Environmental fund is job one in a troubled economy
As the election hoopla dies down, Mary Lou Freeman prepares to slide across the aisle from the Iowa Senate to the Iowa House amid a period of historic change.
"It's good to be really interesting to see. There are so many new people elected - I tried to count the House incumbents, and I get at least 35 totally new people," she said. "There's a real learning curve involved, so we'll see how it all shakes out."
The Alta Republican decided to leave the Senate to seek a seat in the House of Representatives as long-time Storm Lake State Rep. Russ Eddie retired. She's happy to see some shaking up on the part of the re-elected Democratic governor as well.
"I like what I'm hearing from Governor Vilsack, that he's going to surround himself with new people. I think he has a couple of very good directors, but I do believe that it's time for him to clean house. It was the first thing out of his mouth after the election that he was going to review his entire staff, and I think that's necessary."
Freeman imagines that the party leaders will soon go back to "playing the same games," but said she is willing to give the governor the benefit of the doubt.
"Personally, I will try to work with him and cooperate, and if it's not possible to cooperate, I'd like to see us (Republicans) come up with a budget plan that is honest and reasonable, and then if the governor wants to veto it, he can veto it," she said. "This is not a time to play political games about it."
Lawmakers will go to Des Moines with a great deal of pressure to live with messes made earlier in budget battles. "We are going to have to start filling some of the holes we've taken from," she said.
Freeman's top priority, she said, will be to restore the Environment First fund. "I was chair of the committee that created the program, and at the time we started it, I thought it would be untouchable, since it came from gambling profits that have proven to be very stable even in bad economic times. With the push for clean water programs, this it vital," she said.
The fund includes the Resource Enhancement And Protection (REAP) program, historical preservation programs, nature preserve land acquisition, and the programs that funded the Storm Lake dredging this past year. "Any one element of that fund could come into play to help Storm Lake at some point, with the lake, or if plans should go ahead for a state park, for example," Freeman said.
The fund was drained from its original $29 million level down to what Freeman guesses is about $15 million. "I would rather see it at $35 million, but I will be reasonable and will be satisfied it we can restore it to the $29 million," she said. "I feel partly responsible for it, and without the Environment First, there is no line item in the general fund for REAP or soil conservation efforts."
Freeman will continue to support the Cultural Attractions and Tourism (CAT) fund, but will not support the Vision Iowa program that is associated with it. "All Vision Iowa has turned out to be is a way to mortgage our children in this state to build a few projects they want in the big cities. Some in the legislature this coming year will want to expand it, and it all depends who wins the battle."
It will be a tight year for education issues, she predicts. "I hope to see us give a slight increase in allowable growth for the schools, but I can't make any promises at all," she said. "There will be talk of cutting technology funding. It has been a five-year commitment that has helped a lot, but it is also true that technology is an area where the equipment you buy today is nearly obsolete a month later. I do feel it should be an ongoing funding stream," said the former substitute teacher.
Life in the House will take some adjustment. "It will be totally different, but I'm looking forward to a new experience, and a chance to work with many more people from around the state. I'm not asking for any specific committees. I like natural resources, transportation, commerce - but I told them just to fit me in where I'm needed and where they think I can fit in best."
She hopes she will be able to play a role in Medicaid help, as it appears the state may be willing to help states make up their shortfalls. Iowa's shortfall was $30 million last time she checked, she said. In particular, nursing homes are hurting as more and more residents require the care without the means to pay. Reimbursement does not nearly cover the costs to the facilities, which have been jacking up prices on the private pay residents to make up for the losses, she said.
Seeing work begin on a Highway 20 four-lane project in the region is also a goal for Freeman. "It's about as bright an outlook as I've seen in a long time on Highway 20," she said. "(Newly-elected Congressman Steve King says that if he dies before it finally gets done, his wife is not to bury him, because he isn't going anywhere until his casket gets a chance to ride on a four-lane Highway 20. We are in a good position, with four members of Congress who have districts touching the Highway 20 area."
Freeman said that some insiders are claiming that highway officials actually have much more complete plans to begin construction than the public has been informed of, and she said she hopes political pressure can obtain some discretional funding "off the top" to jumpstart the construction, as was done with the Avenue of the Saints some time ago.
After a long and often bitter election season nationwide, Freeman says she's happy not to be in the governor's shoes. "One talk show addressed the issue - did the winners really win? Nationwide, it's a pretty bleak situation politically."
Freeman admits that after the governor called the legislature back in a political budget struggle at the close of the last session, she did not expect to see him in January. "I remember thinking that there's no way he's going to win the election after that," she said. In a race of negative ads, and all the other races that depended on such tactics, she wonders if too much public trust was lost.
"It doesn't seem to get any better. Negative ads are being used more and more, even in legislative races and even local races in some parts of the state. No one is learning a lesson, but I think we really need to get to campaigns of positive ideas," she said.
At 61, Freeman has no plans to be a short-timer as she joins the House. "I've always said that when the day comes that I no longer enjoy the challenge, I'll be done. But I do enjoy it day to day. Every time I think there can't possibly be anything new to come up as an issue or a challenge I haven't seen before, it does. There's something totally new to learn almost every day. I like what I'm doing and I have no agenda to do anything else."