Behn, Baltimore visit with Greene County voters

Sen Jerry Behn (standing) and Rep Chip Baltimore

Discussion was lively on a variety of topics when Republicans Sen Jerry Behn and Rep Chip Baltimore, who represent Greene County in the Iowa statehouse, met with constituents Saturday morning at Homestead Coffee and Bakery in Jefferson. The Iowa Corn Growers provided coffee.

About 30 persons attended, about three times the attendance that has been typical of similar meetings during other legislative sessions.

The meeting came at the close of “funnel week,” a time when bills still in committee are considered dead. He reported that the proposed new “bottle bill,” which would eliminate the state’s 5-cent deposit on beverage containers was dead, as well as a bill that would have changed the licensing of healthcare businesses with the potential to greatly increase competition to existing medical centers.

Hot topics at the Saturday meeting included collective bargaining reform for public workers, Medicaid privatization and managed care organizations (MCOs), funding for education, and changes in gun laws.

Collective bargaining – Baltimore said he had heard for years from members of city councils, county supervisors, and school board members and superintendents that the existing collective bargaining system “was an issue for them as they tried to manage their entities. We listened to them and passed the collective bargaining bill…. We tried to help local entities manage their employees and their business in a more productive manner.”

According to Baltimore, the public sector is only 11 percent of the Iowa workforce. “The other 89 percent doesn’t have that system and they seem to be getting along just fine,” he said.

He justified excluding law enforcement officers and firefighters from the new bill because of the dangers to their personal safety they face in the line of duty. “From my perspective, if you’re strapping on a bullet proof vest in the morning, that might be worthy of special consideration,” he said.

The safety of law enforcement officers spun off to a discussion of allowing school staff to have guns. Baltimore said there is no interest in the statehouse of changing the law to allow guns.

Medicaid privatization/MCOs – Behn reminded the audience that changes were made to Medicaid to provide better coordination in care, providing better health outcomes and saving money. “It was not designed just to be a savings. It was designed to have healthier outcomes, which everybody believed at the time would lead to increased savings,” Behn said. “We were trying to find ways to slow the escalation of the cost of Medicaid because it was spiraling out of control.” He said that even if there were no savings, it would slow the increase in costs.

He said privatization hasn’t worked as well as predicted. He reported being in contact with Genesis Development almost monthly trying to get nearly $1 million in late Medicaid payments cleared up. “That’s not acceptable,” Behn said. “We’re trying to work out those details and find out why they’re not getting paid on time.”

Baltimore said he’s frustrated with the system and “screaming as much as the people impacted to fix the payment system.”

Education funding – To a question about funding private schools, Behn said he is not supportive of vouchers, but he favors educational savings accounts. He said he favors “competition in education. I think that’s very important.” He said educational savings accounts offer parents choice of where their children attend school.

Baltimore said implementing a system that would put state funds into private education would be a “disaster.” “Schools have to have sustainability and predictability in funding. If I could move my state allocation for my kid wherever I want to take it…. In theory it’s one of those things that’s novel to think about, but in practice it would be a disaster.”

He later said he’d be interested in the legislature taking on the “huge job” of overhauling the funding system for education so that the number of students in a district is only part of the equation in figuring funding to each district. “At the end of the day if you have a teacher in a classroom with 12 kids and you have another teacher in an urban area with 24 kids, there’s double the amount of funding that goes to that urban school versus the rural school, but that teacher still costs the same. The rural schools are getting screwed left and right by per pupil funding when they lose kids,” he said.

He said a bill that is still alive in the House would give rural schools more flexibility in spending from their various accounts.

A proposed bill in the Senate would provide additional funds to rural districts to help cover transportation costs. Behn said the measure would cost $250 million to fully implement, so if it passes, it will probably be phased in over 10 years or so. That would be new money to rural schools, not a shift from other allocations. The additional money for transportation would free up money in the general fund for classroom education.

Gun safety laws – Baltimore said a bill that has come out of committee would require permits both to acquire and to carry a handgun. Both would be valid for five years; the current permit to acquire is now valid for only one year. The bill would call for a consistent, unified statewide carry permit so all permits look the same. Under the current bill, persons must be 21 to acquire or carry a gun, but persons 14-21 can use a gun with adult supervision. The new bill would allow children younger than 14 to use guns, but it adds a provision that parents are strictly liable for anything that happens when a youngster uses a gun. Children could use guns only on their parents’ property or at a shooting range or similar location.

Water quality – Baltimore also said he has spent a lot of time this session on water quality. The House agriculture committee (on which he serves) has worked on a bill that has been sent on to the ways and means committee. The bill seeks to create a collaborative system that brings “urban and rural folks together instead of wanting to bicker all the time.” He said the system would encourage groups in the 1600 watersheds in Iowa to form partnerships, determine specific problems in the watersheds, and find solutions. The state would provide funding to implement solutions. “Our goal is to have all these smaller watershed projects collectively improve the water quality in the state,” Baltimore said.

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