The Iowa Senate has given final legislative approval to a bill that will help fix up more crumbling schools in rural areas of the state.  The bill takes the local option sales taxes which have been approved in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, replaces them with a statewide one percent sales tax and distributes the money on a per pupil basis.

The move ensures remote school districts in the state get more money for school infrastructure projects. Senator Mike Connolly, a Democrat from Dubuque, says it’s one of the most important education bills in the 2008 legislature. "I think it’s a deal made in heaven and I want to join with you, rural and urban legislators. Let’s do this with a big vote in the Senate, just like they did in the House," Connolly says.

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, supported the bill despite the fact it’s sending money out of Polk County to schools in less-populated rural counties.  "I will hold my nose and I will vote yes today because I also know that not only do I represent my district but I represent all of the children of Iowa because they’re all our kids," McCoy says.

Senator Dave Mulder, a Republican from Sioux Center, says he’s concerned about schools in his area because they’re getting the "absolute minimum" for school infrastructure and this bill will help fix that. "We all care about Iowa and we care about Iowa kids," Mulder said.

Senator Frank Wood, a Democrat from Eldridge who was a high school principal, says many Iowa schools have deferred building maintenance in lean times and this will help. "Repairing roofs, boilers and even how about energy efficient windows and doors," Wood says. "This is what we’re talking about."

But the bill had vociferous Republican critics. Senator Larry McKibben of Marshalltown argued there should be a constitutional amendment to ensure the money’s always spent on school infrastructure or property tax relief. "If you want to close up rural Iowa, just give them more relief like this," McKibben says. "They can’t stand a whole lot more relief than what we’ve been giving them, which is nothing."

McKibben also faulted the bill for shifting the decision about how to finance school building projects away from school district voters. "Local voters have always been involved in the tax and spending decisions related to providing school infrastructure. This would move them away from the decision-making process," McKibben says. "Colleagues, that is a breach of faith."

The one percent sales tax will be permanent through 2029 and Senator David Hartsuch, a Republican from Bettendorf, suggested it was a sort of bait and switch as voters would no longer be asked to approve the tax every 10 years.  "We’re going to take away the peoples’ right to vote on this in order to relieve school administrators of the fiscal constraints which voters impose upon them," Hartsuch says.

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs shot back at the critics. "Will somebody beat up on us on the campaign trail? You bet. You bet they will. Who cares? It’s our kid’s future," Gronstal says. "This is our one opportunity to really get something done right."

Governor Chet Culver’s aides indicate the governor will sign the bill into law.

Senator Jeff Angelo of Creston was another Republican who spoke out against the bill during Senate debate, but in the end Angelo did not cast a vote on the bill, which passed the Senate on a 34 to 15 vote.