$90 million in new funding for SSA

CAPITOL LETTERS

BY STATE REPRESENTATIVE GARY WORTHAN

District 11, R-Storm Lake

Chairman of the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee

The House and Senate this week took steps to send $90 million new dollars to schools for the next school year. It matches the dollar amount proposed by the Governor in her budget in mid-January. The action taken by each chamber ensures that the new funding will be provided to schools in a timely manner, in accordance with state law so schools can get their budgets certified on time.

The bills to increase funding for schools do so through what’s known as Supplemental State Aid (SSA). SSA sets the base amount of funding on which school district budgets operate and establish how much funding the state will put into schools. It comes in the form of a percent increase of the “Per Pupil” amount, which through a complex formula, establishes how much schools can spend next year.

The increase moving through both chambers is a 2.06% increase on the Per Pupil amount, increasing it from $6,736 to $6,880 per student enrolled in each school, a $144 increase. This means for the average class of around 25 students, each class will see an additional $3,600 next year.

In addition to establishing the 2.06% per pupil increase, both the House and Senate are moving bills to address an inequity in our funding formula. Many districts have significant transportation costs associated with bussing their students to schools. Because of these costs, those districts have fewer dollars to spend on each student in the classroom, providing them with fewer opportunities.

The legislature made an initial effort last year by spending $11.2 million to help offset these costs for the districts with the highest costs for transporting students. This year Republicans are increasing that amount by $7.8 million to $19 million total.

This week, House Republicans will hold a subcommittee on HSB110, a bill to make common sense changes to the Judicial Nominating Commissions. The subcommittee will be led by Judiciary Chairman, Rep. Steve Holt, as well as Rep. Brian Lohse and minority member Rep. Jo Oldson.

Iowa’s current judicial nominating system hasn’t been examined since 1962 and uses several judicial nominating commissions to select judges to the district courts, the Court of Appeals, and the Iowa Supreme Court. These committees are comprised of people elected by members of the bar (lawyers) and those appointed by the Governor, with Senate Confirmation. Committee members review applicants for vacant judicial seats and send their selection on to the Governor for her final decision.

HSB110 makes changes to how the judicial nominating commissions are selected to ensure there is true accountability in the process. The current system allows a small group of lawyers, elected by another small group of lawyers, to hold significant power over the selection process of judges. These people may not be representative of all Iowans.

Currently District Court nominating commissions are made up of five citizens appointed by the Governor and five lawyers that are elected by the lawyers in the judicial district. The chairman is the most senior judge in the district. The commission under HSB110 would have four members appointed by the Governor, and one each by the Speaker of the House, the Minority Leader of the House, the Senate Majority leader, and the Senate Minority Leader all must be licensed attorneys.  

HSB110 ensures the Commissions have gender balance, geographic distribution, term limits, and most importantly, that commissioners would be selected without reference to political affiliation.

Other parts of the bill address problems elsewhere in the courts. Iowans want the best judges available, but unfortunately the most qualified candidate is sometimes prohibited from applying simply because of where they live. That is a flaw that needs to be fixed. A change in HSB110 bill will help expand the pool of judges by allowing people to apply for a position as a district judge from anywhere in the state, so long as they reside in the district before taking office. This will increase the pool of qualified applicants. The bill also addresses how district associate judges shall be selected.

Opponents of this bill are claiming the bill weakens the merit-based selection system. They have accused proponents of court packing, and politicizing the courts. These are knee-jerk reactions and untrue. In fact, HSB110 will ensure the Judicial Nominating process is more transparent and truly representative of Iowans who will appear in front of the courts. Allowing elected leaders to appoint commission members helps ensure diversity in the commission, while still keeping lawyers involved in the process.

Committee members are looking forward to working with the legal community and others to address serious concerns and answer questions as this legislation moves forward. HSB110 has been designed to bring more transparency to Iowa’s merit-based judicial selection process and gives everyday Iowans a larger voice in the process while ensuring accountability in the system.

My next forum is Feb. 16 at King’s Pointe Resort at 10 a.m.