IOWA LEGISLATURE

Democrats say GOP House budget plan 'abdicates' Legislature's responsibility

The Iowa House chamber is shown at the state Capitol in Des Moines. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa House chamber is shown at the state Capitol in Des Moines. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Legislative Democrats accused majority Republicans on Wednesday of shirking their constitutional responsibility by proposing a 16-page “state quo” spending plan that surrenders up to $10 billion in budget-making and oversight authority to the governor and her administrators.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 13-11 to forward a $7.85 billion budget bill for fiscal 2021 to the full House for consideration.

House Study Bill 710, however, is unlikely to make it to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk, as Reynolds and GOP legislative leaders continue to privately negotiate a budget for fiscal 2021.

“When we are in times of disaster like what we’re in right now, it’s not status-quo time,” Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, said. “So we need to do better than a status-quo budget.”

Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic makes it prudent for legislators to pass a conservative general-fund budget with flexibility built in so state leaders can move money around or use reserves and federal stimulus aid to address needs.

“We don’t feel in these times that it’s time to grow government,” Mohr said in defending the fiscal 2021 spending plan.

The budget would boost funding to K-12 schools and regents’ special schools by 2.3 percent, raise Medicaid programs by $38 million, bolster Hawk-i children’s insurance with $18 million and increase a few other areas of state government.

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Mohr said the proposal was in response to projections that lowered expected state tax collections for fiscal 2021 by $360 million.

Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, the committee’s ranking member, said the coronavirus epidemic is presenting many challenges to state government.

It is not the time, he said, for lawmakers to “punt” their budgetmaking and oversight responsibilities in demanding transparency and line-by-line accountability for $7.85 billion in state funds and up to $3 billion in federal assistance.

“In 16 pages, the Legislature is entirely abdicating its responsibility to make a budget, and it is allowing for the governor’s office and executive branch to have an unheard of amount of authority, whether we are in emergency times or not,” Hall said in slamming the omnibus budget bill.

“We are passing on our responsibility, and we are entirely trusting the governor and Department of Management to make these decisions without any fallback or check, should the Legislature disagree with those funding decisions,” Hall said.

“And the scale of which we are doing so is one that costs taxpayers in this state more than $10 billion,” he said. “Our responsibility is to create a budget, and we’re not doing that. That seems irresponsible.”

Mohr refuted Hall’s claim, telling committee members, “We don’t feel we’re absconding with our authority here. In a dire financial situation like what we’ve been through in the last six months, we feel it makes total sense to just pass a status quo budget. We feel we’re on solid footing. We’re making the decision. We’re deciding where the money is coming from, and we’re deciding where the money is going.”

During a Statehouse news conference Wednesday, Reynolds praised GOP legislators for putting Iowa in a “good spot” to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, with reserves topping $800 million and the current budget still projected to end this month with a surplus — in part with the help of $1.25 billion in federal stimulus aid.

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“I think it is a responsible budget that has been put forth.,” the governor told reporters. “We have been working collaboratively, and I think that was the right approach moving forward. It was similar to the budget that we had worked on, too, and I think it’s a great approach.”

During Wednesday’s House committee work, Sen. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, expressed concern the budget plan may need to be more conservative should COVID-19 resurge in Iowa in the future.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, expressed concern that legislators have made a lot of commitments to mental health services, child-care assistance, rural hospitals, Medicaid and other needs that aren’t being addressed in the status-quo plan.

“There are too many unknowns, and it is just irresponsible,” Mascher said in opposing the bill.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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