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Republican budget bill evades important debate

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Republican omnibus bill being debated at the Statehouse this week isn’t just an attempt to lump together the various departmental budgets to saves time; it also resurrects previously killed legislation and slips it into the lengthy document.

That, of course, is the problem: By incorporating earlier bills and padding the proposal to an almost unmanageable length, the Republican plan effectively neuters political deliberation.

The 518-page bill was released with great fanfare. House Republicans could vote on it as early as today before sending it back to the Ways and Means Committee for further additions. Such a long budget bill excludes the average reader, preventing anyone without the necessary staff from fully understanding the vote.

Typically, budget bills are tackled piecemeal by various committees; each facet of the budget faces bicameral overview before being incorporated into the whole. In other words, this kind of all-or-nothing approach is rare. It’s also rare to slip bills (many of which were previously proven unviable) into the legislative conglomeration, bypassing the typical legislative process.

When the Republicans’ plan came to light, Democrats immediately branded the omnibus bill a “Frankenstein.” As a rhetorical device, it brings to mind a monstrous amalgam of mismatched legislation — and this image is surprisingly accurate.

The budget bill includes a measure that would prevent Medicaid from funding abortion except if the mother’s life was in danger, definitively excluding pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. It would also require state employees to pay $100 per month for health insurance, regardless of collective-bargaining arrangements. Both of these — and the more minute changes, including a disregard of continuing negotiations over mental- health system reform — are only tangentially related to Iowa’s fiscal uncertainty.

Republicans touted the omnibus bill as a compromise; it provides for 2 percent allowable growth in public education funding, an increase from earlier Republican insistence on zero allowable growth.

This, and a preservation of preschool funding, seems to be the only compromise on the Republican side, however. Cuts to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources would continue a trend of paring back state appropriations, leading some to worry that low resources might hobble inspections. And the budget bill slashes the most funding, percentage-wise, from the state’s human rights advocacy office, which fights discrimination and promotes equity: $300,000.

Consequently, Senate Democrats are unlikely to approve the bill, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, told the DI Editorial Board Monday. “They've added a number of items to the bill that were rejected earlier in the session,” Bolkcom said. “It’s bad-faith negotiating.” The poor chances of its approval suggest that the bill is not just an insult to the usual deliberative political process, but also a piece of political theater.

In an effort to drum up support for a bill that few — if any — Iowans will have read by the time it comes up for a vote, Gov. Terry Branstad has embarked on a 43-city tour. (Curiously, his tour passes over Iowa City and Johnson County, possibly a result of his less-than-friendly reception in March.)

The omnibus bill is still evolving; legislators on both sides of the Capitol are anticipating an entrenched skirmish over property-tax reform. Senate Democrats expect a renewed Republican effort to reduce commercial property taxes, Bolkcom said; Branstad has previously supported a 40 percent cut, which Democrats say would shift the tax burden onto residents.

“As a process, it’s lousy,” Bolkcom said. “We should be able to work through these individual issues and come to conclusions.”

We agree. Submitting a sham compromise in the form of behemoth legislation does nothing to solve the disagreement over the state’s budget. To be serious about tackling Iowa’s fiscal uncertainty and often vociferous disagreements, legislators must put aside their partisan frustrations, roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Compromise, and tricky legislation, requires precision — not a 518-page cudgel.


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