposed 6 percent increase in basic school funding, school superintendents said strengthening reading and writing skills in elementary students, implementing Iowa’s common core curriculum and reducing class sizes are their top priorities.
For more on our survey of Iowa school superintendents and what they had to say about school funding, go to http://bit.ly/1irPiuQ.
EXCELLENCE IN MENTORING
I met Andrea Scott and congratulated her on the Excellence in Mentoring award from the State of Iowa. This award is the most prestigious honor that mentors in Iowa can receive. Andrea began as a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Muscatine County in 2008. She and her little sister, Zayla, joined us for Mentoring Day on the Hill. Big Brothers Big Sisters matches youth at risk with a “Big” who can have a positive impact on their “Little.”
HIGH-SPEED INTERNET IS ECONOMIC ENGINE
In an effort to help more Iowa employers and workers recover from the national recession, we must increase access to high-quality Internet services across the state.
Iowa ranks 11th out of 12 Midwestern states in the TechNet State Broadband Index, which ranks states based on how many households use broadband, network speeds and the number of jobs that benefit from broadband technology.
Broadband is currently underused in Iowa. According to a survey from Connect Iowa, 71 percent of Iowa households have adopted broadband, but only 47 percent can access broadband at high speed (50 Mbps). Broadband is used even less by low-income families, rural households and senior citizens. Among Iowa businesses, about 23,000 are not using high-speed Internet services.
Broadband can be a powerful economic tool for Iowans and businesses. Better broadband access, particularly in rural areas, could spur economic development through job creation and business expansion.
That’s why legislators in the House and Senate are looking at ways to improve access broadband in Iowa. Under a Senate proposal, companies could get tax breaks if they invest in broadband infrastructure. The bill also would establish a loan fund for businesses making broadband investments.
In September, Governor Branstad announced a new broadband initiative, Connect Every Iowan. A task force made up of stakeholders and legislators met to discuss broadband connectivity issues, as well as how we can increase access to and use of broadband throughout Iowa. To view the task force’s report and learn more about Iowa’s work to expand broadband, go https://broadband.iowa.gov.
EMERGENCY HEATING FUNDS WILL HELP STRUGGLING FAMILIES
The Senate Appropriations Committee this week approved additional help for low-income Iowans struggling to pay their home heating bills during this exceptionally cold winter.
SSB 3137 would provide $2 million to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps offset heating costs for low-income families. The additional money will help address emergencies, including fixing broken furnaces and carrying out emergency fuel deliveries for families in need.
Last year, LIHEAP assisted more than 85,000 Iowa households. As of December, more than 60,000 households had already received assistance through LIHEAP this fiscal year. About 10 percent of LIHEAP recipients depend on propane to heat their homes, with 150 gallons of propane lasting about two weeks in January.
The supplemental assistance approved in the state senate is due to the spike in propane fuel costs. Throughout Iowa, propane is three to four times the usual price, reaching more than $6 per gallon in parts of Iowa. Usually, propane is about $1.79 a gallon.
The federal government is also responding to the need. The U.S. Department of Human & Health Services released a second LIHEAP appropriation of close to $7.5 million to help Iowa families heat their homes during this cold weather.
Iowans with questions or concerns should check out the state’s new Propane Shortage and Heating Assistance Webpage. It has detailed information about LIHEAP, energy and cost-saving tips, safe heating alternatives and other resources.
EARLY HELP PREPARES KIDS TO SUCCEED IN SCHOOL & LIFE
During the first five years of life, children begin to gain the emotional and social skills that enable them to thrive in school and in life. These skills form the foundation for “healthy mental development,” the ability of children to regulate and express emotions, form relationships with others, and explore and learn in their surroundings.
Without a solid foundation of healthy mental development early in life, children are at higher risk for poor school performance, juvenile delinquency and adult mental health concerns later in life.
Iowa’s 1st Five Healthy Mental Development Initiative is a public-private partnership that brings together physicians and public service providers to promote healthy mental development among Iowa’s children from birth to age five. The initiative encourages pediatricians and primary care providers to use proven tools to gauge a child’s progress during well-child visits. At-risk kids can then get the help they need, when local children’s health agencies and early intervention services assist the family in optimizing their children’s mental development.
The Health & Human Services Budget Committee learned this week about last year’s efforts to expand this program from 33 to 49 counties. With continued support of the 1st Five Initiative, we can ensure that all Iowa children begin life with a good chance to achieve school readiness, academic success and overall well-being.
Between 2007 and 2012, health care providers referred close to 5,000 families to 1st Five. In that time, the program helped an estimated 77,000 children. Getting more health providers involved is key. About 93 percent of health providers include comprehensive developmental assessments in their well-child appointments after becoming involved in 1st Five.
Learn more about how 1st Five is helping Iowa kids and families at www.idph.state.ia.us/1stfive.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
Protect land with REAP grants
More than $200,000 in cost-share grants is available to help conservation organizations acquire land for additional outdoor recreation opportunities and to protect critical habitat. Recent projects include additions to Pine Lake State Park, Pictured Rocks Wildlife Management Area and the Loess Hills Wildlife Area.
Through the cost-share arrangement, 75 percent of the acquisition costs come from Resource Enhancement and Protection, and the remaining 25 percent comes from private contributions. The Department of Natural Resources owns and manages the property that is jointly purchased on behalf of the public.
For an application and complete details, go to www.iowareap.com and click on “REAP Grants” in the left column. Applications are due March 14.
How much should students borrow for college?
Iowa Student Loan wants to help students avoid excessive debt by educating them about the risks of over-borrowing and how to reduce the need to borrow. At the Iowa Student Loan website, students can learn about their return on college investment.
The ROCI (Return on College Investment) Reality Check is an online tutorial that allows students to compare various types of jobs, their associated starting salaries and the future demand and probability they’ll get the job. It helps students set realistic expectations for how much they might earn after college and how much they should borrow for college. Access the free tool at www.studentloan.org/ROCIRealityCheck.
Des Moines, IA 50319
2609 Clearview Drive
Burlington, IA 52601