Half-kept promises on mental health won’t shield Iowans from gun violence

Governor signs mental health legislation
Gov. Kim Reynolds signs mental health legislation at the Iowa Capitol on May 1, 2019. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Gov. Kim Reynolds, like many Republicans, wants to change the subject from gun control and talk about mental health instead. So let’s talk about mental health.

She was asked last week whether she would sign a bill scrapping handgun permit requirements in Iowa in the wake of two mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia. She wouldn’t say whether she’ll sign the bill, although she’s widely expected to do so. Instead, she steered the subject to Iowa’s progress on mental health:

“I’ve been pretty clear when we’re talking about gun violence, we need to take a holistic approach. There’s not a single answer. We need to be following the laws that are on the books, we need to make sure that coordination is in place between the agencies, we need to do everything we can to be proactive in just addressing mental health and behavioral health issues.

“And I’m proud of the continued progress that we’ve made in that … area. We still have a lot of work to do but we have really, you know, did comprehensive reform to our adult mental health system, our children’s mental health system is in place, we’re actually opening up our access centers across the state to help Iowans get stabilized, get them the treatment that they need, keep them out of prisons.”

Iowa did make progress in 2018 and 2019. The Legislature expanded requirements for services to be provided in the state’s 14 mental health regions and created a children’s mental health system. At the time, Reynolds acknowledged that while this was a significant policy breakthrough, the state had to find a sustainable source of money for the system and she pledged to do that.

“Together, these two pieces of legislation begin to fill in the gaps that remain in Iowa’s mental-health system,” Reynolds said. “But as I said before, we cannot stop here.”

Reynolds showed political courage in 2020 by proposing a bold solution: Raise the state sales tax a penny and direct the revenues to mental health, environmental programs and property tax relief. Her plan ran into a brick wall in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and then COVID happened.

This year, Reynolds dropped her tax plan and offered no alternative to address the ongoing funding needs, even as she repeatedly stressed how COVID-19 mitigation efforts and isolation were exacerbating Iowa’s existing mental health issues.

Senate proposes phasing out mental health property tax

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Iowa Senate are advancing a bill to completely phase out local property taxes in the mental health system and instead fund the system with state aid. The bill is still evolving but it relies on existing state revenues, at least for now.

Peggy Huppert of NAMI Iowa, a mental-health advocacy agency, said the proposal suggests spending the equivalent of $117 million in the first year, based on current populations. “That’s close to what is being spent now,” she said. The bill proposes a $10 million “risk pool” so mental-health regions can apply for more money if needed, which Polk County most certainly will need.

The bill proposes spending about $124 million in fiscal year 2024 and $133 million in fiscal year 2025, based on current per-capita figures. “Those are modest increases,” Huppert said. County regions that have reserves would have to spend them down, something the state has tried and failed to encourage over the past few years.

In the out years, spending increases would be based in part on the growth of sales tax revenue, leaving the door open for a plan like Reynolds’ original idea. We’re not holding our breath for that, at least as long as Republicans control the Legislature.

But while Huppert characterized the plan as “better than nothing,” there are some serious concerns.

This is an impressive-looking commitment for state government and it appears the bill manager, Rep. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, is making a good-faith effort to listen to advocates in crafting the policy. But at its core, the goal is to cut property taxes. That’s a fine goal but not necessarily what’s best for Iowans with mental-health needs.

The system needs more money, not a shell game of replacing one funding source for another. The mental health regions have been given nearly 30 new requirements for services and no more dollars. While they have opened some of the critical access centers that Reynolds mentioned, most regions are not even close to addressing the resources needed for children and Iowans with complex needs.

State promises are easily broken

Overshadowing the issue is the Iowa Legislature’s proven inability to keep its commitments to local governments. Without any sense of irony, Senate Study Bill 1253 asks Iowans to trust the state to pay for mental health at the same time lawmakers are working furiously to cut income taxes.

The same bill would speed up income-tax cuts approved in 2018. The Senate has also voted in a separate bill to do away with the inheritance tax, which would reduce state revenues an estimated $90 million to $100 million. There are other major spending priorities on the table, including the governor’s proposal to spend $450 million on broadband over the next three years.

Meanwhile, Senate Study Bill 1253 takes away roughly $152 million in property tax replacement funds provided to local governments as part of another tax cut scheme dating back to 2013. So even as they make new promises, lawmakers are simultaneously breaking old ones. Leaving the mental health property tax levy in place, even with reductions, would at least provide a safety net, Huppert noted.

Another concern is local governments that have been paying for the system would still be running it, even though they would have little or no local money in the system.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, has already identified that as one of the reservations House Republicans have with the proposals.

“We want to provide property tax relief any time we can do that, but I always remind everyone that the way the current system is set up we would be basically writing the check without having any — very little, if any — input on how the money was spent on the back end,” Grassley said on “Iowa Press,” an Iowa PBS show.

That sounds an awful lot like this will be another year without any action on creating a sustainable funding source for mental health.

So if Reynolds is looking toward advances in Iowa’s mental health system as a solution for gun violence, she’s left Iowa unprotected and in the line of fire.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.