Iowa Senate debates safe schools, passes other bills

Senators vote to make changes to the existing child and dependent care state income tax credit

Rod Boshart
Published: March 17 2014 | 5:49 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:46 am in

DES MOINES – The Iowa Senate debated but did not cast a final vote Monday on a measure designed to make schools safer by strengthening policies to curtail bullying and harassment of students.

Senate File 2318 included provisions requiring educator training, bolstering parental notification for bullying incidents, and affirming the ability for school officials to discipline students for bullying problems that arise off school property or online.

“Too many of our young people in the state are being subjected to bullying or harassment because of who they are,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “Under the current law, the data shows that over 2,500 incidents every year have been confirmed and that’s too much. So this is a law that we need to improve and this bill will do it in several ways.”

Along with addressing off-campus activity, expanding the definition of bullying and harassment to include cyber bullying, and clarifying school authority to address problems that arise off school property and outside school hours, the proposal included funding for a new office within the state Department of Education and a $750,000 grant program for districts to promote safer schools.

During Monday’s floor debate, senators turned back a Republican amendment that attempted to accelerate the timeframe whereby parents would be notified of a bullying issue at school and would remove a list of student traits and characteristics that were part enumerated in the Iowa code as part of 2007 safe schools legislation.

Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, said the amendment, which he called the Bully-Free Iowa Act of 2014, was designed to protect all students for all reasons in all situations. The amendment failed on a 22-25 vote with Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, joining 21 Republicans in supporting it. Three GOP senators were absent for the vote and 25 Democrats opposed the amendment.

The anti-bullying proposal is one of Gov. Terry Branstad’s priorities for the 2014 legislative session.

Also Monday, senators voted 47-0 to make changes to the existing child and dependent care state income tax credit. The bill increases each of the seven adjusted gross income brackets with the top qualifying level moving from $45,999 to an annual income of $67,409 for an eligible working family.

Senate File 2337 also would index the income brackets for inflation going forward, raises the tax credit percentage for each of the seven brackets to a range of 37.5 percent to 93.75 percent, and modifies the requirement that the credit be calculated as a function of the federal tax credit.

Under the federal calculation, the tax credit can be limited by a lack of federal tax liability for the taxpayer. Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, the bill’s floor manager, said the change will allow the taxpayer to benefit from the full Iowa tax credit even in instances where they were not allowed the full calculated federal credit due to insufficient federal tax liability.

The proposed changes are retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014. The bill’s enhancements were projected to have a $9 million fiscal impact in fiscal 2015 and thereafter. The bill goes to the Iowa House for further action.

In other action, senators voted 47-0 to tougher discipline for any educator who engages in a romantic relationship with a former student by providing that such unprofessional and unethical conduct that may result in disciplinary action, including suspension or revocation of a license.

House File 2389, which goes to Branstad for his consideration, requires the state Board of Educational Examiners to adopt administrative rules in its code of professional conduct and ethics to address any licensee who commits or solicits any sexual conduct, or solicits, encourages, or consummates a romantic relationship with a student. Under the bill, a teacher who engages in or pursues a romantic relationship with a person who was a student within the previous 90 days could disciplinary action.

“This is saying loud and clear that this shall not be tolerated,” said Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Cedar Rapids, the bill’s floor manager.

In other action, senators voted 46-1 to modify provisions of an incentive program intended to “ease” school districts into consolidation where appropriate, said Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Cedar Rapids, the bill’s floor manager. Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, opposed the measure.

House File 2271, which now goes to the governor for his consideration, changes the current shared operational functions supplementary weighting provision to change the weighting structure to provide funding on a per function basis and caps the level of totaling weighting per district.

Mathis said the modifications were necessary because the potential price tag on the program had grown to “upwards of $80 million and that was not the Legislature’s intent,” Mathis said. Under the approved changes, the program was expected to cost $12.4 million in fiscal 2015 with a potential cumulative effect of $46 million through fiscal 2020.

Senators also 47-0 to approve House File 2421, which allow courts to transfer guardianship of a child involved in a child in need of assistance (CINA) proceeding if the person receiving the guardianship has assumed responsibility for the child before the filing of the petition. The bill was sent to the governor.

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