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New Iowa budget applaudable, for now

BY WILL MATTESSICH | SEPTEMBER 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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It’s rare that the Iowan public has had a chance to commend our legislators, but the recent auditor’s review of the state budget for 2012 gives us a chance.

A press release from State Auditor David Vaudt praised Iowa legislators for creating a fiscally sustainable budget that takes substantial steps toward reducing the gap between spending and revenue. It’s important to remember to give credit where it’s due, and Iowa’s lawmakers deserve praise for passing a deal that doesn’t include devastating levels of spending cuts or rely on too many accounting tricks. However, the budget should not be judged only on its fiscal responsibility but also on its responsible funding for social programs.

Former Gov. Chet Culver left office with a $950 million surplus, but that doesn’t mean he left everything in good, working order. Culver’s budget was a patchwork policy enabled by one-time stimulus funds and other short-term funding from the federal government. It was a rapid response to the economic crisis that got the job done but left his successor with a mess to clean.

The budget for fiscal 2012 will leave a much smaller mess.

One-time funding is used to a smaller degree. This is partially because of spending cuts, but also due to an unexpected increase in revenue. Gov. Terry Branstad has repeatedly advocated cuts in spending and to revenue in his budget-balancing plans. According to the auditor, part of the surplus from the last fiscal year was used to pay for property-tax cuts in this year’s budget.

Still, a more sustainable budget does not in itself mean a better budget. Vaudt called the bill, “Clearly a win for the taxpayers of Iowa.” The auditor was speaking from the standpoint of fiscal sustainability, but his comment shouldn’t be taken to mean more than that. Far too much funding in the next fiscal year will be cut from public K-12 and higher education, and the Legislature still made cuts to the state-funded preschool program. The compromises in this year’s bill are a small taste of the year to come.

We don’t want a balanced budget that comes at the expense of everyday Iowans, and that means supporting a future budget that doesn’t cut public-worker salaries or public education.

Part of the agreement was to fund the budget for the fiscal year at only 50 percent, which the auditor mentions in his report. That means that barring a significant change in Iowan politicians’ attitudes, next year’s budget negotiations will come with continuous quarreling on par with the squabbles this summer.

Branstad has repeatedly stated his desire to massively cut taxes for businesses. He wasn’t able to accomplish this goal with the 2011 budget, and hopefully, he will be stymied again in the future.

Branstad has already led the charge on cutting funding for public education, health, and human services. Pursuing a policy that would decrease state revenue substantially will bring even more cuts to those areas.

There is hope that the budget for fiscal 2013 won’t be completely gutted. Fortunately, although the budget deal passed in June allows no room for funding growth to Iowa’s public schools for 2012, legislators agreed to allow 2 percent of growth in 2013.

These issues show the importance of focusing on more than simply the budget’s fiscal sustainability.

A perfectly balanced revenue sheet is not the end goal for state spending, it is maximized social benefit.

During the 2013 budget negotiations, lawmakers need to make sure they work as hard as possible to restore education funding and support ordinary Iowans as much as they support businesses.

For now, though, we can give the Iowa Legislasture, and Branstad, a (qualified) pat on the back.


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