2015 INFONET #6

Issue 6, 4/12/2015

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Guest Editorial by State Senator Rita Hart

Iowans rely on their vehicles to get to work, pick up groceries, drive their children to school and more. This includes Iowans living with disabilities.  People with disabilities can find it difficult or impossible to gas up their vehicles if they are unable to use the controls, hose or nozzle of a fuel pump. They may not be able to get their gas at self-service stations, and may be forced to use full-service stations (when those are even available), where fuel is more expensive.  I was aware of the problem, but my constituent, Gary McDermott of Clinton, wrote an email that really got my attention.  He told me how his independence is undermined by the lack of accessibility at fuel pumps at gas stations and convenience stores.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), authored by Iowa's retired U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, gave civil rights protections to people with disabilities. The ADA requirements, however, do not provide a system that works well enough for the disabled community it intends to assist. The call button that is presently required on gas pumps is inaccessible for many disabled individuals who require a button that can be operated with a closed fist. In addition, it is impossible to reach the ADA’s small, flush button from the vehicle.

I responded by working on legislation over the past couple of years that would provide for a large call button that is reachable from inside the driver’s vehicle with a closed hand.  I serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee and was pleased when we approved a bill to strengthen state law for assistance with fuel pumps at Iowa gas stations. Senate File 396 is now under consideration by the Senate Ways & Means Committee. 

Senate File 396 mandates the installation of a Fuel Assistance Device only if a new gas station is built or pump stations are remodeled. The bill also provides an income tax credit to stations who qualify as a small business that voluntarily make these changes. The tax credit partially defrays the cost of compliance, which will benefit those with disabilities.  I am hoping that this bill will be signed by the Governor this year.  It would make me so happy to know that I helped people like Gary McDermott to be a bit more independent.  Filling up your car with gas should be a routinely easy task so that you can travel on to the rest of your day and the rest of your life’s adventures.
I have also had many conversations, particularly with elderly constituents, but also with people with disabilities or people with children with disabilities, who struggle to remain in their homes.  Often they need to modify the home in order to live comfortably.  Perhaps they need to widen doorways for a wheelchair or remodel a bathroom to accommodate a new disability or prepare for the next debilitating step in a chronic, progressive condition.  Not only is it important to help people continue to live in their homes where they are happiest, it saves money in the long run to avoid more expensive long-term care or nursing home situations.

Senate File 475 is a bill that I’ve been working on with the Prevention of Disabilities Council.  The bill provides a $2500 refundable tax credit to people who are at 250% or less of poverty level income so that they can make these changes in their homes.  It makes sense to help people be able to afford these modifications so that they can live more comfortably in their own homes.


State Senator Rita Hart Rita Hart was elected to the Iowa Senate in 2012, representing Clinton County and northern Scott County. Senator Hart is Chair of the Senate Economic Growth Committee, and is Vice-Chair of the Economic Development Budget Subcommittee. She also serves on the Senate Agriculture, Education, Local Government and Veterans Affairs Committees.  Senator Hart earned her Associate of Arts degree from North Iowa Area Community College, a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa, and a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from the University of Iowa. She worked as a teacher for more than 20 years in the Calamus-Wheatland and Bennett school districts.  She and her husband Paul have been married for more than 30 years and are lifelong Iowans who’ve owned and operated a farm in the Wheatland community since 1986. They have five children.

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As you can see from Sen. Rita Hart's editorial this week, you can make a difference!  For her, all it took was an email from a constituent to make her an advocate for more accessible fuel pumps.  A few calls from others led her to advocate for home modification assistance, a challenge faced equally by people with disabilities as well as older Iowans wanting to maintain their independence in their own homes and communities.  So take a challenge from ID Action - and help us Advocate for Change on April 22 - when more than 400 Iowans with disabilities come to the Captiol to advocate on the issues important to them. 

We'll start Advocating for Change Day 2015 off with a basic training on the legislative process and tips on talking to your legislators.  After that, we'll head to the Capitol to meet (and hopefully have lunch with) your legislators. Later we will rally with special guests Sen. Liz Mathis of Cedar Rapids and Rep. Linda Miller of Bettendorf, the Chairs of the Senate and House Human Resources Committees.

In addition to the issues Sen. Hart discussed in our opening article and funding for programs and services, there are dozens of other issues you might talk about this year.  Here are just a few of the remaining bills that might pique your interest:

  • HF257 & SSB1268 - Tax Deductions/Employment of Persons with Disabilities | Makes larger companies eligible for a tax deduction for employing people with disabilities (increases size of company from 25 employes to 500 employees, and from $3 million in annual revenues to $21 million).  This could give businesses more incentives to hire employees with disabilities.  it's currently in the House Ways & Means Committee (no subcommittee assigned) and Senate Ways & Means Committee (subcommittee of Sen. Janet Petersen, Chair; Sen. Rob Hogg, Sen. Randy Feenstra).

  • SF 345- Governor's Anti-Bullying Bill | This bill requires all school districts provide training on how to investigate bullying incidents in schools, establishes a student mentoring pilot program to prevent bullying by having peers support each other, and expands definition of bullying to include social media, social networking, and off-school sites.  Studies show that students with disabilities are 2-3 times more likely to be bullied.  In fact, one study shows that 60% of students with disabilities reported being bullied regularly, compared to 25% of all students.  This bill is currently on the House Unfinished Business Calendar (Rep. Quentin Stanerson is the House Floor Manager for the bill).
  • SF439 - Iowa ABLE Savings Plans| This bill directs the State Treasurer to establish (once federal rules are ready later this year) savings accounts that were authorized federally in the ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in December 2014. People with disabilities could open these "ABLE" Accounts, which allow friends and family members of Iowans with disabilities to contribute up to $14,000 annually. The accounts could be used to pay for education, transportation, housing, assistive technology, employment support and training, personal support services, health care expenses, and other "qualified disability expenses."  These savings would not affect eligibility for Medicaid and Social Security benefits, and savings accounts.The bill is in the Senate Appropriations Committee, but has passed the subcommittee it was assigned to (Sen. Joe Bolkcom, Chair; Sen. Pam Jochum, Sen. Michael Breitbach).
  • SF484 - Medical Cannabis Act Thanks to the advocacy of Iowans with epilepsy and their families, Iowa passed a very limited medical marijuana bill last year that allowed Iowans whose neurologists have certified they have a debilitating form of epilepsy to get cards allowing them to carry small amounts of "cannabidial oil" that can be used to treat seizures. The downside, Iowans had to travel to other states where it is legal to sell the substance, and transport it across state lines (a federal felony).  This bill creates a broader "Medical Cannabis Act."  It allows patients with other debilitating medical conditions (epilepsy, ALS, cancer, Crohn's Disease or ulcerative colitis, glaucoma, MS, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, PTSD, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, or others identified by a Medical Advisory Board established by the bill) to use medical cannabis (not just the cannabadiol oil). It cannot be smoked, but can be obtained from one of 12 dispensaries to be set up under the legislation.  A person would need to get a note from their doctor saying they need the medication; would need to get a medical cannabis card from IDPH and DOT saying they are authorized to possess the product; and up to four medical cannabis manufacturers will be selected by the state. All must be ready to begin dispensing by July 1, 2016.

There are many other bills you might be interested in - click here to review the infoNET Bill Tracker for more and view the most updated status.

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Friday, April 3 was the end of the road for hundreds of bills that failed to make it out of committee before the Legislature's second (and final) legislative deadline.   To continue on the path to becoming law, Senate Files must have passed out of House committee, and House Files must have passed out of Senate committee, by the end of the day on April 3.  Bills in the following committees are not subject to deadlines, so are eligible for debate at any time during the legislative sessoin: Appropriations (including all Appropriations Subcommittees), Government Oversight, and Ways & Means. 

Only a few dozen bills made the cut this time - you can look a complete list of survivors in this list compiled by the House Republican staff here.  You can see where there was a lot of interest this year in the number of surviving bills by issue area:

  • Agriculture - 7 bills
  • Commerce - 17 bills
  • Economic Growth - 3 bllls
  • Education - 18 bills
  • Environmental Protection - 3 bills
  • Human Resources - 19 bills
  • Judiciary - 30 bills
  • Labor - 1 bill
  • Local Government - 13 bills
  • Natural Resources - 5 bills
  • Public Safety - 6 bills
  • State Government - 23 bills
  • Transportation - 13 bills
  • Veterans Affaits - 4 bills

We have talked a lot over the years about these important deadlines, called funnels.  But there is also another little trick that legislative leaders use to kill off even more bills after these deadlines.  Starting this week and until the end of the legislative session, legislators can only debate bills on the "Unfinished Business Calendar," bills from the exempt committees (Appropriations, Government Oversight, Ways & Means), and bills that have passed by both chambers in different forms (called "bouncing bills" because they are amended and bounce back and forth between House and Seante until agreement is reached). 

So starting Monday, the Iowa Senate has only 34 bills and the House has only 45 bills that meet these requirements (although both can and will add bills coming out of Appropriations, Government Oversight, and Ways and Means Committees).   You can read these daily calendars here.  For Monday (April 13) there are:

  • Unfinished Business Calendar - 28 Senate, 20 House
  • Appropriations Calendar - 2 Senate, 2 House
  • Ways & Means Calendar - 13 House (none in Senate)
  • Bouncing Bills -  3 Senate, 7 House
  • Conference Committee - 2 House/Senate
  • Regular Calendar - 2 House (Government Oversight bills)

As you can see, the list of bills keeps getting narrower and narrower, until all that is left is the budget.

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Normally this time of year, the Legislature is entering its final phase, and policy debates start to wind down and budgets take shape.  This year, legislators say it could be another two weeks before we see budget targets from both chambers (putting us right at the "end" of session).  While we call the 110th day of session (this year May 1) the "end" of session - it's really only the day legislators lose their expense payments and therefore have to pay for their own rooms, meals, transportation, and staff.  They can stay as long as they like, but it starts to get expensive when they pay for a hotel room every night and restaurant meals every day.

The first step in the budget process is for legislative leaders in both House and Senate to divide up the budget pie, and tell each of the 7 appropriations subcommittees how much they have to spend.  They take the total amount of revenues expected, and divide up 99% of that (usually, although we hear the House wants to go much lower, maybe even as low as spending 93% of that number).  But this year legislative leaders have not been able to do that because they still have not decided how much they want to give to K-12 education this year (an amount that is supposed to be set by the end of February). 

The conference committee on education funding met two weeks ago to work out the differences between the House proposal to increase K-12 funding by 1.25% and the Senate 4% proposal.  The Senate offered to split the difference at 2.65%, but the House quickly rejected it.  The House proposal would cost about $50 million; the Senate compromise costs more than $100 million.

A few other budget challenges emerged as well.  The Social Services Block Grant, which provides $16 million in funding for the Department of Human Services and Mental Health/Disability Services regions, will probably not be funded by Congress this year.  Right now, funding is in neither the US House nor US Senate budget bills.  In addition, the House Judiciary Committee sat on an important child support bill that will cost the state $30 million in federal funding for DHS and another $2 million for the courts if not passed this year. This is one of those issues that will likely end up thrown into a budget bill.  

The continued stalemate over education funding spells trouble for the resolution of the rest of the state's $7 billion budget.  It's beginning to look like legislators mayl get out just in time for their Fourth of July parades.

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Rep. Walt Rogers wants people to know that legislators do listen. "We often get accused of not listening to people," said Rep. Rogers. "This time we did a good job of hearing you...and doing something about it." Rep. Rogers was one of a three-person subcommittee that worked on a bill that is usually an easy assignment.  Every two years, legislators pass a "Federal Block Grant Bill" that shows how the state will spend money from various federal block grants.  These grants pay for everything from community development to low-income heating assistance to illegal drug education to community mental health centers.

This year, the Department of Human Services had proposed giving $2.1 million in Community Mental Health Center (CMHC) block grant funds directly to Mental Health and Disability Services (MH/DS) regions.  That created problems for community mental health centers (CMHCs), who use this money for a wide array of services that are not currently paid for by any other funding source, such as trauma informed care for kids, ACES (Adverse Childhood Experience), and other evidence-based practices. MH/DS region representatives told legislators that there would be additional costs if they were to administer the funds, even if they were passed on to the CMHCs.  Advocates told legislators that they would be filling one hole in the system, but creating another.  It's what some call "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Three subcommittees and one public hearing later, legislators said they had heard from providers and advocates "loud and clear" and changed the CMHC funding back to the way it has been for the past 12 years (going directly to CMHCs for evidence-based practices).  If this was an important issue for you, be sure to thank Rep. Ken Rizer, Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, and Rep. Walt Rogers, who all served on the subcommittee.  The bill (now House File 630) passed out of the House Appropriations Committee, and is one of the two bills ready for debate on the House Appropriations Calendar.  

While block grants are only one small part of the state's budget, we do count the Federal Block Grant Bill as one of the ten budget bills that must pass each year.  Here is where we are at with those ten budgets as we enter the final two weeks of session:

  1. Administration/Regulation (no bill)
  2. Agriculture/Natural Resources (no bill)
  3. Economic Development (no bill)
  4. Education (no bill)
  5. Federal Block Grant (HF 630 - ready for House debate)
  6. Health/Human Services (no bill)
  7. Justice Systems (no bill)
  8. Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund, or RIIF (no bill)
  9. Standings (no bill; this is the catch-all last budget bill)
  10. Transportation (HF 637 - ready for House debate)

Funding for mental health and disability services is still up in the air, whether funded by Medicaid or the regional system.  We know that services funded by Medicaid (including HCBS Waiver services) will likely continue under managed care, but we do not know if that means waiting lists will end, be reduced, or continue to grow.  But the best way to make sure they do not grow is to fully fund Medicaid, which the Governor did not do.  The Governor did not fund the $68 million shortfall in this current fiscal year, and underfunded next year by $200 million (and more if managed care companies do not meet that $50 million savings target in the first half year of operation).

The Governor also did not recommend funding for MH/DS regions this year, but because most regions are in the process of rolling out their core and core-plus services, only two regions do not have enough money to get through next year and maintain enough money in the bank for cash flow purposes (25%).  Those regions are Southern Hills and Polk County; their need for next year is $4.6 million, just about what was recommended by DHS from the TANF block grant (which is the one block grant that is appropriated in the Health/Human Services Budget, not the Federal Block Grant bill).    All other regions expect to have enough money to sustain and grow services through June 30, 2016 (but they freely admit that isn't permanent - they will need money again after this year). 

None of these funding decisions have been made - nor has anyone really started to discuss them seriously.  Until budget targets are in the hands of the budget subcommittee chairs, it'll be hard to know the impact.

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GRASSROOTS ADVOCACY VIDEO:  The infoNET Grassroots Action Center is easy to use - it really does take just minutes to email your legislators.  We have a new video featuring Rik Shannon, the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council public policy manager.  He's a familiar face to many of you, and he'll show you just how easy it is to email your legislations in less than three minutes! 

ATTEND A LOCAL LEGISLATIVE FORUM: Most legislators hold public forums and town hall meetings when they are back in their districts on Fridays and Saturdays. These are excellent opportunities for you to meet your legislators, learn from them, and educate them on your priorities. Click here to find a forum near you.

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Keep track of bills that may impact the lives of individuals with disabilities in our Bill Tracker.  Status is updated daily, so you can always find out where your priority bills are at in the process.

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