January 24, 2014

Week Two
Legislative Forum – Saturday
Sign-Up tor Health Insurance Now
3 Ways to Strengthen Iowa's Middle Class
Is Iowa Doing Right by Troubled Kids?
Ensuring Iowa is a Great Place for Veterans
Free Tax Assistance Available

The week was an abbreviated one for the Legislature in Des Moines. With the King Holiday on Monday followed by precinct caucuses on Tuesday evening, we gaveled in at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. It was a busy couple of days.

Today is the last day legislators can introduce individual bills. Committee chairs are still allowed to introduce bills in their committees. Here are a few of my requests so far this session: expand investments in Iowa's growing solar energy business; reestablish our groundwater monitoring network; and create an emerald ash borer task force to develop a long-range plan to help communities and the state remove dying trees, find a use for the trees and replant a diversity of new ones across Iowa.

I participated in hearing this week on the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) for girls in Toledo. We heard compelling testimony from three former residents, as well as former staff and community members. The unilateral decision made by Governor Branstad—without any consultation with the Legislature—to close IJH was a colossal mistake. The Governor has washed his hands of his and our responsibility to be the safe home of last resort for very troubled girls that need our support. We are now working to get an accounting for all the girls who were kicked out of IJH last week. We need IJH to re-open. It’s simply wrong and unfair to continue to support our troubled boys at our Eldora facility and turn our back on our girls. It’s not right. It is going to take a bipartisan effort to overturn Governor Branstad’s ill-conceived thinking and decision.

The first legislative forum of the year will be Saturday, January 25, at 9:30-11:30 a.m. Please come out and share your concerns and ideas at the Iowa City Council Chamber. The event is sponsored by the Johnson County League of Women Voters and local educators. If you can’t make it, tune in to Iowa City Cable Channel 4 for live coverage. The forum is open to everyone.

If you need to health care or know someone else that does, here are some websites and phone numbers that can help.

• Here is a link to the federal website: www.healthcare.gov

• You can also go to the Iowa Department of Human Services website at http://dhsservices.iowa.gov or call them at 1-855-889-7985.

• People can also call or visit the local Johnson County DHS Office. Here is a link to their contact information: www.dhs.state.ia.us/Consumers/Find_Help/County_Offices/johnson.html

The United States created the strongest economy in the world by building a large middle class. Unfortunately, it has become more difficult since the Great Recession for lower- and middle-income Iowans to climb the ladder to prosperity.

Though the worst of the recession is over, many of our families, friends and neighbors continue to struggle. It's hard to believe that in America's heartland, one in eight Iowa families regularly went hungry last year.

This session, we can take steps to turn that trend around and strengthen Iowa’s economy by:

1. Ensuring that free, high-quality preschool is a reality for all four year olds. Investing in children is the smartest investment we can make.

2. Expanding affordable workforce training at our community colleges so that Iowans can get the skills local businesses need to grow and expand.

3. Making our state's tax system fairer. Middle-class Iowans shouldn't have to fork over an ever increasing portion of their hard-earned wages while the wealthy pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes.

These three steps are just a start. I’d like to hear your ideas for setting us on the right path to strengthening Iowa's middle class.

An overflow crowd listened to young women tell how the Iowa Juvenile Home helped them get their lives back on track despite very difficult circumstances, when they spoke before the Senate Human Resources Committee on January 22. Pictured, from left, are Amber Opdahl, Chelsea Reasoner and Melea Speelmon. Amber was an Iowa Juvenile Home resident from 1996 to 2000. She graduated with honors as an LPN from Kaplan University in 2011. Amber is now studying for her RN at Northeast Iowa Community College. Chelsea was at the Juvenile Home from 2009 to 2011. She is currently employed fulltime doing daycare and will enter Des Moines Area Community College in May. Melea resided at the Juvenile Home from 2008 to 2009. She now works with at-risk youth at Faith, Hope & Charity. She too will begin her college education at DMACC in May.

Last May, Governor Branstad signed bipartisan legislation to fund the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo. In December, he suddenly decided to shut it down. This week at the Statehouse, legislators heard another side of the story, when former residents of the Iowa Juvenile Home shared how it saved their lives.

The Iowa Juvenile Home works with some of the most troubled girls in our state. These children arrived in Toledo after failing in many private placements. The girls were failing because their families had failed them, their schools had failed them, and their communities had failed them. That’s why they were sent to Toledo.

At the Iowa Juvenile Home, they had experienced professionals to care for them, and a safe and stable environment to learn the skills to become successful adults, effective parents and good citizens.

What will happen to the girls residing at the Iowa Juvenile Home when it shut its doors? Closing the Iowa Juvenile Home was a bad decision. We must correct it for the sake of the kids in need of the help it offered.

I spoke about making our state's tax system fairer for hard-working Iowans at a recent Statehouse rally by Citizens for Community Improvement. See what I had to say to the crowd here.

Hundreds of veterans from across Iowa visited the State Capitol to meet with legislators on January 22.

During their annual day at the Statehouse, our veterans had a full schedule of activities, including a special ceremony in the rotunda honoring their service. Veterans had the opportunity to meet Adjutant General Timothy Orr of the Iowa National Guard, Commandant Jodi Tymeson of the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs Director Col. Robert King (Ret.), and members of the Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs.

I was pleased to welcome local veterans to the Iowa Senate and to talk with them about their concerns, needs and ideas. In recent years, the Legislature re-established the Veterans Affairs Committee and has worked in a bipartisan way to expand benefits for our veterans and service members.

This year, we continue to explore opportunities to support Iowa veterans and their families, enhance services at the state and county levels, help returning service members reenter civilian life, and encourage more veterans to make Iowa their home. One proposal now under consideration would exempt military pensions from state income tax (Senate File 303). The legislation, which Governor Branstad added to his Home Base Initiative, is intended to help attract more military retirees to Iowa.

Iowa troops who are in harm’s way and those who, over the decades, answered the call to duty deserve our gratitude and dedicated support.

Last year, to keep college affordable for Iowa’s middle class families, the Iowa Legislature froze in-state, undergraduate tuition at ISU, UNI and the University of Iowa. I recently talked with University of Iowa President Sally Mason and Board of Regents member Hannah Walsh about freezing state university tuition for another year.

The AARP is providing free tax assistance and preparation to low and middle class Iowans this year. You do not need to be a member of AARP or a retiree to qualify.

In 2012, 225 volunteers helped more than 30,000 Iowans file their income tax returns at no cost to them. The Iowa AARP Tax-Aide program operates at 80 locations throughout the state, including senior centers and libraries. To find the site nearest you, call the toll-free Tax-Aide number at 1-888-227-7669 or go to www.aarp.org/taxaide.

How to Contact Me

Joe Bolkcom
728 2nd Avenue
Iowa City, IA 52245

About The Networker

The Networker provides brief summaries of some of the things that I am working on, the work of the General Assembly, and political perspectives on issues. I also use it to announce meetings and how to find useful information about state government.

Additional information

Senator Joe Bolkcom is an Assistant Majority Leader and chair of the Ways & Means Committee. He also serves on the Appropriations, Commerce, Environment & Energy Independence, Human Resources, and Natural Resources committees.