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Transportation, taxes, mental health topics at Legislative Coffee

Clinton Herald - 2/19/2018

Feb. 19--CLINTON -- Community members joined area lawmakers for a Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce-hosted Legislative Coffee on Saturday, the second of four planned during the legislative session.

State Sen. Rita Hart, D-Wheatland; State Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton; and State Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, answered submitted questions regarding education, the recent school shooting in Florida and transportation. Here are some of the questions asked of the legislators and their answers:

TRANSPORTATION

Q: I have noticed that all northern states, east of Iowa to the Atlantic Ocean, have a toll road system in place. Why doesn't Iowa gain some revenue by installing a toll system on I-80 -- which would also benefit businesses during the construction process?

Mommsen: I've been part of meetings with the (Department of Transportation), where that has been discussed. Their comments back is that our system is not set up to be a toll road system. So, in order to make it a toll road, you go in on 80 to Chicago -- it's got very limited access. We have a lot of access on our highways. If we were to do that, we'd cut off a lot of communities. We're not designed that way... and I have been looking at that. The cost would be extremely high.

TAXES

Q: What details are you hearing about the tax cut, tax code bill?

Wolfe: The governor's version of a tax reform plan, it's about 100-some pages long, we just started reviewing it... It actually addresses the hotel-motel excise tax, in that it expands it to apartments -- which is kind of the opposite of what we wanted to do. It says that anybody who rents out an apartment on Airbnb or any other thing that, if you're subletting your apartment, etc., you would be subject to the hotel-motel excise tax. Now, the problem with that is it may or may not make it a little trickier to get that exemption extended out to 90 days -- or... (the part that states) you cannot collect hotel-motel excise tax after more than 30 days, we were hoping we could do away with it all together. So, on the one hand that it is in that bill, that it references that excise tax is good, because it gives us the opportunity to go into what I am sure will be many amendments to that bill, actually extend that period, that exemption period. On the other hand, the fact that (Gov. Kim Reynolds) is including apartments and a group of entities that are liable for that tax makes it more difficult. We will be working on that.

Mommsen: My biggest concern with the tax reform is that the money that you're not paying to the federal government that the state ... all of a sudden scoop up and grabs it from you. That is my biggest concern, with the amount of federal taxes you pay reduced, but you're able to deduct that on your Iowa taxes, which increases your Iowa tax. I think it's wrong for the state to scoop that up.

Hart: I think it's really complicated and we haven't had time to look at what is proposed. We still haven't taken care of the de-appropriation for this year's budget. We also know that there are some ramifications of the federal tax cut that we are not even exactly sure how that is going to affect Iowa. There's going to be a lot of conversations about this as we go forward, and I think that we really need to study it carefully, so we don't face decisions we will regret later. I am looking forward to that continued conversation.

FLORIDA SCHOOL SHOOTING and IOWA SCHOOLS

Q: After another school shooting has occurred, what do you believe Iowa needs to do to increase mental health support for the students of Iowa?

(To Rep. Mommsen), in light of the Florida school shooting, why have the Republicans cancelled the vote to repeal a requirement to have a permit to acquire a weapon. How soon will it, or if at all, will it be brought up to the session? Why is it even necessary to bring up a repeal vote?

Hart: I find the question about mental health simply to be one that we need to address -- not even considering the horrible shooting that is haunting all of us. We have a terrible problem with mental health, and the challenges that people face in the school system with mental health are severe. We ought to be addressing that... We have not done a good job here in the state of Iowa of taking care of those issues and funding things appropriately. The actions of Gov. (Terry) Branstad in shutting down mental health institutes and now they're proposing these mental health access centers, which should have been in place before they shut things down. We do things backwards.

I just want to say this about the shooting: It's just is heartbreaking. I can't hardly talk about it or think about it... I can only listen to it on the radio for a few minutes, then I gotta put things in perspective and try to be more concrete about it. As we all know, this is not normal and we are not doing enough. I have yet to have that conversation in a serious way at the capital. The gun bills that we talk about, and the other issues that we talk about that truly address this problem, I don't think are taking place. The gun bills that we looked at before are all about increasing rights and increasing access, they're not about what is happening in our school systems and what is happening in our society. What factual information can we garner to make some decisions that are going to curb this behavior... Maybe this is the time we will address this as a nation and as a state.

Mommsen (on permits): I would consider that one of those crazy bills. The bill was to repeal any permitting and they pulled that... the bill to repeal the permitting had been pulled from the Senate side, that didn't stand a chance in the House. It got thrown out. Murder is illegal, whether I shoot you with a gun, run over you with my car, strangle you, hang you, stab you -- murder is illegal... When it comes to mental health, I really do have an issue here... We did some stuff last year and we ended up gutting it. We passed a law out there with funding, and one of the issues was Scott County couldn't raise their levy to fund mental health. So we made it so they can raise their levy, but they haven't raised their levy because they -- and Clinton County has this issue, too -- there's a surplus out there. So, we talk about funding for mental health, but there is a surplus. That's where I haven't made the connection, if there is money out there, why aren't we using it?

Q: How much money has been put into the fiber optics system and are we trying to privatize the system?

Hart: So, that's about the (Iowa Communications Network) system, that was put in years ago. That system has a lot of fiber optic and it's millions of dollars -- I can't tell you what the exact number is, but it's a considerable amount of money. It's frustrating I think... This is a system that has some great things about it, in that it did bring fiber optic to nearly every small (school district) in Iowa, and some small towns have taken advantage of that, as in entered into agreements with local telephone companies and were able to provide some service that still continues today. Other small towns and areas of the state did not. The ICN was a great promise to education and it did do some things for quite a while, as far as provide long-distance education and it still provides a lot of very important opportunities.. in areas like the justice system and hospitals...

Having said all that, we have had this recent scandal with the ICN and the director of it, which is a huge problem. It's a huge oversight problem, that's an issue that brought all of this to light. People are saying we should sell the ICN, well you need to have a buyer in order to sell something and that's a true problem here. And also, because it is complicated, some places it's really vital. The education system, I find is very frustrating, because it did not fly well because we have so many different schedules all across the state, so we couldn't get proficient use of providing that kind of consistent education, because of the scheduling problems.

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