Two legislative issues

Not much landmark legislation is expected in this, an election year, from the Iowa Legislature that convenes next Monday. As old Hippo once said, “First, do no harm.” Don’t try to reinvent the public school system or its funding formula in one session. Clean up property tax reform you created last year. Forget about increasing the fuel tax. And there are so many other things not to step in.

There are two places our local legislators should tread:

Restore Iowa’s ailing lakes by funding that account to at least $8 million for next year.

Patch up the property tax and mental health reforms from last year that threaten sheltered work activity centers for the mentally handicapped.

Regular readers know well the saga of trying to restore Storm Lake’s water clarity.

This community has been trying to get this lake dredged until enough sediment is removed that you can see 28 inches deep, on average, through the year. We have been at it for more than 10 years (the latest effort, anyhow; two previous dredges were done in the 1930s and 1960s). The effort was seeded as a joint effort among the Lake Preservation Association, the City of Storm Lake, City of Lakeside, Buena Vista County, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The results have been spectacular. At points, you could see nearly six feet deep in Storm Lake. Just this year we had a reading of 44 inches. This in one of the most turbid glacier lakes in the Midwest.

Dredging is working.

(Some have suggested that dredging is inferior to building windbreaks in the form of islands. That is a bad idea. The islands we have are sloughing in. No man-made island is any match for ice heaves. Removing the silt is the only long-term answer.)

Because of the improvement, Storm Lake is healthier than ever. It is the top walleye fishing lake in the state. There are more boats than ever on the lake. People have noticed, and are visiting.

This is economic development and conservation rolled into one.

About 100 Iowa lakes are considered “impaired.” All need help. Last year, Gov. Terry Branstad tried to pare the lake fund back to $1 million. It’s like this every year. We have to fight like bobcats every single session to get that lake money restored.

Must we have the same fight this year? Can’t we give our lakes a break, for once, since the state treasury has a big surplus?

Guaranteed, we will scream and holler and cry and swear until this lake is clean.

We were disappointed when Genesis Development of Storm Lake announced that it would cease can and bottle redemption in July because of legislative changes to the mental health system. The new rules demand that clients be placed in jobs outside the sheltered workshop. The rules will not work for everyone, especially the older clients who have been reporting for work at the same place every day for the past 40 years.

We find common cause with Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail, who says he will do anything he can to help work activity centers continue their important work for clients and the communities they serve. He will find a strong ally across the aisle in Sen. Joe Bolckom, D-Iowa City, who shares our concern about the clients left behind.

The rule change creates a hole that no one saw ahead of time. Mental health legislation and the property tax funding behind it are incredibly complicated. We should expect unintended consequences.

It will take awhile to meld property tax reform and mental health reform into a workable model. It involves shifting from county administration to a regional network. Funding will shift, presumably, from property taxes to state revenues. Imbalances are bound to result.

That does not mean we have to overturn the entire model of giving mentally handicapped adults meaningful employment in a work activity center. Bolckom says the system needs more funding and Segebart does not necessarily disagree. Each favors an expansion of the bottle redemption bill that would double payments to redemption centers. That, no doubt, would help Genesis. It also would help reduce the load on landfills. Something that controversial will not see the light of day in a pre-election session.

So in the meantime, we must create a mechanism that helps keep clients working at Genesis who do not quite fit in another job setting. We are confident that good people like Segebart and Bolckom will find a way. But it must be done this session before irrevocable decisions have to be made.