The Behn Report

Jerry Behn (R), Boone

March 5, 2020

~by Senator Jerry Behn

On Tuesday the House and Senate announced an agreement on a K-12 education funding package for the next school year. Investing almost $100 million in new funding for schools, this money will include $7.65 million for transportation equity and $5.8 million for per pupil equity. The bill passed out of the Senate on Wednesday and is now headed to the governor for her signature.

Floor debate was the main focus of the week as we work on sending Senate bills to the House for consideration. We discussed a wide range of topics, including bills on insurance, hunting, animal cruelty, dentistry, and optometry.

One of the bills the Senate passed is Senate File 2268, which conforms to federal law changing the minimum age to purchase, possess or use tobacco or vaping products to 21 years old. Congress passed a bill in December to change the age to 21 and required states to comply in order to continue eligibility for federal block grants. This bill passed 43-6 and now goes to the House.

We also passed Senate File 2368, which prohibits cities and counties from requiring landlords accept federal housing vouchers from tenants. The idea behind this legislation is to protect private property rights. Better ways exist to encourage landlords to accept federal housing vouchers than mandating they accept them. Other cities across the country are working with landlords and using incentives, like financial assistance with application expenses, leasing bonuses, and financial assistance with any damage that may be caused to those apartments instead of mandates. These cities have seen increased participation and those policies encourage better relationships between landlords and tenants.

Putting victims first – Over a year ago, Iowa started having the conversation about restoring voting rights to felons in our state after a national push for reform. A priority of Governor Kim Reynolds, the legislature started discussions on a constitutional amendment, HJR 14, to automatically restore the voting rights of felons once they complete their sentence.

While it passed the House last year, my colleagues and I had a few concerns we wanted to address, one of which was to avoid a mess similar to the one happening in Florida. After voters in Florida changed their constitution to give felons their voting rights back, the legislature passed a law to implement those changes. That law caused several legal battles and uncertainty continues as that state’s primary election nears. Additionally, the Senate believed a big part of the discussion was missing – the victims.

To address these concerns, the Senate passed Senate File 2348, putting certain restrictions on automatic restoration of voting rights for felons and requiring all victim restitution be paid. Under this legislation, which would go into effect only if the constitutional amendment is adopted by the people of Iowa, a majority of felons who have completed their sentence would have their voting rights automatically restored. It puts restrictions only on those felons who have committed terrible crimes, like murder and rape, and requires them to still contact the governor’s office to have their voting rights restored. This requirement does not include any court fees or fines. It only applies to restitution paid to the victim.

To be clear, felons are not victims. They made a decision in their life to commit a serious crime, and at the very least, the victims should be made the priority in this process. Victims are people who have a crime committed against them and they must be part of this process.

Opponents of this bill argued this policy is a version of a poll tax. I strongly disagree with that assertion. One of our colleagues said if anything it is a “murder tax,” on criminals. Committing a felony is a choice and it is a serious violation of the rights of another person. The goal of requiring victim restitution be paid is to ensure victims are getting the justice they deserve, before felons gets their constitutional rights restored.

The morality of work requirements – America is the greatest country in the history of the world. The unparalleled success of this country is sourced with a handful of simple policies and ideas like freedom, private property rights, and the rule of law. Among the traits that made this country great is work. Work gives individuals dignity. It teaches life lessons to young people, develops the skills of workers with entry level jobs, and it perpetuates more opportunities for success.

Those concepts inspired the text of Senate File 2366, a bill passed on the Senate floor this week. This bill requires individuals receiving taxpayer-funded health care or food assistance to work, volunteer, obtain job training, or other schooling. This bill only applies to able-bodied adults and includes a series of exceptions for those who are not able to work, such as someone who is pregnant, medically exempt, or a caregiver.

The goal of this bill is to encourage work. It is designed to ensure taxpayer-funded social programs exist for those people truly in need. It aims to encourage those individuals on public assistance to move to self-sustaining careers for them and their families.

In addition to the moral and social benefits of work, Iowa’s economy needs more workers. The unemployment rate in this state has been below 3 percent for more than two years. Industry after industry is looking for more employees and trying to grow. Banners hang from many storefronts boasting of high starting wages and quickly escalating benefits. A period of nearly full employment is the perfect time to reform public assistance programs to encourage work and keep Iowa growing.

A few thousand years ago the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.” A quote as true then as it is now.

As always, I want to hear from you. My senate number is 515-281-3371 and my home number is (515) 432-7327 or write me at: State Capitol, Des Moines, IA 50319 or at my home address: 1313 Quill Avenue, Boone, IA 50036 or email me at jerry.behn@legis.iowa.gov.

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