BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Education, COVID vaccines, and ambulance services topped discussions at the first legislative forum in Lee County for 2021.
State Reps. Joe Mitchell (District 84, R-Wayland), Martin Graber (Dist 83, R-Fort Madison) and State Sen. Jeff Reichman (Dist. 42, R-Montrose) met with about 25 people during a virtual legislative update Friday sponsored by the Fort Madison and Keokuk Area Chambers of Commerce.
Graber and Reichman are both freshman to the state legislature after being elected in the November general election. Mitchell is beginning his second term.
Mitchell said the first week is mostly ceremonial, but said the state is starting the session on solid financial footing due to state’s leadership and budgeting practices.
“I don’t think we’re going to have to make any cuts anywhere. I’m very optimistic about the session,” Mitchell said.
Reichman and Martin both said the first eight days in session have been around training and getting to know the caucus and pressing issues in front of the state.
One of the discussion items Friday focused on additional state support for ambulance services making them essential services. As Lee County moves toward a July 1 takeover of the county’s ambulance service, creating a supplemental funding stream from the state could enhance the county’s services, while reducing the taxpayer burden locally.
Mitchell said he was upset when the bill was pulled from the floor last summer. State Senator Jake Chapman, the newly elected President of the Senate and part of the leadership team last session, is an EMT and is currently the Chief Operating Officer of his family’s private ambulance service in Des Moines.
Mitchell, and former State Sen. Rich Taylor and former State Rep. Jeff Kurtz, said they were all surprised by the Republican leadership’s pulling of the bill at the last minute last summer.
“We left in June and I started getting calls from hospital boards about this bill. I was confused and I was fairly upset about that,” Mitchell said.
“But this year, I think we’ll have something substantive and get our rural ambulance services up and running. I’m confident we’ll be passing that bill and have it on the governor’s desk.”
Graber said he is also hearing discussion about making ambulance services essential by Iowa Code, like fire services.
“As far as making it an essential service there is a discussion going on, but there hasn’t been a lot of action this week. Yes, that is something that is being considered,” Graber said.
“In the Des Moines area, you don’t have a problem because someone’s going to run a service up there.”
Graber has been assigned to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee as Co-chair,. He’s also on the commerce, ways and means, and education appropriations committees.
Reichman is Co-chair of the Veterans’ committee in the Senate. He’s also assigned to the Judiciary, Education subcommittee, and state government committee.
Mitchell is on the House Ways and Means, commerce, state government, judiciary, and budget committees.
The three also spoke to the current status of COVID vaccines in the state and all three hadn’t heard that the state moved to a 65 and over Phase on Thursday.
“I had not heard they changed that. I was offered the vaccine, but at just 23, I chose to not take it at this time,” Mitchell said.
“It’s important that the public knows their elected officials trust the vaccines. The Governor and senator’s have taken the vaccine, but I wanted to make sure more vulnerable Iowans have the first chance of getting it.”
Reichman said he was glad to hear the state moved the age limit down and had received a few emails about the Capitol being vaccinated before Iowa seniors.
“It was offered via email and extended to us. I’m not aware of a single senator on our side who took advantage of that. We need to lead from the front,” he said.
“I couldn’t speak to the staff numbers and to how many have taken advantage of that offer.”
Reichman said Lee County Supervisor Garry Seyb Jr., told him staff at correctional facilities had been offered the vaccine, but inmates were not included in the current rollout.
However, the latest Iowa Department of Public Heath literature shows that state correctional staff and incarcerated individuals are included in the Phase 1b rollout starting Feb. 1.
With no mandate in place for wearing masks at the Capitol, Governor Kim Reynolds was pressed on the issue at her Thursday presser in Des Moines. Reynolds said the move was to ensure continuity of government.
Graber said he’s not aware of any legislators taking the vaccine and said wearing a mask is a liberty issue.
“We value our liberties and all that, and there is no mandate for masks at the Capitol, but on the House side of it you would see everyone wearing a mask,” Graber said.
“People are doing the right thing right now.”
The issue of educational savings accounts was also brought up by Gov. Kim Reynolds at her Condition of the State address last week.
Reynolds said “we should create education savings accounts for students who are trapped in a failing school; let’s give them another choice by making sure money isn’t their barrier.”
Reichman said the focus is on the 15% of schools, typically in the metro areas, that aren’t meeting their obligations to educate Iowa’s students.
“One of the things we say in leadership or management positions is that 10% of the people take up 90% of your time,” Reichman said.
‘This is about 15% of the school systems that haven’t been providing the amount of instruction mandated by Iowa law. Even with the hybrid system those hours are not being put in.”
Mitchell said school districts in southeast Iowa are not part of the problem, and have done extremely well in the face of the pandemic.
He said he doesn’t favor moving funds allocated for public systems into a private account.
“I haven’t seen the exact proposal, but I see moving millions to educational savings accounts as equating to vouchers,” he said.
“In general, I’m not necessarily in favor of the voucher idea. You can argue whether the money is coming directly or indirectly from public schools, but at the end of the day we only have so much money and I’d rather that money be spent on K-12 public schools.”
Graber said he still has a learning curve when it comes to the state’s education system.
“I’m not on the education committee nor do I know a lot about the education system in Iowa,” he said. “It’s a long learning curve that I need to shorten up quickly.”
But Graber said children should absolutely be back in school at this point.
“My grandkids were excited when they heard they could go back to school. It was a great day for them. Obviously, if you exceed the (positivity) rate you can’t be there. The Des Moines area just said we’re not going back to school…we’ll you can’t do that,” Graber said.
Mitchell said he wouldn’t apologize for calling out the Des Moines districts.
“What we’ve done to these children for the past year by not sending them to school is going to mess them up for life,” Mitchell said. “Some districts know what they are doing, but playing political football with the governor is absolutely disgusting.”
Mitchell also said it’s critical that the state tackle child care issues with tax credits and grant opportunities to allow existing infrastructure to be utilized for starting up child care facilities.