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Column: Unfinished business: From broadband to bullying to budgets

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By DAVID JOHNSON, Iowa State Senator

DES MOINES, Iowa — As of Thursday, the number of budget bills debated in the Iowa Senate: zero. The prospects for an early adjournment predicted by many last January: better than zero. And I’ll leave it at that.

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At the beginning of the year I fielded many requests from reporters for my prediction on when the 2014 session would end. I threw each question back to the pitcher, saying I learned a long time ago that adjournment only comes after our work is done. That includes deciding which priorities make the cut for a state budget of nearly $7 billion.

Can we complete that work before Easter? Maybe. Mind you, I’m not suggesting a repeat of 2011, when the session ran until June 30, the final day of the state fiscal year. The target date for the fall of the final gavel is April 22, when lawmakers’ expense allowance ends.

Two of Gov. Branstad’s priorities are unresolved by the Legislature: expanding access to high-speed broadband, and measures to combat bullying and harassment in Iowa schools. Differences remain.

In the case of statewide Internet access, the governor has proposed tax breaks for telecommunications providers who extend service to unserved and underserved areas of the state. One Senate version includes a low-interest loan program for service providers. The House has considered a variety of plans, such as incentives for providers who push high-speed Internet into areas most in need of better service.

Lyon County is an example where high-speed broadband service is uneven and, in places, unaffordable or unattainable.

Bullying in schools continues to spur lawmakers to seek better prevention strategies. Here, too, the legislative and executive branches differ. Should parents be informed immediately when their student is involved in an incident? With certain exceptions, I say yes. Do the taxpayers have to pick up the tab of $1 million, as one Senate bill proposes, on a state office in the Department of Education to address the issue? I believe not. Is it time to add bullying and harassment off school grounds to our reporting requirements? That answer is not so easy. Stay tuned.

As we ended Week 11 of the session, three bills related to renewable or alternative energy sources drew attention in Senate debate. Two passed unanimously: one with a focus on solar energy, the other dealing with generating electricity from wind.

Iowa currently provides up to $1.5 million in tax credits for solar-energy installations. Under Senate File 2340, the tax-credit cap would be tripled to $4.5 million, allowing for more projects to be eligible. Owners of both residential and commercial solar arrays could apply for the credits. The credit cap for an individual taxpayer would be raised from $3,000 to $5,000; for a business taxpayer, from $15,000 to $20,000.

Senate File 2343 would extend by two years —- until Jan. 1, 2017 —- the deadline to put in place systems that would qualify for the existing tax credit for electrical generation from wind. The tax credits are designed for smaller wind projects.

A third bill involving tax policies and incentives for E-15 blended motor fuel, biobutanol and biodiesel was put on hold, pending further study of its impact on state revenues. Senate File 2344 would increase the E-15 tax credit from the current three cents per gallon this calendar year and two cents per gallon from 2015 through 2017. If adopted, the bill would lift the E-15 rate to as much as 10 cents per gallon during the summer fuel season.

The proposal defines biobutanol in existing state laws as a biofuel; and biobutanol-blended gasoline as a renewable fuel. Biobutanol is a “second generation” alcohol-based fuel with a higher energy density and lower volatility than ethanol.

Whether any of these energy-related bills are considered by the Iowa House is a big question mark in the final days of the session. But all of these energy alternatives continue to gain favor in northwest Iowa, where ethanol has established a strong foothold and more wind turbines are under construction.

Your questions and comments are always welcome. You can reach me in the Iowa Senate by calling (515) 281-3371 and leaving a message; or by e-mail at david.johnson@legis.iowa.gov.

David Johnson of Ocheyedan represents Iowa Senate District 1 —- all of Clay, Dickinson, Lyon, Osceola and Palo Alto counties.

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