With legislators heading back into session in January facing a looming $131 million budget shortfall, Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, said he’s focused on making mental health a priority, despite the potential for cuts in statewide services.
Breckenridge, first elected to office in 2016, said he’s hopeful the legislature can find untapped resources to aid Iowa’s mentally ill. He’s also concerned the state will need to make education funding a priority to ensure Iowa’s students remain some of the best in the nation.
Polls show the state ranking dead last in mental health resources, and Breckenridge said during his 27-year career with the Newton Police Department he saw plenty of problems firsthand on the frontline of the crisis. The state’s closure of mental health hospitals in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant have only exacerbated a statewide shortage of resources for mentally ill residents, Breckenridge said.
“I do see that as a major crisis in the state, and we need to do everything we can to help those individuals. I think that we as a state aren’t doing enough to help people suffering from mental illness,” Breckenridge said. “It’s going to affect everyone in the state.”
Part of the issue surrounding mental health is making sure the stigma of the disease is eradicated, Breckenridge said. As he’s watched friends and family suffer from mental illness, Breckenridge said it’s important people understand mental illness is a disease like any other and the sooner sufferers receive treatment the sooner they’ll be on the road to recovery.
Many of the state’s mentally ill are currently incarcerated, with some estimates showing 40 to 60 percent of the state’s prison population is suffering from some sort of mental illness. Breckenridge said he’s in favor of jail diversion programs, which allow some first-time offenders to receive treatment instead of jail time, putting resources where they’re needed the most. There’s no easy answer when it comes to mental health, and Breckenridge said the first step was to get stakeholders at the table to find a way forward.
“I think if you look at any approach to dealing with the issue we face in Iowa it has to be a multi-pronged approach. There’s no one way to fix it all,” Breckenridge said. “You sit down with the experts and you put a strategic plan in place to address those issues.”
As the state grapples with the best way to treat Iowa’s mentally ill, Iowa’s Medicaid network has also come under fire this year. The state privatized the $4.3 billion a year industry in 2016 under former Gov. Terry Branstad, a move he claimed would save the state money. Initially three companies agreed to take patients in Iowa, but with one company dropping out, and another claiming it’s unable to take any additional patients, more than 200,000 Iowans are left with one choice for their care.
Breckenridge said either the state has to find a way to fix the current system, including making sure providers are getting paid on time for their services, or consider going back to the state-run system. He said to his knowledge, more than 10,000 people have been moved back under the state’s care, and more may be on their way. It’s clear the state is in “dire need” of a change, Breckenridge said.
“I think the current administration and the legislature must look at all options to determine where we go to address this issue,” Breckenridge said. “It’s a major issue that we’re facing right now and we cannot wait until July 2019 and think that it’s going to get better.”
Education funding and the state budget shortfall
With the state facing a serious shortfall for the coming fiscal year, Breckenridge said the state faces a “very difficult position” as they open session in January. While he isn’t sure what cuts legislators will propose to balance the budget Breckenridge said he doesn’t expect to see a tax increase next year. Rather, he’s expecting cuts, although it’s soon to say where or when those cuts will be. Breckenridge said he’s concerned those cuts may affect critical services in the state, including mental health and education, two of the most important areas for Breckenridge.
“When you’re starting out with a $131 million shortfall that we have to make up over the next two years it sets you up in a very difficult position to continue to fund at the levels required to make sure we’re funding mental health and to make sure our teachers can continue to do an outstanding job,” Breckenridge said.
Breckenridge wants to continue to make school funding a priority for the legislature and said he believes the public school system represents a critical link in preparing students for post-secondary education. Legislators need to do “everything in their power” to make sure students are prepared to enter the workforce, he said. Breckenridge also said he’s concerned state spending on education isn’t keeping up, and the legislature needs to continue to increase spending on public schools to stay competitive, something he’s concerned about in light of the budget crisis facing the state.
“It’s very frustrating to see that in place, and I guess when we looked at it last year when we gave $40 million dollars to education which was a 1.1 percent increase, that didn’t really reach the cost of living,” Breckenridge said. “I can tell you that the teachers I had growing up they made an impact on my life, and what they do for our society and our families is outstanding and we couldn’t do it without them, we need to see it as a priority.”
Increasing education spending can pay dividends beyond the classroom, Breckenridge said. He said he hopes focusing on educational issues will help the state narrow its skilled trades gap and fill some of the vacant positions that exist across Iowa for skilled laborers.
“That helps our Iowa economy if we can bring businesses and companies to Iowa because we have a solid workforce to do those jobs,” Breckenridge said.
Tax incentive oversight
Finding ways to boost Iowa’s economy will help with the budget shortfall, but as state and local governments offer tax incentives to bring companies into the state Breckenridge said the legislature needs to ensure these deals make sense for Iowans. He said the state needs to make sure it’s getting a good return on its investment.
“I’m all in favor of helping if there’s a return on investment,” Breckenridge said. “We cannot just do it just because we think it’s going to work, we have to be good stewards of our tax dollars.”
News Editor Mike Mendenhall contributed to this article.