Common Good Iowa

Mental health funding: Fool me once …

Posted on April 9, 2021 at 1:34 PM by Mary Nelle Trefz

Among several tax elements, Senate File 587, the tax bill passed by Iowa Senate on a party-line vote earlier this week, would dramatically change how our state’s mental health system is funded. The bill would shift mental health funding from county property taxes to a fully state-funded system. It would do this by phasing out the county Mental Health and Disability Services property tax levy over a two-year period and replacing it a standing state appropriation to the Department of Human Services, which would then be distributed to the state’s 14 mental health service regions on an equal per capita basis. 

Common Good Iowa is among the advocates who have long asked lawmakers to take responsibility for fixing Iowa’s current patchwork of mental health services by providing adequate, predictable and sustainable funding. This bill moves us only slightly closer to that goal. 

Committing to a standing state appropriation for mental health services is a potentially promising step toward sustainability, but there are reasons to be skeptical. It’s difficult to trust the promises made by the bill’s backers — to replace local property tax dollars with state funding — when the very same bill breaks a similar promise lawmakers made to local governments back in 2013. 

That year lawmakers promised to use state funds to “backfill” the dollars cities, counties and school districts would lose because of state-mandated commercial property tax cuts. This bill rescinds that 2013 promise. The result of that broken promise, if enacted, would be a mix of service cuts and higher property taxes across the state. 

What’s that phrase? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Mental health advocates would be wise to take heed. 

The swap from county to state funding appears to represent a modest boost to the overall level of funding, at least in the short term, but a modest boost is not sufficient to address the unmet mental health needs of Iowa children and families, which have only grown during the pandemic. In later years, growth is limited to 1.5 percent per year, which is unlikely to keep pace with rising costs, much less expanding services. 

Finally, the bill’s mental health provisions are missing an essential element. They completely fail to account for the needs of — and earlier promises made to — children. Iowa lawmakers in 2019 established a framework for a children’s mental health system, but — you guessed it — included no systemic funding for this system. Two years later, and the children’s system is still not funded. Not only does SF 587 lack the additional funding necessary to cover children’s services, it makes no mention of children whatsoever! Children are growing and developing, and their mental health needs often differ from those of adults. We must build and fund a system that meets the unique needs of children. 

Members of the Iowa House should not pick up a bill that would break promises to local governments and enact tax cuts that will lead to cuts in state services. Instead they should focus on funding mental health services at a level that meet Iowans’ needs, with special attention to children.  

Categories: Budget & taxes, Health

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