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Iowa House panel to examine 'Christmas tree' appropriations

'We know we have to find savings, so let's start with the low-hanging fruit'

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DES MOINES — New House Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Grassley faces another tight budget, and he’s planning a line-by-line review of what he called the Legislature’s annual “Christmas tree bill.”

Grassley expects a three-member appropriations subcommittee to begin working its way through the $3.46 billion catchall appropriations bill lawmakers approved last spring, starting with money budgeted for the legislature.

“We know we have to find savings, so let’s start with the low-hanging fruit,” he said Monday. Democrats and Republicans are starting their scheduled 100-day legislative session $127 million apart as they start crafting a state budget topping $7 billion. The standings proposal includes K-12 school funding, but there’s about $500 million in other appropriations for the subcommittee to examine, including property tax credits.

Based on the Revenue Estimating Conference projections, Grassley says the Legislature will have $153 million in new revenue. Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed spending $145 million of that on education.

Grassley has appointed his vice chairman, Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Cedar Rapids, to lead the review.

“If we don’t have enough money for everything, we need to find where we can cut if we have to prioritize spending,” Rizer said. “So we’re going to start by reviewing the standing appropriations and ask ‘What was the appropriation for?’ and ‘What was the purpose?’ and ‘Is it still needed?’ ”

Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, has worked on the standings bill each of the past four years and welcomes the review.

“Democrats will be glad to help,” he said. Iowa’s budget process is “honest and transparent, but it’s always important to review our budget and make sure we’re spending wisely.”

However, he warned that the minority party is not interested if the review is a political maneuver by Republicans to cut spending on Democratic priorities or tax cuts that will result in underfunding state government.

Rizer’s goal is to determine whether programs funded in the past “are a good use of money and if they’re working.”

Rizer conceded a deep dive into the standings bill might seem dull.

“Sometimes the sausage-making isn’t sexy, but it’s important,” he said.

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