What is Kim Reynolds' plan to prevent teacher layoffs?

Now that State Senator Kim Reynolds is officially the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, it’s time for her political views to receive more scrutiny. On the day Terry Branstad announced he had picked Reynolds, she said this:

We have a projected state budget gap of nearly $1 billion dollars.  And we have seen a dramatic slide in student test scores and teacher layoffs in school districts across the state. We can do better.  We must do better.  And, as Terry Branstad’s running mate, I will dedicate my every waking minute to sharing with Iowans his ambitious goals for our future.

She repeated those talking points in her speech to the GOP state convention on June 26. Republicans never tire of the “projected state budget gap” ruse. Reynolds is talking about projections for the budget year that begins in July 2011. Maybe she forgot that the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a balanced budget for the fiscal year beginning on July 1 despite a projected $1 billion shortfall last November. Reynolds also asserted that Governor Chet Culver has “spent too much, taxed too much, borrowed too much” and dismissed Iowa’s AAA bond rating as irrelevant: “That’s like my husband telling me, our checkbook and savings are empty, but we’ve got $15,000 we can still spend on the credit card.” Not really, Senator Reynolds: Iowa has money left in our state reserve funds (equivalent to a family’s savings account), and independent analysts affirm that our fiscal health is strong coming out of the worst recession since World War II. Many states fully depleted their rainy day accounts in response to an unprecedented drop in state revenues, but Iowa did not.

Like Branstad, Reynolds laments teacher layoffs across the state, and like Branstad, she fails to acknowledge that those education cuts would have been much deeper without the federal stimulus money Iowa has received.

Branstad’s not a numbers guy and hated tough budget meetings when he was governor. Having served four terms as Clarke County treasurer, Reynolds should feel more comfortable talking specifics on state spending. Friends have said she was able to save money as a county treasurer without cutting services. She’s campaigning with a guy who promises to veto any bill that calls for spending more than 99 percent of state revenues collected. Let’s see Reynolds produce an alternative budget for the current year that protects K-12 education without “spending too much.”

Details on the budget for fiscal year 2011 can be found here. All Reynolds needs to do is figure out how to spend no more than 99 percent of state revenues projected for the year. In other words, balance the budget without using the $328 million in federal stimulus money (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds) and the $267 million in reserve funds that Democrats included in the budget Culver signed into law.

If Reynolds is prepared to criss-cross the state bashing Democrats over teacher layoffs, she should be prepared to show us the education budget Iowans could expect under a Branstad administration.

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Show us your balanced budget, Terry Branstad

Republican candidate Terry Branstad claims he learned from his mistakes in handling the state budget and says he will “put the focus back on restoring fiscal responsibility and jobs and education” if elected to a fifth term as governor. Not only will he abide by generally accepted accounting principles, he promises, he will veto any bill that calls for spending more than 99 percent of state revenues collected.

Independent analysts have vouched for Iowa’s strong fiscal condition, but Branstad and other Republicans cry “overspending” because the balanced 2010 and 2011 budgets relied on some money from the federal government and from Iowa’s reserve funds. Never mind that supporting state budgets, thereby reducing the need for big service cuts, was one of the primary goals of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009 stimulus bill). Never mind that unprecedented flood damage in Iowa coincided with the sharpest drop in state revenues in 60 years because of the longest recession since World War II. Branstad claims Iowa should not spend more than 99 percent of state revenues collected in any fiscal year.

Last Friday Branstad used a story on teacher layoffs in Des Moines to score political points, ignoring the fact that education cuts would have claimed far more teachers’ jobs if not for the federal stimulus bill. Click here for more information on ARRA funds allocated to Iowa education programs for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years.

It’s time for Branstad to put up or shut up. He has a well-staffed campaign and a policy director who served in the Iowa House for ten years. Taking the 2011 budget Governor Chet Culver signed as a starting point, Branstad’s team should figure out how to do without the $328 million in federal fiscal aid (ARRA funds) and the $267 million in reserve funds that budget incorporates.

Then Branstad should produce the budget he would have demanded for fiscal year 2011, which would spend no more than 99 percent of state revenues projected for the year. Let’s see how K-12 education, Medicaid, public safety and other services would fare under Branstad’s “responsible” Iowa budget.

Hint: the spending cuts Branstad endorsed during the primary campaign (ending the preschool program, family planning funding, and reducing administrative costs at Area Education Agencies) would not come close to bringing the budget into balance for 2011.

Also keep in mind that the spending cuts Iowa Republican legislators proposed during the 2010 session were padded with wildly inaccurate estimates of how much could be saved on services to undocumented immigrants.

Voters deserve more than platitudes about fiscal responsibility. Let us compare the 2011 budget Iowa Democrats adopted with the one Branstad would have demanded.

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The stimulus was the biggest middle-class tax cut in history

I was disappointed by some compromises made to pass the stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) in February 2009. I felt President Obama made too many concessions in the fruitless pursuit of Republican votes, and that too much of the cost went toward tax cuts that would be slower-acting and less stimulative than certain forms of government spending.

That said, the tax cuts in the stimulus will help tens of millions of American families, particularly those with working-class or middle-class incomes. Citizens for Tax Justice has calculated that “the major tax cuts enacted in the 2009 economic stimulus bill actually reduced federal income taxes for tax year 2009 for 98 percent of all working families and individuals. ”

In terms of the number of Americans who benefited, the stimulus bill was the biggest tax cut in history. That is, “the estimated $282 billion in tax cuts [from the stimulus] over two years is more than either of the 2001-2002 or the 2004-2005 Bush tax cuts or the Kennedy or Reagan tax cuts.” George W. Bush’s tax cuts were more costly to the U.S. Treasury over a 10-year period, but as Anonymous Liberal noted last year,

The Bush tax cuts were skewed dramatically toward the wealthy. In 2004, 60% of the tax cuts went to the top 20 percent of income earners with over 25% going to the top 1% of income earners. Those numbers have increased since then as the cuts to the estate tax have taken effect.

Tomorrow is the deadline for most Americans to file their tax returns, and Republicans will try to harness the tea party movement’s anger at what they view as excessive taxes and spending. However, many ordinary people may be shocked to learn how large their refunds are this year. According to the White House, “the average tax refund is up nearly 10 percent this year.”

Democrats should not be afraid to vigorously defend the stimulus bill during this year’s Congressional campaigns. I wish the recovery act had been larger and better targeted, but the bottom line is that Republicans voted against the largest ever middle-class tax cut.

The White House website has this Recovery Act Tax Savings Tool to help people find benefits to which they are entitled. After the jump I’ve posted a fact sheet on this subject, which the White House press office released on April 12. Note: if you have already filed your taxes, you can amend them after April 15 to collect on any credits from the stimulus bill that you missed.

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Iowa turning stimulus road funds around quickly

The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been keeping track of how states are spending the stimulus funds allocated for roads. On September 2 the committee released a report ranking the states according to how much of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for highways and bridges had been put to work as of July 31. This pdf file contains the state rankings.

Iowa ranked second overall, having put 75 percent of its stimulus road funds to work by the end of July. Join me after the jump for more details from the report and analysis.  

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Iowa investing transportation stimulus funds well so far

June 29 was exactly 120 days since the federal government released highway funds to the states as part of the economic stimulus bill (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Smart Growth America marked the occasion by releasing a review on how wisely states are spending the transportation money.

The 120-day mark is significant because it is the point by which states and territories are required to have obligated 50 percent of the flexible money granted them for transportation projects by the federal government. The money is meant to stimulate the economy, but also – in the language of the Act – “to invest in transportation, environmental protection, and other infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits.”

Iowa received about $358 million in federal highway stimulus funds, and I was pleased to read in Smart Growth America’s report (pdf file) that our state’s allocations compare favorably with those in most other states. Follow me after the jump for more details.  

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Infrastructure spending needs strong oversight

All government spending on infrastructure is not created equal. With good planning and accountability measures, the federal stimulus and state bonding packages approved this year by Congress and the Iowa legislature could turn out to be wise investments with long-term benefits. Without proper monitoring, we could squander lots of borrowed federal and state money.

Laura Dean of the Huffington Post drew my attention to the Project on Government Oversight‘s review of state websites on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the official name for the stimulus bill). They were specifically looking for resources for those who want to report fraud, waste and abuse in how federal stimulus funds are being used.

The findings are summarized here. Iowa did well as one of only seven states that “listed clear procedures for whistleblowers, such as what information to report, who to report to, and what will be done with that information.” (“Report stimulus fraud” is right on the front page of Iowa’s site, in the “featured links” section.)

However, there’s always room for improvement. The Project on Government Oversight applauded a few especially “whistleblower-friendly websites”:

Tied for first prize were Florida and Georgia, whose sites did an excellent job of providing clear procedures and protections for whistleblowers. Next up were Maine, Connecticut, and Texas, whose websites all did a good job of making the whistleblower’s job just a little bit easier.

Perhaps the webmaster for Iowa’s site on federal stimulus spending can make a few changes based on the Project on Government Oversight’s recommendations (pdf file).

As for state spending on infrastructure, the I-JOBS board will choose projects to receive funds soon. The criteria for selection are clear, and state officials understand the need for transparency in the process. Once the money has been allocated, the I-JOBS website should make it easy for citizens not only to track how the money is being spent, but to report any suspected fraud, waste or abuse.

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