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Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

Mental health reform on legislators 'must do' list

Monday, April 2, 2012

Will Iowa's legislators pass a fuel tax increase to help pay for roads this session?

Probably not.

Will they reform the way property taxes are collected?

Likely not this year.

With the Legislature moving toward adjournment as soon as this week, many of the most talked about issues will likely be tabled for another session.

But one won't: mental health reform.

Last year, the legislators passed a bill that requires Iowa's current county-by-county mental health system to be revamped into a statewide system by July 1, 2013.

Also on that date, the county-based tax levies for mental health will end, with mental health care costs coming out of Iowa's general fund.

If legislators don't approve a reform bill, the levy will end without giving counties most of what they need to pay for mental health services.

Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson, said the mental health bill is "the number one issue we have to take care of before we leave."

Anderson and Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-Le Mars, visited with constituents Saturday in Le Mars during one of their regular town hall forums.

The mental health reform, which will impact county, state or federally supported individuals, involves discussion on what services should be offered and how.

However, Anderson said he sees the biggest piece to deal with is how to pay for mental health care in Iowa.

Patrick Schmitz, executive director of Plains Area Mental Health in Le Mars, attended the forum and said he's been following discussions about mental health reform closely.

"I'm positive with most of it," Schmitz said. "It's time to do something. The momentum is now."

He thinks Republicans and Democrats need to work out their differences on the bill and move forward.

However, even the current mental health reform proposals don't map out how it will be paid for statewide. Discussions on that are slated to start early this week, Schmitz said.

"There's nothing that can be done until that happens," he said. "They have to solve that this session. They can't wait until next year because the counties would have no idea what to do the following year in terms of setting their budgets if they have no authority to levy for mental health."

Prior to the reform, Plymouth County had the lowest mental health levy in the state, Soderberg said -- roughly 20 cents per 1,000 in taxable valuation.

Anderson said if mental health legislation stalls, there is a possibility the Legislature would re-instate the county-by-county mental health levy to keep the system afloat.

"But that's a very short-term, a year-long fix," he said. "Maybe we buy ourselves another year, but that's all."

Schmitz noted that all issues surrounding mental health reform in Iowa won't be solved this year. Pieces of it will be on the legislators' plate for next year, too, he said.

Anderson said if Iowa's Legislature can agree on a mental health reform bill, they should be able to wrap up the session quickly, even if the next full budget isn't completely ironed out.

"We've passed 18 months of budgeting so we're budgeted until January of this next year," Anderson said.

That will allow legislators to come back in January and finish the budget with a supplemental amendment, then pass a full two-year budget, he said.

Any changes to the way Iowa's gas tax, tax increment financing (TIF) and property taxes will likely have to wait until next year.

Fuel tax

Both Soderberg and Anderson agreed an increase in Iowa's gas tax to help pay for road improvements was pretty much dead in the water.

"In the House, I hear no appetite to increase the fuel tax," Soderberg said.

Anderson shared a similar view.

"This economy is very delicate, and gas prices could have a big impact," he said. "And the political side of this is, if you vote for this, well, a lot of people are concerned about re-election."

One citizen attending the legislative forum asked what is being done to make sure the Iowa Department of Transportation is using fuel tax dollars to pay for worthy projects.

He said the wild grass and plant seeding along the Highway 75 Bypass near Le Mars has lead to the spread of noxious weeds onto farmland.

Soderberg thanked him for voicing his concern, saying he'd bring it to the attention of the DOT commission.

Property tax reform

Politicians on both sides of the party line talked up property tax reform this year.

When asked about the prospects of a bill moving forward before the session is over, both said they were "optimistic, but..."

The House passed a reform bill on a Republican-led party line vote in February that called for changes, including eventually requiring commercial property owners to pay taxes on only 60 percent of their property's assessed value instead of 100 percent.

The House proposal has not gained much ground in the Senate, where Democrats have the majority and a separate property tax reform proposal.

Anderson said he thinks Senate Democrats and Republicans are "miles apart" on the issue.

He predicts after the next general elections, which look to favor a Republican majority in the Senate, the Legislature might be able to pass a property tax reform bill.

About 70 percent of Iowans want property tax reform, Anderson said.

One citizen at Saturday's forum expressed concern about what property tax reform could mean for residential owners.

"If we lower commercial property tax rates, what kind of a burden will that throw on residential taxpayers," he asked.

Soderberg said the property tax reform proposal has "several moving pieces," some that would mean increases to residential taxpayers and some that would bring decreases.

"It's a difficult issue," Anderson said.

Tax Increment Financing reform

TIF allows a government entity like a city to capture certain tax dollars -- created through increased property valuations in a specific district -- and use them to help move forward projects such as connecting a new industrial site to the storm sewer.

Soderberg said he sees TIF as an important economic development tool but sees room for reforms.

In a recent newsletter, Soderberg said "the broad definitions of how and what TIF dollars can be used for" has created some misuse.

"There's been some abuses, but we can't forget about the good uses of TIF," he said at Saturday's forum.

Many communities use TIF as a way to help make themselves more attractive to businesses looking to grow or expand, Soderberg said.

"This reform is not to kill TIF; it's to strengthen TIF," he said.

Soderberg supports adding transparency requirements to the TIF rules ensuring that other taxing entities and taxpayers be notified of each TIF project and creating a searchable database were all TIF data can be reported.

Speaking from the Senate side, Anderson said he doesn't believe TIF reform will move forward this session.

"I think it's a distraction, with so much left to do," he said.

Still, Anderson sees legitimate reasons for TIF reforms.

"But we want to be very careful because it is a valuable economic development tool," he said. "We need as many arrows in our quiver as we can as we take on more competitive states. There's room for reform in everything, but let's not damage it."



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