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.

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Iowa Senate approves government reorganization bill

Last night the Iowa Senate passed Senate File 2088, which would reorganize state government, after four hours of debate. All 32 Democrats in the chamber voted for the bill, along with three Republicans: Shawn Hamerlinck, Larry Noble and Pat Ward.

Click here for the full text of the bill. According to analysis by the Legislative Services Agency, Senate File 2088 would reduce state spending from the general fund by $74 million in fiscal year 2011 and $36 million the following year (here’s the link to the fiscal note on the bill). In addition, “Other funds, including local government pots of money, would save $44 million next budget year and just under $14 million the following year.” Jennifer Jacobs posted some of the key provisions and amendments at the Des Moines Register’s blog.

Unlike the 1985 state government reorganization, the current bill does not merge any state agencies. It doesn’t close any of Iowa’s four mental health institutes, but downsizes the one at Clarinda. That switch outraged legislators from southwest Iowa, because the Iowa Department of Human Services had recommended closing the Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute in southeast Iowa instead.

Senate File 2088 requires bulk purchasing and centralized payroll and technology systems for most state agencies but exempts the three state universities from those provisions.

Rod Boshart recapped one of the more contentious episodes during last night’s debate:

The debate stalled when 11 majority Democrats joined the 18-member GOP minority in supporting an amendment to block a proposal to move the community empowerment program for early childhood education from the neutral state Department of Management to the Department of Education.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, switched his vote to be on the prevailing side then called a closed-door caucus after which senators voted 31-19 to reconsider the issue and approve the move of empowerment to the education agency by a 27-23 margin.

I wasn’t familiar with the Iowa Community Empowerment program, which is geared toward families with children under age six. Since early education programs are part of the Iowa Empowerment Board’s mission, it seems logical to bring the program to the Department of Education.

The original bill had eliminated the Property Assessment Appeal Board, but an amendment to keep that body intact passed by 46 to 4. Politically, that was a smart vote for the senators. Many Iowans are likely to see property tax increases this year, so it’s not a good time to make it more difficult for citizens to challenge their assessments.

Several Republicans have expressed doubt that the bill would guarantee the promised savings. Democrats rejected a number of Republican amendments, including one that would have increased health insurance costs for state employees and one that would have required a two-thirds vote in the legislature to approve any state bonding. (Such a threshold would have prevented last year’s passage of the I-JOBS infrastructure bonding initiative.) A complete bill history, including all amendments considered, is here.

Earlier in this session, the Iowa Senate approved Senate File 2062, a separate bill on early retirement incentives. That measure is expected to save about $57.4 million in fiscal year 2011, “including a $26.4 million savings to the state’s general fund.” That bill passed on a bipartisan 41-7 vote. The full text is here, and the bill history is here.

UPDATE: Over at Iowa Independent, Lynda Waddington reports,

Mental health advocates haven’t gotten everything they wanted in relation to new state policies governing psychiatric medications for individuals receiving state assistance. But they scored a big win Monday night when the Iowa Senate approved new language that ensures existing patients’ medications won’t be automatically switched in order to save the state money.

Read her whole story for more details and background.

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