Staff Columnist

Shared budget pain doesn't make the cut at the Statehouse

The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Your Iowa Legislature very nearly shared in the pain of yet another round of midyear budget cuts. But they couldn’t quite carpe diem. Or, actually, carpe per diem.

This past week, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill cutting $25 million from the current budget year, which ends June 30. State universities in Iowa City and Ames were the biggest losers, absorbing an $11 million share of the reductions. Human services took a $4.3 million hit, along with a $1.6 million cut for the courts. Community colleges were cut by $500,000.

This is becoming the norm under the Golden Dome of Wisdom. Sluggish revenue growth repeatedly has forced lawmakers to cut spending in the middle of the year. Naturally, cleaning up this year’s slick of red ink has cleared the path toward approving more tax cuts. Makes sense.

But lawmakers in the Senate did come to their senses for a moment. Republicans who control the joint attached a provision to the budget-cutting bill that would reduce the number of days lawmakers receive daily expense payments, or per diem, by 10 days. Democrats offered an amendment to make it 15 days, which was accepted.

For those just tuning in, most Iowa lawmakers receive $168 daily to cover living expenses. Legislators from Polk County, home of the dome, receive $126. They receive these payments for each scheduled day of the session — 100 days this year. The payments are on top of their salary, which is $25,000 for rank-and-file, $37, 500 for top leaders, along with benefits and other perks.

Per-diem costs us $38,000 daily, so a 15-day cut saves $570,000. Not too shabby. If the college kids have to take another hit, why not legislators? We’re all in this together.

Well, not exactly. The GOP House version of the bill contained no such reduction. And when the final version emerged from behind-the-scenes House-Senate negotiations, the small sacrifice had vaporized. The bill Reynolds signed doesn’t cut a single day of expense payments.

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I’m not here to argue lawmaking will make you rich and famous. Legislators haven’t raised their own pay since 2006. But it is a pretty good gig. Better than, say, working for at or near minimum wage.

Speaking of, Iowa hasn’t raised its $7.25 wage floor since Democrats controlled the Statehouse in 2007. Incidentally, that’s the same year the Legislature quit setting its own dollar figure for daily expense payments.

Since then, those payments are set by an annual federal index tracking the cost of food and lodging. That’s why out-state daily expense payments that stood at $144 in 2014 are now $168, and climbing.

So lawmakers, in particular Republicans, who flatly reject the notion of raising Iowa’s wage floor, let alone tying the minimum to an inflationary index delivering periodic raises, have kept their own expense payments on an autopilot mechanism. And it’s set to steadily gain altitude.

I’ve argued previously legislative per diem should be the equivalent of eight hours at minimum wage, with periodic raises, of course. It would offer legislators some much-needed perspective. And perspective is priceless.

It might also lead us back to every-other-year legislative sessions, giving our dropped jaws, smacked heads, and over-rolled eyes more time to heal.

Or maybe you’re wondering how I can be so cruel. Well, I seriously doubt lawmakers will starve.

Consider that during the current session, all legislators have been invited to more than 100 receptions sponsored by various interest groups, institutions and organizations, most offering free eats. According to disclosure forms covering 89 of those gatherings, the price tag tops $277,000.

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Most are fairly modest affairs held in the Statehouse. But some off-campus shindigs are pretty pricey.

On Jan. 9, a gathering at the State Historical Building hosted by the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, the Iowa Biotechnology Association, Iowa Communications Alliance, Iowa Institute for Cooperatives and Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores of Iowa racked up $19,901 in expenses. That includes $15,131 for food.

Not to be outdone, the Iowa Association of Realtors spent $21,170 on a Feb. 6 reception at Embassy Suites down the hill from the Capitol. A Jan. 10 gig at the Iowa Tap Room hosted by the Iowa Association of Business and Industry cost $17,685. Five days later, the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council hosted a $14,972 reception at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino.

So there’s plenty of gratis grub out there. But if things get tight, check with those college kids. Ramen noodles can be very filling.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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