The Iowa Quad-City state legislative delegation got a glimpse Saturday into what is on the minds of the region's voters as the lawmakers begin a new session, and education funding appears to be a high priority.
The first 2015 legislative forum drew a crowd at St. Ambrose University's Rogalski Center, Davenport, as more than 100 people gathered to meet their elected leaders. The group quizzed legislators on a variety of topics ranging from mental health for children to Iowa's puppy mills, health insurance coverage, bullying, mandatory body cameras for police and clean water.
But it was an education funding question that not only energized the crowd but those elected to represent them. Julie DeSalvo, mother of a North High School sophomore, asked what the legislators expect for school funding.
"We have a big problem here," she said, encouraging the state to increase student supplemental aid by 6 percent.
Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said the 6 percent allowable growth "is just to catch us up."
"We are ninth in the nation in the amount we have in reserves, but we are 35th in the amount we are investing in K-12 funding," she said.
She received a huge response when she said, "... if we think education is expensive, try paying for ignorance."
Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, who admitted being "hot over this subject," said investing in children is an investment in Iowa's future.
"The investment we put in now will come back and infuse money in our economy," she said, drawing the connection between how educated children become productive adults "who will be able to put money back in the economy."
Some of the legislators also were quick to point out that school funding is as much a budget issue.
"Everyone at this table supports education," said Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport. "The proof is 55 to 60 percent of entire state budget is spent on education. But now we need to make sure it is sustainable."
Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, reminded the group of the 10 percent across-the-board cut that education took in 2009 and also called for an amount that will be sustainable.
Winckler, who predicted allowable growth between 4 percent and 6 percent, suggested a look at the state tax credits. She said that "$400 million goes out every year in tax credits with no idea if they do the job they are supposed to do. Maybe that economic incentive has passed."
Curing Iowa's growing problem of puppy mills was a key issue for a small group of women who have formed a local chapter of Iowa Voters for Companion Animals. Spokeswoman Tracey Kuehl asked the contingent about enforcing the federal inspections of the mills.
Veterinarian and Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, back to work after a battle with brain cancer, struggled at times to get the right words out during the forum. But he said the puppy mill issue is one that veterinarians are trying to push nationally.
"The state veterinarians need to take a strong action on it," he said.
Rep. Jim Lykam, D-Davenport, who wrote the House's original puppy mill legislation, said the state cannot get the federal government to shut down the mills.
"I like to be No. 2 on some things in this state, but not puppy mills," he said, referring to Iowa's ranking in the number of mills.
Rep. Ross Paustian, R-Walcott, a farmer, criticized a suggestion that farmers are using more fertilizer than needed on their fields.
"We are business people, and we are not going to put 10 times more than we need on, and we are environmentalists as well," he said.
Sen. Chris Brase, D-Muscatine, said technology is helping farmers decrease the amount of fertilizer used. Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, added that several initiatives are in the early stages to address the issue across the state.
"This nitrate problem took many years to get where we are, and it's going to take many years to get out of it," Brase said.
Asked by a student about bullying programs, Winckler said Gov. Terry Branstad has initiated a bill on bullying with a $200,000 cost to cover training investigators and creating pilot projects for peer mentoring.
"We've had bullying legislation before, but we've never attached money to it," said Miller, the mother of six, who has seen the emergence of bullying. "What children are being exposed to is unbelievable."
The annual forums are sponsored by American Association of University Women, Iowa State Education Association, Scott County Farm Bureau, Working Iowa Neighbors Coalition of the Quad-Cities Federation of Labor, Business and Professional Women of Davenport and the Quad-Cities Area Realtor Association. The remaining forums will be Feb. 14 and March 14 at St. Ambrose.