116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
By The Gazette Editorial Board
Iowa's state budget looks like a spreadsheet, but it's really a drama.
It's a struggle between needs, aspirations and resources. It's a financial plan and a political manifesto. It's a statement of priorities to be funded and areas where cuts are in order. Within its lines are innovations and traditions, rock-solid principles and old-fashioned horse trades.
But above all, it is a human endeavor, presented by a governor and rewritten by lawmakers. Then it's back to the governor for signatures or vetoes. Along the line, our elected leaders, with interest groups and citizens chiming in plenty, make countless decisions, responsible ones and less-so, that shape the final outcome. The only certainty is a constitutional edict that it be balanced.
Budgets are balanced with leadership and tough-minded decision making. Gov. Terry Branstad has offered some of both in his budget blueprints.
But we're skeptical about Branstad's contention that switching from annual to biennial budgeting will have a dramatic impact on fiscal responsibility.
Since the early 1980s, Statehouse leaders have crafted annual budgets. Back in the day, when Iowa's Legislature met only in odd-numbered years, two-year budgets were a necessity. By the 1980s, with lawmakers meeting each year, leaders believed annual spending plans would be more flexible and responsive to the changing needs of Iowans.
In the early 1990s, amid a fiscal crisis, Gov. Branstad and lawmakers devised budget reforms that pushed leaders to build budgets using annual revenue projections, while also limiting spending to 99 percent of annual projected revenue.
Branstad's push for a two-year budget seems to undermine those reforms by stretching revenue projections far beyond any hope of accuracy. Projecting tax collections for one year is difficult. Accurately projecting revenues for two years is nearly impossible. Branstad has said he wants more predictability in state budgeting, but sketchy projections would make a biennial budget less dependable.
Branstad's proposal also raises concerns about checks and balances. Taking budget decisions out of the hands of lawmakers every other year would put more power into the hands of a governor, who has broad authority to move money around a budget. Branstad has vowed to use that power sparingly, but he can't speak for future governors.
Biennial budgets are no magic fiscal bullet. To our north in Minnesota, which uses biennial budgets, Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders are locked in a debate over a $5 billion budget deficit.
We understand Branstad's goals, and share many of them. But it's people, not a process, that matters most.
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