Government

Iowa state budget discussions off to partisan start

Republicans cite spending 'realities' but Democrats decry cuts

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — In what likely was a preview of coming budget debates, Democrats on Wednesday portrayed fiscal 2018 state budgets as “cuts upon cuts” while majority Republicans said the proposals reflect the “real world” of the state’s pocketbook.

Although Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, called the committee one of the most bipartisan in the Legislature, its budget proposals were approved on party lines.

The GOP’s $559 million budget for Justice Systems is almost $3.9 million less than what Republican Gov. Terry Branstad proposed. Their $178.8 million Judicial Branch budget is the same as the governor’s.

Overall, Republicans plan to appropriate $7.245 billion — or $38 million less than Branstad suggested — from the state’s general fund for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1. The current budget calls for spending slightly more — $7.26 billion for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

“We would have liked to have done better with a lot of areas, but we’re forced to work with the realities of the budget,” Worthan said after the subcommittee approved a cut of $2.9 million from the current budget for Justice Systems — corrections, homeland security, public safety and the attorney general.

But, said Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, it’s important to note the budget plan already reflects nearly $118 million in midyear de-appropriations and adjustments the Legislature made earlier this session because state revenues are growing slower then expected. The Legislature also dipped into reserves for another $131 million when revenues were downgraded even more last month.

“So when we talk about status quo, that’s the status quo after a cut. When we talk about Corrections, that’s after a cut after a cut after a cut,” he said.

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The same is true of the Judicial Branch budget of $178.8 million, which remains unchanged for next year, Taylor said.

“You’re talking about status quo of a cut over a cut in just the last two years,” he said.

Although he shares Taylor’s concern, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady said the courts are “prepared to go forward and do the best work we can.”

He doesn’t know how the budget would impact courts, but coming out of a meeting Wednesday with House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, Cady said he wanted to “assure everyone at the same time, that a lot of our court system will look the same.”

That may mean staff furloughs, “but we’ll still maintain a presence in all 99 counties.” he said.

Also Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 12-8 along party lines to approve a $47.4 million budget for state administrative and regulatory functions for fiscal 2018. Democrats objected to a $700,000 item funding election law changes included in House File 516, the voter ID bill.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said majority Republicans should not be starting new programs at a time when “the state is broke” — especially not to spend money “for a problem many of us don’t think exists.”

But Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, Senate leader on the administration and regulation budget subcommittee, said the “voter integrity” bill is what Iowans wanted and “we want to be faithful to our voter base.”

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The budget bill, which spends nearly $1.4 million less next year than what is currently allocated, now moves to the Senate debate calendar for consideration.

In considering the Judicial Systems budget, Democrats were concerned that $2.45 million — or more than 80 percent of the cuts — came from the attorney general’s budget. That’s $1.45 million less for the victims’ assistance fund and $1 million less for the general office fund, which supports core functions.

Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, pointed out that the attorney general generates revenue for the state. For example, this year the office turned over more than $12 million in consumer protection settlements.

“It brought in millions that helped us survive budget cuts this year,” Boulton said.

Cuts to victim assistance grants would damage the programs that helps more than 46,000 Iowans, said Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines.

“I don’t see that anywhere else in the budget,” she said about the 22 percent cut. The funds come from criminal fines and penalties, not tax dollars. “The cut speaks volumes about the state’s priorities about a problem that affects one in four women.”

The budget also calls for another $2.1 million cut from the Department of Corrections “departmentwide duties.” But a $500,000 increase in county confinement reduces the overall cut to Corrections to $1.6 million.

Most line items in Justice System get a cut or remain the same as in the current budget. But the Department of Public Safety gets a $1.3 million increase with nearly $1.1 million of that for the Iowa State Patrol.

There’s also an increase of nearly $1.1 million from other funds for gaming enforcement.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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