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Branstad’s worrisome funding cuts

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JANUARY 21, 2011 7:10 AM

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Gov. Terry Branstad is back, and with his return comes a “new covenant” that promises austerity — and sunshine.

Less than two weeks after taking his fifth inaugural oath and returning to his former Terrace Hill residence, Branstad has outlined a new five-step program to overhaul the “badly mismanaged” economic state of Iowa. Tucked into a typically platitude-laden inaugural speech, the new administration’s covenant with Iowa traffics in generalized recession anxiety. It is America’s current anti-government zeitgeist writ small, though it comes with welcome homage to government transparency.

While state spending must be subject to scrutiny and control, Branstad’s smaller-government grandstanding proves dangerous when it fails to align with political reality. The governor is correct, if hyperbolic: Iowa stands “at the precipice of opportunity.” Instead of echoing popular axioms, our political leaders must explore both the immediate relevance and concrete implications of their proposals. As it is now, many of Branstad’s blanket statements have concerning implications about social services, educational priorities, and economic policy — particularly with this week’s proposed budget cuts in public funding of education.

“We have too much government,” Branstad said in last week’s speech, pointing at institutions from the federal sphere all the way down to local districts, cities, and schools. As is typical in such emotionally evocative, vision-focused appeals, there was little substance in this proclamation; Branstad did iterate his vow to slash state spending by 15 percent to ostensibly balance the budget once and for all. As during his campaign, however, he did not detail the cuts he would propose.

Iowans received their first taste of Branstad’s new administration, and its accompanied reductions in spending, this week. Tuesday, the Iowa House of Representatives voted to cut Board of Regents funding by $25 million over the next two years; Wednesday, a measure protecting universal preschool funds was removed by the House; and Iowa Area Educational Agencies, which handles special education and teacher-training, is facing a proposed $10 million cut — this despite Branstad’s promise to the DI in November that he would not cut education funding.

Strangely, the governor also included in his covenant a call for improving Iowa’s educational system. “Providing Iowa’s children with a globally competitive education is key to their future,” he said in his address. But his elaboration on this particular bullet point seemed to condemn or commend individual teachers, following the “Waiting for Superman” model that drew so muchcondemnation from the education community.

No one would debate that Iowa’s education system is in dire need of improvements, but cutting funding for public education at the earliest level takes one step back for every two forward.
Tim Albrecht, communications director for the Branstad administration, maintained that the governor’s education plans will “fund our K-12 commitment and ensure universal access to preschool.” While education accounts for more than 60 percent of the state’s budget, he noted in a conversation with the Editorial Board, it bore a large portion of recent budget cuts. This kind of obfuscating doublespeak makes us skeptical that the Branstad administration can maintain its commitments to both education and spending cuts.

Branstad’s other axioms seemed fairly straightforward, rife with counter-government populist sentiment that stirs in the American consciousness — even if the governor followed them with typical political equivocating.

“Government must serve the people,” Branstad claimed as his second plank, then went on to discuss the importance of volunteering and service. A real desire to help each other is indeed a scintillating quality in the population, but when partnered with discussion of drastic spending cuts, this praise evokes a certain queasiness: Private charity has trouble establishing a social safety net with the kind of coverage necessary for dire economic straits.

To give credit where credit’s due: Branstad’s third point, a call to restoring “integrity and transparency to our government decision-making processes,” is long overdue. Freedom of information appeals, easily accessible government and department records, and planned budgets could all stand to be publicized — a commitment to greater transparency stands out in his inaugural speech as a singularly excellent goal, undiminished by any problematic qualifiers.

All of Branstad’s goals are, in theory, laudable. They also line up with typical talking points in the current political climate and face turmoil when they collide with actual policy. With the exception of a greater commitment to transparency, we look on Branstad’s latest term in office with some trepidation; Iowans must make sure that our endorsement of general principles does not lead us to harmful actions.


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