Next phase begins in battle over Iowa spending cuts

The Iowa House approved a major “deappropriations” bill, House File 45, on January 19 by a party-line vote of 60 to 40. Republican leaders fast-tracked what they call the Taxpayers First Act, which passed the House Appropriations Committee on the third day of the 2011 session. The bill would cut dozens of programs while increasing spending in a few areas. In addition, $327.4 million from this year’s surplus revenue would go into a new “Tax Relief Fund,” instead of being used to help close the projected budget gap for fiscal year 2012. This bill summary (pdf) lists the budget cuts and supplemental appropriations in House File 45. Click here for the full bill text.

Although the majority of speakers at a January 18 public hearing opposed the bill, and organizations lobbying against the bill outnumber those that have signed on in support, the House Republicans passed the bill with few significant changes. Democrats offered many amendments as floor debate went late into the evening on January 19, trying to save funds for the statewide voluntary preschool program, passenger rail, smoking cessation programs, and sustainable communities, among other things. Representatives rejected almost all those amendments on party-line votes. This page shows what amendments were filed, and the House Journal for January 19 contains the roll call votes.

House File 45 now moves to the Iowa Senate, which has a 26-24 Democratic majority. Democratic senators are likely to back increased expenditures for mental health services and indigent defense while opposing many of the spending cuts. After the jump I take a closer look at some of the most controversial provisions in House File 45.

Continue Reading...

Massive Iowa Legislature linkfest (post-funnel edition)

The Iowa Legislature has been moving at an unusually fast pace during the shortened 2010 session. It’s time to catch up on what’s happened at the statehouse over the past three weeks. From here on out I will try to post a legislative roundup at the end of every week.

February 12 was the first “funnel” deadline. In order to have a chance of moving forward in 2010, all legislation except for tax and appropriations bills must have cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the end of last Friday.

After the jump I’ve included links on lots of bills that have passed or are still under consideration, as well as bills I took an interest in that failed to clear the funnel. I have grouped bills by subject area. This post is not an exhaustive list; way too many bills are under consideration for me to discuss them all. I recommend this funnel day roundup by Rod Boshart for the Mason City Globe-Gazette.

Note: the Iowa legislature’s second funnel deadline is coming up on March 5. To remain alive after that point, all bills except tax and appropriations bills must have been approved by either the full House or Senate and by a committee in the opposite chamber. Many bills that cleared the first funnel week will die in the second.  

Continue Reading...

Sorry, Republicans, Iowans don't think state government is too big

Republicans have complained for years about Democrats allegedly spending too much on “big government,” but a majority of Iowans think state government is about the right size, according to the latest poll by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register. The poll surveyed 805 Iowa adults between January 31 and February 3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. Respondents were asked, “In general, do you think the size of state government is too big, about right, or too small?” 52 percent said “about right” and only 39 percent said “too small.”

The Des Moines Register poll also indicates that Iowans would rather tap into the state’s tax reserves, raise fees and perhaps even raise taxes than impose massive service cuts or lay off hundreds of state workers.

The poll tested eleven options for balancing the budget and asked whether that option should be considered, strongly considered or taken off the table. The largest majority (76 percent) said consolidating some state government services should be considered or strongly considered. The Iowa legislature will pass a government reorganization bill this session, but the savings won’t be large enough to avoid other painful budget decisions.

The next largest majority (61 percent) supported considering taking up to $200 million from the state’s cash reserves. But even that probably wouldn’t be enough to balance the 2011 budget.

The other three options that at least half of respondents said should be considered were “increase fines, license fees and other user fees” (53 percent), expand gambling by allowing casinos to host large poker tournaments (51 percent) and raise the sales tax by 1 percent (51 percent).

The Register reported that several political observers found the sales tax numbers most surprising. I was more surprised to see the public evenly divided on raising the income tax. Some 48 percent of respondents said “lawmakers should consider raising state income taxes by a half percentage point; 50 percent said that idea should come off the table.”

The Register’s poll found much less support for “cutting services to thousands of Iowans” (just 33 percent favored considering that option, while 60 percent said it should be taken off the table). Only 42 percent favored considering laying off hundreds of state employees or consolidating school districts. Only 43 percent said legislators should consider eliminating all business tax credits. Just 45 percent said reducing the number of Iowa counties should be on the table.

My point is not that politicians should put blind faith in the wisdom of crowds. I don’t agree with every finding in this poll. I’d rather reduce the number of counties and scrap many business tax credits than raise the sales tax, and I find Iowans’ support for the film tax credit baffling.

The larger message from this poll is that Iowa Democrats should not cower in fear when Republicans bash “big government.” Offered a range of choices for balancing the state budget, most Iowans would prefer not to see services slashed. The Register’s November 2009 poll pointed to the same conclusion, finding broad support for spending increases Democrats have adopted in recent years.

Republicans will be cheered by the portion of Selzer’s latest poll that found one-third of Iowans called themselves supporters of the “tea party” movement, and a majority believe state government is spending too much money. To me that suggests the framing of the budget issue will be critical for this November’s elections. Democrats need to convince voters that they did all they could to find efficiencies in state government without cutting priority areas. If Republicans object, for instance, that the state could have saved tens of millions of dollars by ending the preschool initiative started in 2007, Democrats must point out that doing so would have cut off early childhood education for about 13,000 Iowa kids.

Continue Reading...

New Register poll finds record low approval for Culver

The latest Iowa poll by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register finds Governor Chet Culver’s approval rating at a new low of 36 percent. Only 34 percent of respondents said Iowa is headed in the right direction, while 57 percent said the state is on the wrong track. The poll was in the field from January 31 to February 3 and surveyed 805 Iowa adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Culver’s approval rating fell to 36 percent, with 53 percent disapproving. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll from September had Culver in positive territory, with 50 percent approval and 39 percent disapproval. The Des Moines Register’s November poll had Culver with 40 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval.

The Des Moines Register noted that since September, Culver’s approval among Democrats has fallen from 72 percent to 57 percent, while Senator Tom Harkin’s approval among Democrats was measured at 77 percent in both polls.

The economic recession is probably a major factor in Culver’s slide. Although the state’s eight leading economic indicators were measured in positive territory in December 2009 (for the first time since April 2007), employment remains weak. Iowa’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in December 2009, and Iowa Workforce Development found,

Compared to last December, the Iowa economy has lost 40,100 jobs. Manufacturing still leads all sectors in terms of losses, down 19,900 over the year. Trade and transportation and construction followed with losses of 7,900 and 7,700, respectively. Education and health services remained the most resilient sector, adding 2,600 jobs since December 2008.

The slow economy has caused state revenues to fall below projections, which prompted Culver to make a 10 percent across-the-board cut in current-year spending in October. Spending cuts are rarely popular with anyone.

Side note: I wondered last fall whether the scandal surrounding Iowa’s film tax credit, which broke in September, would hurt Culver. I was surprised to see that 61 percent of respondents in the Des Moines Register’s poll think the film tax credit is “good for the state.” The poll question didn’t mention how much the film tax credit has cost compared to the economic impact. I agree with economist Dave Swenson, who thinks the program was flawed from the start.

The latest Register survey also polled Culver against the four Republican challengers. (This portion of the poll, like the approval numbers, is in the print version of the Sunday Des Moines Register but hasn’t appeared on the website yet. I will update this post with a link when that becomes available. UPDATE: Here is the link.) The hypothetical matchups come from a subset of 531 “likely voters,” producing a slightly higher margin of error: plus or minus 4.3 percent.

Former Governor Terry Branstad remains the strongest challenger, beating Culver 53 percent to 33 percent. Bob Vander Plaats leads Culver 43 percent to 40 percent. Strangely, Culver trailed Branstad and Vander Plaats by slightly larger margins in the Register’s November poll, even though his approval rating was a little higher then. Culver barely beats the other Republicans, who are less well known. He leads State Representative Chris Rants 41 percent to 37 percent and State Representative Rod Roberts 41 percent to 36 percent.

Needless to say, it’s never a good sign when an incumbent governor is below 40 percent approval and barely breaks 40 percent against any challenger. Culver needs to make up ground this year in order to be re-elected. The right direction/wrong track numbers show that voters under 35 were more likely than the overall population to think things are going in the right direction, but most of the electorate in November will be over 35.

Culver has chances to improve his standing this year. If the state’s leading economic indicators continue a positive trend, the job market may improve. Also, spending on infrastructure projects supported by the I-JOBS state bonding initiative will pick up in the spring and summer. So far nearly $600 million in I-JOBS money has been awarded, but only $20.7 million has been spent. As the projects take shape, more Iowans will be employed and more people will see the benefits to their communities.

On the political side, Branstad hasn’t received much scrutiny from the media yet, but when the gubernatorial campaign heats up, his accountability problem may become more apparent. A hard-fought Republican primary will exacerbate the rift between moderates and conservatives. Some conservatives have already vowed not to support Branstad if he is the GOP nominee. More focus on the inconsistencies between candidate Branstad and Governor Branstad may help Culver’s standing with Democrats and independents.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich says Culver may as well start shopping his resume around, but John Deeth argues that Culver is not dead yet.

SECOND UPDATE: The latest poll commissioned by The Iowa Republican blog and the Republican Concordia group found Branstad leading Culver 57 percent to 29 percent and Vander Plaats leading Culver 43 percent to 39 percent. I don’t know much about the firm that conducted that poll, and I would put more stock in Selzer’s numbers for the Des Moines Register.

THIRD UPDATE: The Iowa Democratic Party’s statement on this poll is a bit odd. More on that after the jump.

To depressed Democrats out there, I offer six silver linings of a Branstad candidacy.

FINAL UPDATE: This poll prompted Swing State Project to change its rating of this race from tossup to lean Republican.

Continue Reading...

Don't believe everything Republicans tell you about spending cuts

Yesterday the Iowa House State Government Committee voted down a Republican plan to cut state spending by $290 million in the coming year. State Representative and gubernatorial candidate Chris Rants offered the plan as an amendment to the government reorganization bill. He said his party was trying to “work in a bipartisan way” and make “tough decisions” to balance the budget for the coming year. All twelve Democrats on the House State Government Committee voted against the GOP amendment, while the nine Republicans voted for it. Later the same day, the committee approved the reorganization bill on a 20-1 vote, with only Rants opposed.

We are sure to hear more from Rants and other Republicans about how big, bad Democrats rejected their good ideas for spending cuts. A closer look reveals funny math in the Republican “plan.”

The biggest line item is “$92.3 million, end all state benefits to adult illegal immigrants.” The Iowa House Republican caucus claims this number comes from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The implication is that the state of Iowa hands out $92.3 million in cash to illegal immigrants.

But that’s not the case. From a report by the Legislative Services Agency on “Undocumented Immigrants’ Cost to the State” (pdf file):

The only government services that illegal immigrants are eligible for are elementary and secondary public education and emergency health care.1 Most citizens do not gain direct benefits from a majority of government spending. Instead, government programs are intended to benefit society as a whole through maintenance of a healthy economy, satisfying public health and safety concerns, providing basic infrastructure, etc. Although undocumented immigrants do not receive most direct benefits, the total benefit of State spending is assumed to accrue to undocumented immigrants at the same rate as legal residents.

The LSA divides total spending from the state general fund by the state’s total population to calculate roughly how much in “benefits” each Iowa resident receives annually. This isn’t a cash payment from the state to residents; it represents each individual’s share of benefit from the state paying for schools, roads, and so on.

Iowa House Republicans arrived at the $92.3 million figure by dividing total general fund expenditures by the number of undocumented immigrants currently estimated to be living in Iowa. They call the remainder “benefits” that illegal immigrants receive. But there’s no magic wand we can wave to make immigrants stop benefiting indirectly from what state government does. The same LSA report noted:

Undocumented immigrants qualify for few services at the State level, and those for which they do qualify are largely mandated by federal law or the Courts. Therefore, decreasing undocumented immigrant eligibility for State spending does not appear to be a viable policy option. Additionally, if the assumption that undocumented immigrants accrue benefits even without receiving direct services is considered valid, attempting to reduce direct State expenditures on undocumented immigrants would have a minimal effect.

By the way, proof of citizenship and identification are already required for Iowans participating in Medicaid and HAWK-I (the children’s health insurance program).

Scoring points against undocumented immigrants may be good for Rants politically, but that won’t help the state of Iowa save $92.3 million in the coming year. That one item represents nearly a third of the Republican-proposed spending cuts.

I’ve posted the full list of cuts after the jump. Some ideas may have merit, but most of them reflect skewed Republican priorities for state government. GOP legislators want to save $45 million by reducing access to pre-school for four-year-olds. They also want to invest less in renewable energy production and energy efficiency measures by eliminating the Power Fund and the Office of Energy Independence, which would $25 million. Many Republicans never liked the core curriculum, so it’s no surprise they’d like to save some money by delaying its implications. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll in November indicated that Iowans support higher spending on renewable energy research and development and are divided over whether to cut funds for expanded free pre-school.

Some of the smaller Republican-backed cuts would please conservative interests. The religious right would love to eliminate the family planning waiver. Rants has always been a good friend to tobacco companies, who would love to see the state scrap the “Just Eliminate Lies” anti-smoking campaign. There’s also $4 million saved by cutting “taxpayer-funded lobbyists,” which sounds great until you realize that would leave corporate groups unchallenged as they lobby for bills that might counter the public interest. Anyway, last year taxpayer money for lobbying totaled about $1.8 million, and a lot of that didn’t come from the state general fund. Municipalities, county agencies and associations like the League of Cities hire lobbyists too.

Continue Reading...
View More...