Local officials preparing for worst with potential budget shutdown

BY ARIANA WITT | JUNE 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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The state budget is set to expire in the next week, but it’s not clear what that will mean.

State lawmakers are assuring constituents that services won’t be shut down and most things will continue to function normally. But local officials said they’ve begun to prepare for the worst.

“I don’t think the public has a sense of how serious this is,” said Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig, noting that supervisors have scheduled an emergency meeting on July 1 in the event a shutdown occurs.

The Legislature has not yet come up with a budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. While lawmakers said they’ve made progress on a compromise, it’s not yet clear when they’ll send a bill to the governor.

K-12 schools, community colleges and universities, and state and Highway Patrol offices are all funded by state appropriations, and county officials fear failure to reach a budget will force these departments to make cuts.

And even when the budget does pass, Rettig said, the county anticipates lower appropriations, and it has had to lay someone off already because it’s required to give 20 days’ notice.

“Mainly, I don’t understand why we are on the brink of crisis,” she said.

Rettig and Supervisor Pat Harney agreed one of the biggest concerns of the possible cuts is in human services and public safety.

June 30 marks the last day of fiscal 2011. Rettig said not knowing the budget for the fiscal 2012 might cause temporary employment cutbacks in Johnson County.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek echoed those concerns.

“Let’s say we had murder, God forbid, then we don’t know if we would have the [Division of Criminal Investigation] and its lab available to help us,” Pulkrabek said. “And that would be a huge problem if it wasn’t.”

University of Iowa President Sally Mason told The Daily Iowan Wednesday she is not concerned with the university’s budget because the UI does not receive state funding until Aug. 1. However, she said, she is concerned about paying employees.

“I think our budget people are nervous because they have to try to meet payroll and make sure that all of the normal kinds of paperwork gets done on time,” Mason said.

But legislators said these offices will remain up and running, regardless of the budgetary outcome.

“We have so many options, and we’ll use those options to make sure people stay employed and to ensure public safety stays open,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City.

Mascher said she foresees the Legislature reaching a compromise budget by Tuesday, but the state could run on a “status quo” budget from the previous fiscal year for as long as it takes.

“The governor has broad emergency powers,” said Tim Albrecht, Gov. Terry Branstad’s communications director. “Branstad will use those broad powers on July 1 to ensure government remains open. There will be no shutdown, and there does not need to be a concern.”

Still, Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said Branstad has not done enough to communicate with worried organizations should a budget remain undecided.

“I’m just a little worried that he’s a little too complacent about people’s jobs and the services they provide,” he said.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, agreed, and he believes the current budgetary status is simply “a ploy of negotiation” between Republicans and Senate Democrats.

“I don’t think the governor has been very forthcoming in talking about a plan,” Dvorsky said. “I think that would have given people more confidence if he’d outlined a plan.”

But Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who also believes the budget will be completed by deadline, said an agreement is long overdue.

“If Sen. Dvorsky and all the rest of them would have put as much energy into finalizing the budget as they did into trying to scare people, we could have done so by now,” he said.

DI Metro Editor Hayley Bruce and reporter Linsday Douglas contributed to this story.

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