Senate approves budget cuts
BY ROD BOSHART
Gazette Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES – Republicans who now control the Iowa Senate took their first official floor action Thursday to head off a projected state budget shortfall by making $117.8 million in spending adjustments that minority Democrats assailed as unnecessary mid-year cuts that will hurt Iowans.
“We’re doing our best to try to fix a problem we did not make,” said Sen. Charles Schneider, of West Des Moines who managed debate on Senate File 130 – a de-appropriations bill that included $88.2 million in targeted cuts and $25 million in fund transfers to balance the fiscal 2017 ledger.
The budget adjustments – approved 28-19 by senators and slated for House debate on Monday – were precipitated by lackluster revenue growth blamed on a sagging farm economy that threw out of balance the $7.2 billion spending plans passed by last year’s split-control Legislature and signed by Gov. Terry Branstad.
Schneider said Thursday’s remedial action was a symptom of several years of overspending by Senate Democrats, House Republicans and the governor that erased a $927 million surplus. GOP legislators agreed with the governor to exempt K-12 schools, Medicaid, property tax credits and “backfill” to local governments and communities from the mid-year reductions.
That meant cuts of $18 million to the regent universities -- $8 million each at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University and $2 million for the University of Northern Iowa -- $3 million for community colleges, $5.5 million for correctional facilities, $4.5 million for the state Department of Education, $3 million for the court system, $1 million for public safety, and $11.5 million in what Democrats called “secret, mystery” cuts through executive-branch operations through June 30.
“This is a bad budget that does real harm to Iowans. We don’t have to do this,” said Senate Democratic Leader Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids.
Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, called the cuts an “appropriate” way to fix a “mess.”
“We’ve come in here surgically to make sure that certain areas aren’t affected,” said Chelgren.
But Democrats said the cuts hit vulnerable children, seniors and people with disabilities, along with students and public safety in a way that was dangerous and would lead to higher tuition, more college debt and a continued lack of qualified, skilled workers for desperate employers.
“Your surgical cuts are really a knife into the heart of education funding in this budget,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo.
“Our employers are crying for a more skilled and educated workforce. This bill tells them to go fish,” added Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “You all campaigned on supporting education and your first vote on the Senate floor is to cut funding for education. Nice broken promise.”
Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said it was easy for Democrats to criticize without offering any solutions other than “miniscule, tiny little token proposals” to cut funding for the governor’s office and shave one extra day of session expense money and not pay for out-of-state travel for the legislative branch.
“This is hard work. We didn’t ask for this problem but we have a reasonable proposal here that does solve the problem that we’re in,” Garrett noted.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, complained the governor’s budget was spared under GOP legislators’ compromise revisions. “He doesn’t have to give up so much as a flower pot,” he said, while Bolkcom complained that state tax credits to corporations also were not part of the state belt-tightening process.
“You are asking for nothing from the fat cats who have benefited from record tax cuts and special tax giveaways,” said Bolkcom “The people who clean this building pay more in state taxes than the big guys. The burden of the cuts is all being shouldered by average Iowans.”
Schneider said Republicans looked at opportunities to save money via tax credits, but there were none to be had this far into the budgeting cycle. Money was transferred from several economic development accounts and $6.1 million was scooped from the state’s cultural trust fund to erase the projected shortfall.