Senator Amy Sinclair and Representative Joel Fry were in Osceola on Friday, Feb. 24 for a legislative luncheon held at Lakeside Hotel and Casino. Joining them was Representative Ray Sorensen, who is new to Clarke County due to redistricting. Sorensen represents mostly Murray, and the townships around Murray. The trio updated those in attendance on their committee assignments for this year -
Sinclair, who was selected as the Senate President this year, acts as chair of the government oversight committee, is on the rules and administration committee, and continues to sit on the education committee; Sinclair had served as the chair of the education committee for six years. Of her duties as Senate President, Sinclair said,
“[It’s] a little terrifying and overwhelming sometimes, but honestly, I’m excited to have the change in role.”
Fry continues to chair the health and human services budget appropriation subcommittee, as well as sit on the public safety committee, health and human services policy committee, education committee and appropriations committee.
Sorensen is on the appropriations committee, chair of economic growth and technology committee. He also serves on the education committee and transportation committee.
In light of the governor’s recent signage of House File 68 into law, commonly known as the school voucher or school choice system, Sinclair fielded questions on the program’s cost, and where the money is coming from.
On average across the state, Sinclair said that the state pays about $17,000 per pupil in public schools, about $2 billion a year. The scholarships that will be available for the upcoming 2023-24 school year will be about $7,600 per pupil. Sinclair said that everything in the scholarship program is accounted for in the budget for the next four years.
“If the money wasn’t budgeted into it, we wouldn’t have passed a bill that couldn’t long-term fund [it],” said Sinclair, citing the conservative budgeting that has gone on since Republicans have had the majority as a contributing factor to the funding.
Sinclair also said that numbers given to them in October for the fiscal year Iowa is headed into showed an unexpected $320 million more than what was anticipated. When fully implemented, the school scholarship program is estimated to be about $320 million a year.
“That is ongoing...[we] anticipate that increase will stay part of our revenues,” Sinclair said of the additional funds.
When asked about private schools being unwilling to take students with behavioral problems or IEPs, both Sinclair and Fry said that they had talked with private schools who already did, and who would in the future.
“...[they] do already, and [they] look forward to being able to hire the resources to be able to care for more,” said Fry of the response he had received on the matter.
In response to a question about how quickly House File 68 was passed, Sinclair said that it has been in the works for three years. When it comes to using third party vendors for distributing scholarship payments, Sinclair said it allows for built in fraud protection, as those payments will only be made to pre-approved vendors. It will additionally be audited by the state auditor.
“We’re gonna have to have somebody third party, [because] we’re not just handing out checks to families,” said Sinclair.
When asked later about if there was a problem with public school in Iowa, Sinclair answered that in general, yes, she would agree that there is.
“We were being asked to deal with violence in classrooms, we were being asked to deal with kids getting beaten up in hallways…curriculum that violated people’s beliefs, pornography in books and classrooms, and we finally decided that parents are upset enough,” said Sinclair.
To help mitigate the issues and stop micromanaging public schools, it was decided to give the decision back to parents of where to send their children if the public options available were not meeting their child’s educational needs, or the family’s beliefs. Sinclair said that students going from public to private will not pull money away from the public schools, saying that it is no different from the open-enrollment system.
“The money the state earmarks to educate a child…goes with the kid,” said Sinclair.
On the topic of taxes, Sinclair said that property taxes have become a priority in the house, senate and governor’s office.
“We’ve got a property tax system…that has developed over the last 187 years, and has often just been a bandaid on top of the system over and over again each time some problem arises,” said Sinclair, citing the rise of ag land prices in the last 70′s as one instance where the rollback was changed, which just created a new problem for the commercial and industrial sectors.
“We’re taking a good hard look at what our property tax looks like from a levies...caps…usage…transparency…assessed value perspective,” said Sinclair, who thinks that something will happen this year and next, depending on how in-depth they go.
Sinclair added the legislature does want to simplify the tax system, and set predictable caps on it.
When addressing healthcare, Fry said that a key piece of legislation the house has been working on is medical malpractice.
“What I hear from medical students…they’re not looking at Iowa as a place to practice medicine because the liability insurance is so astronomically high,” said Fry, who noted the issues surrounding rural healthcare’s ability to attract and retain physicians.
Fry said that he and a couple of his colleagues have worked over the last three or four years on a piece of legislation that the governor signed into law on Feb. 16. The bill, House File 161, will cap all jury awarded non-economic damages relating to medical malpractice lawsuits at $2 million, and $1 million in lawsuits against individual physicians and clinics.
“Hopefully alleviating some of the very high costs of liability insurance for practitioners,” said Fry.
Fry spoke about working on legislation that would assist sex offenders who are in need of nursing home-type care. He said that there are many such people residing in our justice system today with nowhere to go, and acknowledged it is a difficult and sensitive conversation for people to have. An enhanced rate of reimbursement for individuals in need of such care is being looked at through Medicaid, as well as the possibility of an empty building or wing where a private entity would be willing to open up a care facility for patients on the sex offender registry.
With Iowa’s immunization registry, Fry explained that they are looking to mandate that all physicals make use of IRIS (Iowa’s Immunization Registry Information System).
“If we’re gonna have a database, let’s use the database,” said Fry.
The aim in requiring all physicians to use IRIS is to make it easier for school nurses to access updated immunization records, and the potential future benefit when it comes to traveling outside of the country.
Recently, the governor introduced a reorganization bill, which will see 37 department heads reduced to 16 by way of merging and combining departments. Reorganizing will allow the state to make better use of the resources and personnel already available, and in looking at surrounding states, Iowa in some cases has over double the amount of department heads.
“We want to make sure that we don’t see services to citizens cut or slowed down due to this merger,” said Fry, who added he is fairly confident they will avoid any such situations in the merging process.
The next legislative luncheon is planned for Friday, March 24 at noon at Lakeside Hotel and Casino.