116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Newly elected Republican governors across the country are in epic fights over huge, statehouse-snarling issues. It's been in all the papers.
Now, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has drawn his own line in the sand.
It's biennial budgeting or else. And, yeah, he's serious.
This is a code red, four-alarm wonk alert. Why, the implications of this could make for a fine article in the “Quarterly Journal of State Fiscalists.” Cover story, maybe.
For the rest of us, this is becoming an odd saga.
Branstad showed his love for biennialism this week by vetoing a fiscal year 2012 transportation budget approved by the Republican House and Democratic Senate. Nothing wrong with it. It just wasn't a two-year plan. The governor touted two-year budgets during the 2010 campaign, and now says his election is a biennial mandate.
He says he'll veto the whole dang 2012 state budget if push comes to shove.
Branstad says two-year budgets are better. But this is the same governor who signed spending reforms in the early '90s requiring annual budgets based on annual revenue forecasts. Biennial budgets would seem to evade some of those reforms. He is, apparently, not responsible for previous versions of responsibility.
So we just set the state fiscal machine on 2, and voila, a responsible budget? Wishful thinking.
The real problem is that budgeting is done by humans. Politicians, no less. There's really no clear evidence to suggest that a two-year budget written by human politicians will be any more responsible than a one-year version.
Branstad has made some sound, laudable budgeting decisions since returning to the Statehouse. He deserves credit for trying to end the state's habit of scooping dollars from all sorts of off-budget accounts to pay for ongoing programs. He cleared some smoke and broke some mirrors.
And it's good, tough decisions, not gimmicks or automatic mechanisms, that balance budgets.
Branstad's proposal isn't taking away any of the Legislature's power to make bad decisions, or good ones. He just wants to shove them to the sidelines every other year, which happens to increase his own clout. But do any of us really want to cut lawmakers loose every election year with no budget to occupy their time? Imagine what they'll do.
And, in fact, a biennial budget could be less responsible. And that's because humans also make the revenue projections that budgets are based on. Those estimates, educated guesses, really, are barely accurate enough to use for annual budgeting. A two-year revenue estimate would be about as accurate as a weather forecast for April 14, 2013.
In a biennial budget, you'd have one year based on a realistic possibility and one year based on complete fiscal fantasy. I don't think the election delivered a fantasy budgeting mandate. Meanwhile, cities, counties and schools will still be on annual budgets.
This is really about politics. Voters inconvenienced Branstad by leaving the Senate in Democratic hands. It's bad enough he has to negotiate one budget with them, but two is too much. So he wants to skip one. If Republicans controlled the whole joint, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Pity the quarterly fiscalists.