Branstad predicts preschool program will survive

Governor Terry Branstad seems to have thrown in the towel on his plan to replace Iowa’s universal voluntary preschool program for four-year-olds, judging from comments he made at town hall meetings today:

The budget impasse has dragged on so long Republican Gov. Terry Branstad doubts it will be possible to implement his plan for restructuring voluntary preschool for Iowa 4-year-olds in the 2011-12 school year.

“At this point in time, I think that’s unlikely to happen,” Branstad said May 24 about his plans to implement a need-based scholarship system that would require all parents to pay at least part of the cost of sending their children to preschool. Parents with higher incomes would pick up a larger share of the cost under his plan.

That was greeted with applause at a Branstad town hall meeting in Elkader and at another in Oelwein Tuesday afternoon.

However, Branstad and House Republicans have not agreed to fund the preschool program, projected to cost about $70 million in the 2012 fiscal year. Lonna Powers, director of a preschool in Oelwein, told Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds that “it’s questionable whether I can hire certified staff and whether families can afford to send their children” during the coming school year without state funding.

The Republican-controlled Iowa House voted in January to repeal the voluntary preschool program for four-year-olds, but the Democratic-controlled Senate stripped that section out of a major “deappropriations” bill. The House again voted to scale back preschool spending in March, but the Senate did not act on that legislation (House File 535).

Education spending has emerged as the biggest obstacle to a broad budget agreement between House leaders and the governor on the one hand and Senate leaders on the other. Democrats contend that with Iowa projected to have approximately $1 billion in various surplus accounts as of June 30, the state can easily afford the $65 million it would cost to fund 2 percent allowable growth for K-12 school budgets in fiscal year 2012. Democrats also say the governor’s proposed cuts in state funding to public universities, private and community colleges are “severe and unnecessary.” Republicans insist on a general fund budget below $6 billion in fiscal year 2012, which would require some cuts in education spending. After the jump I’ve posted the Senate Democrats’ list of 10 budget areas on which they demand some compromise from Branstad. The top five are all connected to education.

This week the budget negotiations have become more productive, according to Branstad and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen. Notably, I haven’t seen such optimistic comments from leading Senate Democrats. Branstad expects a budget agreement by the first week of June, but if that doesn’t materialize he will stay in Des Moines, sending Reynolds on an Asian trade mission he is scheduled to lead next month.  

From a May 17 Iowa Senate Democrats press release, “Call Governor Branstad @ 515-281-5211, Urge compromise on Republican cuts to education and job creation”

1.   Our K-12 schools – Democrats want 2 percent allowable growth which means $65 million for our schools. Republicans want 0 percent for two years which would cause layoffs, larger class sizes, and reduced educational opportunities.

2.   Early education for four-year-olds – Democrats want to fulfill our commitments to quality and access for all Iowa children. Republicans want to cut $41 million and replace the current program with an inadequate voucher system that ignores quality and undermines access.

3.   Our public universities (UI, ISU, and UNI) – Democrats want to maintain current funding.  Republicans want to cut $40 million that would force double-digit tuition increases on our students.

4.   Aid to private college students – Democrats want to maintain current funding.  Republicans want to cut $3.6 million from the Iowa Tuition Grant Program, taking away support for Iowa students who qualify on a need basis for aid to attend private colleges.

5.   Community colleges – Republicans want to cut $14 million that would force huge tuition increases.

6.   Helping Iowans fill skilled job openings: Democrats seek to invest $10 million to take a successful job training pilot program statewide.  Iowa’s community colleges will help unemployed and underemployed Iowans earn industry-recognized certificates to fill skilled worker shortages hampering Iowa businesses.

7.   Local workforce offices for the unemployed – Democrats want to keep the current offices open to help the unemployed improve their skills and look for work.  Republicans want to cut many of the offices and “replace” them with a Web site.

8.   Iowa Values Fund for high-wage jobs – Democrats want to continue this successful program that was created with strong bi-partisan support to help businesses create high-wage jobs in advanced manufacturing, informational technology, and biotechnology. In addition, this program provides essential job training at our Community Colleges and economic development at our Regent universities. Republicans want to shut the program down.

9.   Small business employee health insurance tax credits – Democrats want to provide a state tax credit to leverage federal tax incentives to help small businesses (with ten or fewer employees) provide health benefits for their employees.

10. Jumpstart local renewable energy jobs: Democrats want to provide $10 million in consumer rebates to leverage existing federal tax credits which help homeowners and businesses install small wind and small solar projects.  This means jobs for Iowa plumbers, contractors, electricians, and other small businesses.

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