JCED forum centers on IWILL, mental health funding


Rep. Lee Hein and Rep Andy McKean. (Photos by Kim Brooks)

Sen. Dan Zumbach and Sen. Carrie Koelker.
By: 
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

A couple dozen people were in attendance to hear from Reps. Lee Hein and Andy McKean and Sen. Dan Zumbach and Carrie Koelker at the Jan. 31 legislative forum. 

The forum took place at the Lawrence Community Center in Anamosa, hosted by Jones County Economic Development. The event sponsor was Jones Regional Medical Center. Eric Briesemeister, JRMC CEO, submitted a question to the representatives inquiring about rural EMS funding. 

“We are working on that,” said Hein. 

He shared that Rep. Bobby Kaufmann has a few funding ideas circulating at the moment. One is a tax credit that would incentivize people to volunteer for rural fire and ambulance services. 

“Here in Monticello, I know we have a fantastic fire department,” praised Hein. “But there are a lot of fire departments that are struggling to get people to volunteer.” Hein said it comes down to finances and family obligations. 

In addition, Hein said it’s being talked about taking revenue from the new sports betting and using that for rural EMS. In the end, though, he said, “We are probably going to ask for a direct appropriation to help.” 

The biggest topic of the afternoon was mental health funding and property tax relief, as well as funding IWILL (Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy). Several people in the audience had questions about the topic as a whole. 

Deb Pingel of Monticello asked how much the state would gain from lowering property taxes and increasing sales taxes. 

Hein explained if the state stuck with its three-eights of a cent, it would gain $200 million. If it went to a full penny, it would gain $540 million. That also means that $100 million could come off of (reduce) property taxes. 

“The plan is that three-eights of a cent will go toward IWILL,” Hein said. 

Zumbach said it makes more sense to fund mental health through sales tax than property taxes because sales tax moves with the economy. “Long term, sales will increase,” he said with some optimism. 

“The mental health regions are all funded through property taxes,” added Hein. “This could reduce the levy that is currently being spent from property taxes.” 

“If you talk to your county supervisors, they will tell you that they very much want to see a change rather than paying for mental health out of property taxes,” explained McKean. “It’s a very inequitable and uneven system around the state. It can be a real burden for local government.” 

McKean went on to say that sales tax is a “progressive tax.” He said he would favor increasing the sales tax and using that to help fund mental health. 

Pingel worried that increasing sales taxes would hinder people from buying goods and services. 

Koelker said something else needs to be explored rather than put the entire burden on property taxpayers. 

“Right now, mental health is strictly funded out of property taxes,” she said. “We need to fund additional money for mental health. And we cannot just do it on the burden of property tax owners.” 

Zumbach explained that it’s not just people who own property who pay property tax. People who rent property inadvertently pay property taxes through the cost of rent. If property taxes go up, rent goes up, and not everyone can afford to pay higher rent. 

“Sales tax spreads over a lot more folks,” he said of the even distribution. It also applies to people living outside of the state who come to Iowa and purchase goods and services. “They’ll help subsidize the cost,” added Zumbach. 

McKean shared that Iowa is ranked 47th in the nation when it comes to mental health funding. “Our record for mental health in Iowa is a real eye sore. It’s an issue that really demands attention and a new way of looking at things. If we have a different funding source for mental health services, I think you’ll see improved mental health services in Iowa.” 

Ellen Strittmatter asked why mental health funding and water quality has to come strictly from property taxes? 

Zumbach said that’s why they’re trying to change the funding source. 

“Having a tax that grows with the economy as the cost of mental health grows, too, those two will match each other pretty well,” said Zumbach. “It spreads the burden over more folks, too.” 

Bernie Manternach of Monticello asked how the IWILL three-eights funding formula could even be changed when the voters approved the measure in 2011. 

Hein said things have changed since then, particularly water quality being more of an issue now than eight years ago. 

“It’s a water quality and recreational trust fund. That’s what it will remain,” ensured Zumbach. “We want to ensure that those dollars go for those items.” 

However, he warned that each legislator looking at the formula has his/her own interests. For him, it’s agriculture and water quality. For Sen. Koelker, for instance, it’s economic development and quality of life. 

“As this gets vetted through the legislature, and we all come from different backgrounds, those conversations are happening,” added Zumbach. “That’s why it was designed, from the original, that it can be changed.” 

“If we’re going to be able to move forward and get something done, and finally get some money that’s put to good use, both sides are going to have to do a little bit of compromising and figure out the common good,” said McKean.

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