Iowans deserve state budget honesty

A gavel sits on the desk of Senate President Pam Jochum at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
A gavel sits on the desk of Senate President Pam Jochum at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

State Auditor Mary Mosiman is just the latest of fiscal watchdogs to chime warning bells regarding state lawmakers’ 2013 decision to make multiyear, accelerating commitments against the general fund. It is time for legislators and Gov. Terry Branstad to have some realistic, even blunt, conversations about the state’s finances and priorities.

Most recent estimates put the state’s spending gap — the difference between anticipated revenues and spending — at $171 million, money which will be pulled from state surplus funds to balance the budget. That number includes a $136 million installment in a multiyear commitment to reduce commercial property taxes.

What’s more, those commercial property tax breaks are set to increase every year — $278 million in FY2016, $331 million in FY2020, $382 million in FY2024 — and further nip away state revenues.

Over the course of 10 years, Iowa taxpayers will absorb more than $3 billion in commercial property tax relief at the state level, even as those same tax cuts pull an additional $741 million from local government budgets — funds now used to help fund local libraries, parks, streets, schools, law enforcement and fire protection.

On a much smaller scale, but similarly problematic, is lawmakers’ commitment to multiyear, accelerating expenditures as part of the Teach Iowa Scholars Program, which offers income bonuses or student loan repayments to recent teaching graduates who choose to work in Iowa schools in specific fields.

It is not wise, or sustainable, to fund annual appropriations with surplus funds, and we question the wisdom of OKing such large cuts even as the state fails to meet current budgetary commitments. Even with strong revenues and little spending growth, it is unlikely essential services will remain unscathed.

As we speak, Iowa is underfunding the IPERS (pension) system by 19 percent. The judicial retirement and peace officers’ retirement systems are underfunded at a rate of 29 percent and 36 percent, respectively. We have heard of no plan to address increasing costs of state employee salaries and benefits. The FY15 budget underfunds Medicaid by $53 million, significantly impacting some of the most vulnerable residents in our state.

State leaders need to be honest and transparent about how they can or cannot meet the priorities they’ve set for the state.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262 or editorial@thegazette.com



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