Dead bills are haunting the Capitol. Here’s one worth reviving.

May 3, 2021 8:00 am

It’s the time of year when dead bills start haunting the State Capitol. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

The final days of the legislative session are like Halloween without the candy: The ghosts of dead bills start haunting the Capitol.

In the past week or so, we’ve seen lawmakers try to resurrect a reduction in unemployment benefits, for example, that missed last month’s committee deadline. A ban on employers requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employees also died last month but was proposed again on the Iowa House floor as an amendment to the vaccine passport bill. (It failed.)

And Gov. Kim Reynolds went on national television Thursday and proclaimed that she hopes to sign a bill targeting transgender athletes by barring them from participating on teams that don’t match their biological sex.

“I’m going to do what is right for my state. I’m going to do what’s right for girls. I’m a mom of three daughters and a grandmother of three granddaughters who compete. And it’s the right (thing) to do. They should have the same opportunities. And we’re working on legislation, too. I should have that to my desk by, hopefully the end of this legislative session, and we’ll be signing that bill,” Reynolds said on a FOX gubernatorial town hall.

An interesting claim, considering no such bill had been introduced as of last week. There was an effort earlier this year to attach an amendment with such a proposal to another bill, but the amendment was withdrawn. So Reynolds was either pandering for political benefit or she’s decided to trade the well-being of some of Iowa’s most vulnerable kids for votes to get the budget finished. Or both. Either way, it’s repugnant.

Most of these dead bills ought to be staked through the heart and burned at the crossroads. But I want to highlight one scrappy underdog that a Republican lawmaker is hoping can survive a third trip to the Senate. And this bill would actually help kids.

Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, has shepherded legislation through the Iowa House twice so far that would require insurers and Medicaid to pay mental health care providers the same rate for telehealth services as they would receive for an in-person patient visit.

It’s an important issue to mental health advocates and providers, who have described telehealth as one of the few bright spots to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s something that I hear everywhere I go, in my district, the need for more mental health services,” Fry said in an interview. “And short of being able to get psychiatrists to move to rural Iowa, this is one way in which we can get psychiatry into rural Iowa. It’s one way we can get therapy in rural Iowa.”

State Rep. Joel Fry is a Republican from Osceola. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

Fry, a social worker, clearly cares a lot about both kids and mental health. He’s worked in hospice and end-of-life care, as well as private practice and criminal justice work.  He and his wife, Heather, have nine children, some of their own and some adopted, and have fostered nine more over the years.

“We live the life of what it is I try and do up here. It’s part of who I am,” Fry said.

Advocates have spoken appreciatively of his efforts on mental health legislation over the past several years.  So far this year, it’s been a challenge.

House File 294 passed 95-1 on March 8, but never made it past a subcommittee in the Senate.

He tried again when the House attached an amendment to Senate File 524, a bill dealing with psychiatric bed tracking, which had previously passed the Senate unanimously. The amended bill passed the House unanimously April 20. It has not moved again in the Senate.

Senate Republicans have said for years there should be a “market-based solution,” whatever that means. The problem is, there isn’t one. And if they think providers can continue to offer this service for significantly less than their usual rate, they’re dreaming.

Now, Fry’s inserted the same language into a must-do bill: The health and human services budget. He’s also put in more than $1 million to reduce the waiting list for children’s home and community-based mental health services, and an extra $11 million for the providers, among other increases. The bill also tries again to get the Senate to consider a bipartisan child care policy that would ease families off child-care subsidies as their income increases.

All of these ideas are worthwhile. Even Democrats had trouble mustering many complaints about the budget bill that came out of the House Appropriations Committee last week.

Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, said the budget bill was “probably the best” he’d seen in eight years serving on the committee. That’s pretty high praise, short of actually voting for the bill (Democrats didn’t.)

But there a much bigger gulf between the House and the Senate on this bill.  As I’ve written recently, the Senate GOP wants to invest $60 million to replace the property tax levy that now pays for most of the state’s adult mental-health system.

The Senate also is trying again to revive another dead bill that launches an expensive and redundant eligibility verification system for public assistance benefits.

Neither side appears ready to budge. Fry said he has been an advocate for the state replacing the property tax for mental health. But he also agreed with House leaders that if the state is going to pay for the system, it needs more authority over how it is run. And that authority is not part of the Senate proposal.

As a practical matter, if lawmakers decide to go ahead with the property tax replacement, that means less money will be available for the investments Fry wants to make for children’s mental health. The governor and legislative leaders have a responsibility to provide sustainable funding for both systems, not to pit them against each other.

Boo! We’ve had enough partisan tricks for one year. If Reynolds really wants to “do what’s right” for Iowa, as she crowed on FOX, she’ll stop trying to further marginalize vulnerable LGBT kids and keep her promise to improve access to appropriate mental health services in this state.

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Kathie Obradovich
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.