By The Gazette Editorial Board
It’s election year for many state legislators — all of those in the House and half in the Senate are on the November ballot. And during an election year, the typical expectation is that the Legislature won’t accomplish as much because lawmakers are anxious to take care of their re-election campaigns and not take many risks politically.
Nonetheless, even after last year’s productive session, there are several major, even critical, issues on the table as the 2014 session opens this week. Our strong hope is that legislators focus on these few, have the courage to take meaningful action, and not spin their wheels on lesser issues that aren’t pressing or have little chance of moving ahead.
As we see it, most of the big issues facing legislators this session are linked to or influence poverty levels in our state. Despite a generally improving economy, not only are there are more Iowans struggling financially but the poverty rate is on the rise. In 2000, it was 10 percent in 2000. Now it’s around 13 percent among all Iowans and 17 percent among children. And among all black Iowans, 40 percent are in poverty; among Latinos, 27 percent.
None of us should find those numbers tolerable, especially in a state that is one of the strongest in the nation financially and traditionally has boasted a great work ethic. Poverty has many faces and root causes and we may never eliminate all of it. But surely we can and must do better to help moreIowans lift themselves out of financial desperation into productive and more stable, secure lives. Doing so makes our state stronger socially and economically and frees up resources for other public and private ventures that benefit communities and the state.
Here, then, are key areas we think legislators must address this session:
While some meaningful K-12 reforms were approved last year, more work remains to be done. Committees are working on more recommendations, and there will likely be more changes coming. Ok, let’s see what surfaces.
Our immediate concern is the skills gap. Last year, a coalition of business and community colleges reported that 56 percent of jobs in the state are middle-skill jobs, those that provide living wages or better and benefits. However, only 33 percent of Iowa workers have the qualifications to fill those jobs.
What’s more, many of those jobs don’t require a traditional and increasingly unaffordable four-year college degree. Community colleges are probably the biggest key to closing the skills gap and getting more Iowans into well-paying jobs and a career path. They are lower cost than four-year institutions and offer programs that teach technical, computer and other skills so needed in today’s high-tech work places.
Last year, legislators and the governor approved $5.5 million for adult education and literacy programs at community colleges and $15.3 million for work force training and economic development aimed at helping minority residents who have little education or few job skills.
That’s good but we want to see even more state support for community colleges — including a larger appropriation to make tuition more affordable for students, regardless of whether they get what they need in a one- or two-year program or move on to a four-year institution. Average student debt levels have soared in the past decade as college costs climbed and the state’s share slid sharply. Universities and colleges should be held more accountable for their cost increases, but it’s also clear that state support must be more robust so that graduates don’t have to spend a decade or more digging out of their education debt hole.
Education is a primary way to avoid or escape poverty, and it must be affordable.
We’re not sure how the unfolding of the federal Affordable Care Act and our state’s Iowa Health and Wellness Plan will play out after so many enrollment and other problems early in the process. Legislators should probably wait and see for a while before trying to tinker much.
But one area where they need to act promptly is mental health care. The state is transitioning to a regional system that is to be fully effective by July 1. Its aim, to make sure all areas of Iowa receive equitable funding and care, is one we have supported. But so far, many counties have reported funding shortfalls with long waiting lists and service cutbacks to many of our most vulnerable citizens. We think more supplemental money is in order, especially after the governor vetoed $13 million in transition dollars last year.
There’s no question that a modern, efficient transportation system is vital to a strong economy and a healthy job market. A 2009 analysis of the impact of investment in public transportation by Economic Development Research Group Inc. of Boston found that every $1 billion of capital spent:
l Supports 24,000 jobs for a year (average of $42,000 per job).
l Adds $3 billion in business sales.
l Adds $1.5 billion to the economy’s gross domestic product.
l Generates $350 million in tax revenue.
Thus, Iowa’s annual $200 million-plus shortfall in funding needed to maintain and make important improvements to our roads and bridges is increasingly troublesome and risky to our future. Good jobs, commerce and economic growth are at stake.
There are no perfect solutions to the budget problem and Iowa can’t control what the federal government kicks in. The Iowa DOT found some financial efficiencies at the governor’s request and legislators raised registration fees a few years ago. But it’s not been nearly enough.
That’s why it’s high time to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been increased at the pump in nearly 25 years. It’s not the cure-all, but it must be done before our deteriorating infrastructure gets much worse than it already is. We see no other idea proposed that would help as much or as quickly.
Within the budget challenges is a fading opportunity to take a big first step toward expanded, enhanced passenger rail service linking the heart of Iowa with Chicago. The federal government several years ago approved cost-share funding for Illinois and Iowa toward upgrading the line from Chicago to the Quad Cities in Illinois and then to Iowa City in Iowa.
The Iowa Legislature and the governor have dragged their feet so far. Meanwhile, the one-time capital costs for the Iowa project have grown to $125 million and Iowa’s share has increased from $22 million to $72 million, much of it because federal railroad officials shifted money to Illinois, as that state moved its project forward. The Iowa DOT expects the remaining federal funds may go away altogether if the state makes no commitment this spring.
As we’ve argued in previous editorials, we think missing this opportunity would be a shame for long-term economic and quality of life impacts. The upfront investment can be spaced out over several years and the rewards last for decades. If there’s any viable way to come up with that investment, legislators should do it.
We don’t think the purpose of the minimum wage should be to guarantee a living wage. We do think it should be a dependable part of a social safety net that, along with other basic programs such as federal food stamps (SNAP), helps people as they strive to improve their work careers and become less dependent on public aid — and leave poverty.
Unfortunately, the minimum wage perennially is a political football and increases always lag increases in living costs. Iowa last raised it in 2008, to $7.25 per hour. We think another substantial raise is due but then let’s index the wage to inflation so workers and employers alike can plan better and be less susceptible to political whims.
Iowa should take the initiative and not wait for the federal government to act.
Iowa’s state budget, reserves and emergency funds are all in sound shape. But that doesn’t mean the state should go on a spending binge. Recent commitments already will boost spending by at least $400 million next year.
We do think there’s wiggle room to address the above priorities. Legislators should summon the will to do what is best for Iowans and start pushing back the poverty trend. Election-year politics is no excuse.
It all begins with the leadership of Gov. Terry Branstad, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. We hope they build on last session’s improved bipartisan tone.
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