By Tom Chapman
As we approach the end of the Christmas season this Sunday – the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – it’s time for our annual look ahead to the next session of the Iowa legislature. The 85th session of the General Assembly will begin this coming Monday, Jan. 14.
Before we get into the details of our preview of the upcoming session, let’s take care of some previous business from an alert we sent you last month.The president signed a “fiscal cliff” deal passed at the last minute by Congress before automatic spending cuts were to take effect.
Among the items in the deal:
Made the “Bush tax cuts” permanent, except for those taxpayers with taxable income above $400,000
Child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credit extended five years
Increased payroll taxes back to 6.2 percent (from a temporary cut to 4.2 percent)
Extended the Farm Bill for nine months
Made permanent a tax credit for adoptive parents
Unemployment benefits extended
Permanently fixed the Alternative Minimum Tax to avoid impacting a large number of households
I would like to thank those of you who took the time to send a message to Congress on the federal budget. Our main goal was to protect programs that help families escape poverty and live in dignity. We were pretty successful in that regard. “Automatic” cuts to most government programs (including one of our priorities, preserving poverty-focused international assistance) and debt limit issues were put off until March. So we have that discussion to look forward to. Stay tuned.
When it convenes on Monday, the Iowa legislature will look much like the last two years: the Democrats in control of the Senate and the Republicans in control of the House. Republican Governor Terry Branstad has two years left on his term in office. The state still has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. These facts would tend to make you think we’ll see more of the same – a lot of discussion around reform efforts in education, health care and taxes, and not a lot of legislation enacted into law.
Of course there will be surprises. There are many new legislators and every one of them has his or her ideas about what’s best for the state. Perhaps the chambers will agree on more items than expected. Part of that will be up to you and your involvement.
The Iowa Catholic Conference structures our legislative work through several committees made up mostly of diocesan staff members and volunteers. The Communications Committee helps us get the word out about what we’re doing. The other four committees are Education, Family Life, Pro-Life and Social Concerns. We also have an Immigration Subcommittee. We don’t have all the answers but we take seriously the call of Scripture to “bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, new sight to the blind, and to set the downtrodden free.” (Lk 4:18) With your help, we will promote public policies that protect the life and dignity of the human person and change the course of public debate on issues at the core of Catholic social teaching.
One of our goals at the legislature is to encourage the state to provide parents the ability to send their children to the school of their choice. There are many parents who would like to choose a Catholic school for their children, but they just can’t afford it.
One of the ways our state already helps lower-income parents make this choice is through the Educational Opportunities Act tax credit. The state offers $8.75 million in tax credits for donors who give money for scholarships to state-accredited private schools such as Catholic schools. 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 that out with your local Catholic school.
Legislatively, our objective this year will be to increase the amount of tax credits available. In addition, we will be working to restore cuts in transportation and textbook funding that benefit students in nonpublic schools. We’ll be asking you to contact legislators about these issues during the session.
We have some other good ideas to further the goal of true “parental choice in education” which you’ll hear about in the near future. These proposals will save taxpayers money and improve achievement among public school students as well.
There will be another education reform bill (actually probably more than one) introduced in the legislature. Sometimes people forget that since every Catholic school in Iowa is accredited by the state, new state requirements usually affect the Catholic schools as well.
In any reform bill, we look to preserve the ability of Catholic schools to fulfill their mission, as well as provide parents with more effective ways to choose the right schools for their children. We’ll keep you posted as these reform bills begin to move through the process. We know that one proposal will be a pay increase for public school teachers.
P.S. There’s a “tuition and textbook” tax credit currently available for parents of public or nonpublic school students. You can take 25 percent of the first $1,000 spent on certain education expenses for each dependent off your state taxes. Make sure you look for this line in your state tax return.
A priority of the Family Life effort of the Iowa Catholic Conference has been to secure passage of an amendment to Iowa’s Constitution that recognizes marriage only as a union of one man and one woman. It seems unlikely that the Iowa Senate would advance such an amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to take up the “same-sex” marriage issue later this year is another reason that legislators may want to wait and see.
One of the difficulties in addressing the issue is helping people understand why marriage by its nature is between a man and a woman. Marriage is not simply a public recognition of a relationship between adults. A good resource about our Church’s teaching is available atwww.marriageuniqueforareason.org.
Aside from the issue of “same-sex” marriage, we all know that marriage itself is in trouble. More than 40 percent of children are born outside marriage. For all the truly heroic work that is done by many single parents in raising children, an accurate assessment of the issue shows that children and families with a married mom and dad in the home are healthier economically, educationally and by a variety of other markers.
Marriage is not just a purely private matter. We can see just one example by looking at U.S. Census Bureau reports on U.S. poverty rates as they relate to children and their family status. According to a recent blog post on the U.S. Catholic bishops’ website by Dr. Thomas Melady, former U.S. Ambassador to Burundi, Uganda and the Vatican:
“The type of household in which a child is raised is a factor. Around 47 percent who lived only with a female householder were in poverty, compared to only 10 percent of related children in married couple families. Furthermore, more than half of related children under six in families with a female householder were in poverty. This statistic is four and a half times the percentage of children under the age of six in poverty within married coupled families.”
Purely on an economic level, when marriage is failing, the cost of our social safety net is higher than it needs to be. At the same time, public policies sometime present a disincentive to get married because of benefit cuts or negative tax implications. How can government help this situation and do no harm? What do you think? The Family Life Committee will continue to look at this issue.
Turning our attention to another subject: there may be another attempt this legislative session to legalize playing in poker tournaments over the Internet.
In stating our opposition to the expansion of gambling in Iowa, we recognize that gambling can be a legitimate recreational activity in an atmosphere of moderation and control. But it seems clear that our state has adequate gambling opportunities. Once online accounts would be set up for poker tournaments, further expansion of online gambling by Iowa casinos in the future seems inevitable. The stated reason for the bill is 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.
One piece of good news is that the number of reported abortions in Iowa dropped from 2010 to 2011, from 5,399 to 4,815. Currently in the state of Iowa, abortion is legal throughout pregnancy for any reason.
One of the issues we will be working on during the session is requiring a physician to be physically present during an abortion. Currently, many abortions in Iowa take place over a webcam (videoconference). Here’s how it works: during an office visit and video consultation with a physician at a different location, two pills are delivered to the pregnant woman by activating a remote control switch that opens a drawer in front of her. The drawer contains two pills, and she takes the first 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.
The Iowa Catholic Conference opposes abortion, no matter the method. However, if these abortions are to take place, the safety and informed consent of the women involved should be among the chief concerns.
The legislature will also be discussing limitations on abortion funding and abortion providers in Medicaid. The chambers could not agree on a solution last year so they “kicked the can down the road” to 2013. It does not serve the common good to send taxpayer money to organizations that assist in the taking of human life.
Generally speaking, it is unlikely the Democratic-majority Senate will advance any abortion-regulation related bills. This will not stop us from looking for ways to accomplish positive change on the issue through the legislature.
A poll just released by the Knights of Columbus/Marist shows that more than 8 in 10 Americans (83 percent) favor significant restrictions on abortion. You’d never know it from our public policy!
The sad murders of two young girls in northeast Iowa have brought back a discussion of the reinstatement of the death penalty in Iowa. The death penalty was abolished in 1965. Currently the state already imposes a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murderers.
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 Iowa Catholic Conference Social Concerns Committee covers a variety of issues, including immigration, health care, and poverty.
As you may recall, last year President Obama announced a “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) policy to “defer action” for all young people eligible under the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Hundreds of thousands of young people are now eligible to apply for both deferred action on deportation for two years and a work permit. This was supported by the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Unfortunately, the Iowa Department of Transportation has issued new guidance that any recipients of the new federal status are not eligible for driver’s licenses in Iowa. The DOT’s action is disappointing. People who are authorized to be present in Iowa have been eligible to receive a driver’s license in the state. We are supporting efforts to encourage the DOT to revisit their stance.
One of the main purposes of driver’s licenses is to protect us from drivers who don’t know how to drive or understand the rules of the road. People being granted a license is a safety benefit for all of us, and an everyday necessity for many who need to keep a job.
Aside from the driver’s license issue, the ICC has supported bills during the last decade or so that would offer in-state tuition rates at state universities for undocumented students who have grown up in Iowa. This has been a long-time priority of the Conference as a way to help students who are present without authorization (generally not by their own choice) and have lived in Iowa for many years. There are efforts to pass such legislation again this year. We believe the legislation would be a good building block for positive immigration reform and help add talented and motivated people to our workforce.
To be clear, the bill would not give free college tuition to people who are here illegally. It would simply allow them to attend at in-state tuition rates. In fact, such students would not be eligible for government financial aid at all (such as Pell Grants, loans, etc.)
This month the bishops are also kicking off an electronic postcard campaign in favor of just and compassionate immigration reform. There are hopes that Congress will take up the issue this spring once they get through additional budget talks. There are more details on the campaign atwww.justiceforimmigrants.org. Please take action today and help let others know about the campaign.
Just last month, Pope Benedict XVI told a conference of health care workers that good health is a benefit that needs to be defended and guaranteed for all people, not just for those who can afford it. Here in Iowa, we have three specific legislative concerns in the area of healthcare:
· Supports state initiatives which would make health care more readily available and affordable to all Iowans, including immigrants and their children.
· Opposes direct or indirect public funding of abortion.
· Supports the conscience rights of medical professionals and institutions.
The implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) is one of the tasks awaiting Iowa lawmakers and the governor during the next few months.
The state needs to decide whether to accept federal money to expand Medicaid. The “Medicaid expansion” is the part of the ACA that addresses the largest number of uninsured citizens. It would expand coverage to all people who earn less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level. It is estimated that about 150,000 Iowans who currently do not have health insurance would become newly-eligible.
Generally, Medicaid is available for some very low-income families with dependent children and pregnant women. It is difficult for lower-income adults without dependent children to qualify for Medicaid. Numerous studies show that people are healthier if they have access to health insurance, rather than delaying care and relying on the emergency room – the most expensive way to get into the health care system.
One reason that Iowa hospitals, including the Catholic ones, are strongly supporting the expansion of Medicaid is because they will get reimbursed for currently uncompensated care (reflected in higher insurance rates for the rest of us).
Medicaid is paid by a 60-40 percent mix of federal to state funds. However, for the expanded program, the federal government will cover 100 percent of the costs for the first three years. Eventually the permanent federal share becomes 90 percent for the expansion population.
Governor Branstad has expressed reluctance about expanding Medicaid due to concerns about the federal government’s ability to pay. However, there is a possibility that the governor will put forward an alternative plan to expand health coverage. That would be a positive sign. As a practical matter, citizens in Iowa will be paying for the expansion of Medicaid in other states through our tax dollars whether Iowa accepts the federal funds or not.
Another aspect of this that can be forgotten is that every person is now obligated to have health insurance, i.e. the “individual mandate.” If the state does not expand Medicaid it will be very difficult for many who might otherwise qualify to obtain affordable private insurance.
In short, our ongoing policy priority has been to help uninsured Iowans get access to health care and the expansion of Medicaid can be seen in this regard.
We will fight to exclude health insurance plans containing abortion coverage from any newly created “exchanges” (marketplaces). Our tax dollars are used to subsidize health insurance plans in the exchange and we don’t want that money used to support abortion coverage.
We will support efforts to increase the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This is a tax credit for people who work and have relatively low wages. Currently the credit maxes out at $379 a year for a married couple with three children making about $43,000 a year, or $32 for a single adult making up to $13,450. Supporters estimate this would help more than 500,000 people in Iowa.
Tom Chapman is the executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference