When Terry Branstad formally announced his candidacy in January, cutting the size of state government by "at least 15 percent" over five years was one of his central campaign promises. He needed to establish credibility with the Republican Party's conservative wing after his record of growing the state budget by far more than the rate of inflation during 16 years in office.
Branstad repeated his intention to cut state government by 15 percent in his early television commercials and on the campaign trail all winter and spring. He never provided a road map for keeping that promise, however. The budget cuts Branstad has specifically proposed so far (ending the preschool program, family planning funding, and reducing administrative costs at Area Education Agencies) would not reduce state budget obligations by 3-4 percent in the first year, which would be needed to work toward a 15 percent reduction over five years.
Since the June 8 Republican primary, Branstad has continued to hammer Governor Chet Culver on fiscal issues (using false claims), but to my knowledge he's avoided mentioning that promise to shrink government by 15 percent over five years. Nor have we seen any details about how Branstad would balance the budget while spending no more than 99 percent of projected state revenues.
While campaigning in Marshalltown this week, Branstad made an extraordinary pledge:
Branstad said that if elected governor again, he would look at moving some of the services that have been pushed onto the local governments, particularly mental health and school funding, and making those more state funded. Along with that, he would put on a caveat that mandates those levies be abolished, which he said would provide instant property tax reductions for all classes of property across the board.
He said he did something very similar when he was governor before, but critics have since tried to distort his record on those issues.
"That was property tax relief and they called it spending," he said.
Branstad is borrowing one of Bob Vander Plaats' key economic ideas here: helping counties provide property tax relief by having the state assume responsibility for mental health and some educational services. As a campaign tactic, it makes sense, because Vander Plaats nearly matched Branstad's vote total in Marshall County and carried several nearby counties (click here to download the GOP primary results by county).
But think about this for a minute. Branstad now proposes to have the state take over some big new funding obligations. How would he pay for that? He supports at least $80 million in corporate tax cuts and appears to reject using federal funds or reserve money to help balance the budget.
Maybe Branstad hopes that Iowans will forget his earlier campaign promises. But it's past time for Branstad to show how he would make the numbers add up. The final budget for fiscal year 2011 is now in effect. Let's see a rough budget document for fiscal year 2012, which doesn't dip into reserve funds, cuts general fund spending by 3-4 percent, and has the state take on more responsibility for funding mental health and education services.
Speaking of state budgets, did anyone else notice the Branstad campaign's silence last week regarding Iowa's improving fiscal condition? The Legislative Services Agency and the Department of Management both reported better than expected revenues and a larger surplus than anticipated at the close of FY 2010. The Branstad campaign said absolutely nothing. We know his staff keeps track of such reports, because a few days earlier they jumped all over a draft Legislative Services Agency document on school districts and property taxes.
Branstad has a habit of ignoring inconvenient facts. We're still waiting for him to say something, anything, about numerous documents showing he and senior staffers did Republican campaign work on the public's dime.