DES MOINES — Senate Republicans on Thursday began piecing together a $7.48 billion fiscal 2019 state spending plan they said would fund priority needs while minority Democrats slammed it as a “starvation budget” intended to make room for tax cuts for wealthy Iowans and corporations.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved eight separate budget bills — mostly on 11-7 party-line votes — designed to fund education, environmental, judicial, infrastructure and public safety programs in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Majority GOP senators plan to address health and human services and standing appropriations next week as they work to complete the 2018 session.
“We’re still working on what the final level will be,” Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, said in discussing efforts to reach agreement with the GOP-led Iowa House. “But we believe it’s a responsible amount that is fiscally responsible.”
House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, said GOP leaders and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and her staff are meeting regularly to decide what has to be done now and what issues can wait until next year.
“Well, there’s always something dramatic around the corner in this place,” Hagenow told reporters. “I will say this, there is nothing that’s quite like a legislative shutdown. It has twists and turns and ups and downs and then, in the end, it all fits together.”
Republicans have indicated they are about $5 million apart on final budget numbers.
But they also are negotiating the final elements of a major state income tax reform and reduction package that will impact the revenue levels available to fund state government in coming years.
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“We’ll get something done,” said Schneider, who also is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which bypassed the normal subcommittee process Thursday to expedite moving the appropriation measure to the full Senate for debate — a process that Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, called “really rotten.”
“This process has not been transparent,” said Bolkcom, who noted most Iowans do not know what funding levels are being proposed for services and programs they support.
“They’re pathetic increases, given we’ve cut and cut and cut,” he said. “These aren’t even status quo budgets. It’s woefully inadequate.”
Democrats noted the state has about $250 million more revenue for spending in fiscal 2019, but several budget bills discussed Thursday lacked resources needed to keep courthouses, prisons, public safety agencies and state parks operating at adequate levels or that would siphon money from other areas to fund them.
For instance, GOP senators proposed taking a combined $3 million from the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program the Environment First Fund to fund state park operations and repairs, prompting Sen. Rita Hart, D-Wheatland, to declare “we should not be treating REAP as a slush fund to take care of poor budget decisions.”
“We did the best we could with what we have,” said Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway.
Likewise, Democrats worried state courts would face more hiring freezes, delays, reduced hours or partial courthouse closures, given a general fund allocation slated to grow slightly on July 1, after state money had to be peeled back to help balance this year’s budget.
They also said staffing for state troopers and corrections would remain inadequate.
“In the 16 months that Republicans have controlled all of state government,” Bolkcom said, “they have borrowed more than $140 million and slashed $120 million in spending just to balance their budgets. If Iowa families managed their family budgets like this, they’d be forced to declare bankruptcy.”
But Schneider fired back that “some people will tell you that there’s never enough money. They will always want more money no matter how quickly revenues grow.”
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But Iowa, he said, has reached a point where it has to address an uncompetitive tax code to facilitate growth, which will fuel more revenue in the future.
“We have to put our focus there when we have the opportunity to do so,” he said. “It’s an overdue conversation.”
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