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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Guest Column | David Osterberg
Even with inflation running at 8.5 percent, the Legislature is spending its final weeks of session quibbling over whether to increase the state budget by somewhere around 1 percent or 2 percent.
Because of inflation, either outcome represents a cut in state services in real terms — even though the state is sitting on a substantial surplus available to adopt creative, strategic ideas to meet real needs.
The exact differences between the House and Senate plans are hard to pinpoint because Senate leaders are keeping their priorities for public dollars outside of public view. While the House has passed its budget bills, the Senate has passed none, nor even disclosed its budget targets. Negotiations are happening behind closed doors.
But Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, did recently indicate publicly that the difference between the two houses is $70 million. That amounts to not quite 1 percent of the current year budget, with the House at about $8.27 billion and the Senate and governor just under $8.2 billion.
That they’re sparring over that relatively small difference in an $8 billion budget while sitting on a nearly $2 billion surplus — driven by federal pandemic aid — only emphasizes that their argument is over how little they can do.
And their current budget debates are on top of destructive choices they have already made. Earlier this session, the Legislature passed the biggest tax cut in history, giving the benefits overwhelmingly to the richest Iowans. The impacts start immediately, and grow fast.
Either new budget proposal will starve services — schools, public health and safety, human services and environmental protection — that make Iowa a good place to live, work and raise a family.
With even a comparatively small increase — let’s take the $70 million range they’re fighting about — lawmakers could address important needs and assure at least some improvements in health and prosperity for the long term. It would not be enough, but would be a start.
• $1 million to keep housing at state parks for rangers to live on site and oversee parks’ care, maintenance and safety.
• $4 million to boost child care subsidies from 145 percent to 150 percent of the poverty line so 855 more Iowa children can attend quality child care while their parents work.
• $5.5 million to extend Medicaid eligibility for pregnant people from 60 days to 12 months postpartum to assure continuity of care for new parents as they recover and navigate parenting and work.
• $40 million to start bringing school funding in line with what it was a decade ago.
That would leave another $20 million available for other priorities that otherwise are certain to be left out of either the House or Senate budget, or a compromise.
Whenever and however the Legislature gets itself unstuck, it’s already clear lawmakers have shortchanged the citizens of Iowa. But maybe something can be salvaged.
David Osterberg of Mount Vernon is senior researcher at Common Good Iowa, a nonpartisan policy research and advocacy organization. He served six terms in the Iowa House of Representatives from 1983-94. firstname.lastname@example.org.