Education tops concernsFour legislators answer questions Saturday
Attendees to Saturday’s legislative briefing in the Washington County Courthouse were treated to twice the number of legislators in years past as four local statesmen and women fielded questions from the audience.
The four state legislators included three Republicans (Senator Sandra Greiner, Representative Jarad Klein and Representative Dave Heaton) and a Democrat (Senator Rich Taylor).
Heaton had represented the southern half of Washington County years ago but redistricting pushed him out of the county. However, the most recent round of redistricting put him back in Washington County.
In her opening remarks, Greiner said she does not like legislative briefings in January since the Legislature has not done anything substantive yet. Ed Raber, the moderator of the event, said that when the Chamber of Commerce has asked legislators to hold briefings in May, the legislators were not keen on the idea.
Taylor won election to the Iowa Senate just this past November. He worked at the Fort Madison State Penitentiary for 26 years, and incorporated that experience into his political philosophy and specifically his advocacy of early childhood education.
“I know those people were never given a chance,” he said. “The question is, do we want to pay for those kids when they’re young or when they’re in juvenile court?”
Taylor said the state needed to fund corrections sufficiently to ensure that prisoners are protected from each other.
“They’re paying a debt to society, but they don’t deserve to be beaten or raped,” he said.
Dan Widmer asked the panel what it thought of recent efforts to eliminate voter fraud. Heaton said he liked what Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller was doing on voter fraud.
Taylor said he was glad that Miller wants to protect the electoral process but he doesn’t agree with how Miller is doing it. Taylor said he’s uncomfortable requiring everybody to present a driver’s license to vote since not everybody has a driver’s license.
Klein said he supported Miller’s efforts. Greiner said she didn’t think a voter ID bill would come up for a vote in the Senate.
Highland Schools Superintendent Chris Armstrong asked the legislators about the prospects for more education funding this year. Armstrong said his district lost students the past couple of years, and along with those students it lost one-quarter of a million dollars.
“I’ve had to cut teachers, when I’d really like to add a reading teacher,” he said.
Heaton said the Senate has proposed an allowable growth of 4 percent for schools, although he’s not sure if the governor would agree to that. He said that the equitable thing to do would be to let the money follow the students. However, he added that such a policy puts stress on small schools, which have infrastructure needs just like big schools.
Washington High School Principal Erik Buchholz asked the senators and representatives if they could remove the cap on college credit for high-schoolers. Greiner said she hoped to remove it this year.
Klein took the opportunity to reiterate his support for home rule, which allows local governments to pass laws without expressed permission from the state government.
Heaton said Saturday was the first time he heard about such a cap on college credits, but said he would like to remove it, too. He said he was not so sure about complete home rule, because he wants all schools to follow a core curriculum.
Tom Langr, a teacher at Washington High School, said he was upset when he heard reports from some politicians that Iowa’s schools are stagnant. He said the schools have a harder time teaching students today because of changing demographics and a growing need for English as a second language. He said he’d even be willing to take a pay freeze to ensure funding for such programs.
Klein asked him, “Do the teachers unions support pay freezes?”
Langr said that was his own personal belief and did not necessarily reflect that of teachers unions.
Kevin Kiene asked what would happen with property taxes this legislative session. Heaton said he planned to hold the city and county governments harmless. Taylor said the Legislature would probably backfill local governments for lost revenue in the event of a property tax cut, although he said such a policy is dangerous since the money for backfilling might not be there next year.
Chris Kirkwood asked if the Legislature would approve a casino in Cedar Rapids. Heaton said the Legislature was out of the loop because the matter was up to Cedar Rapids to decide. Greiner said she did not believe the casino in Cedar Rapids will be approved.
Washington County Engineer Jacob Thorius asked what the legislators would do to ensure more funding for the road-use tax fund. Thorius suggested increasing the gas tax 10 cents, which he said would generate $500,000 to $600,000 for Washington County.
Klein asked him, “Is $500,000 what you need?”
“It will help,” Thorius said.
“So in a couple of years you’ll be back asking for another dime?” Klein asked.
Stewart Elementary Principal Adam Miller asked the panel if there would be more funding for preschools this year. Greiner said she had heard no discussion of it. Klein said the issue had not come up in his committees, either.