Iowa Republicans determined to ignore education funding law

Iowa's Constitution lays out a straightforward process for changing state law: first, a bill needs to pass the Iowa House and Senate by a simple majority in both chambers. Then, the governor signs the bill into law. Alternatively, state legislators can pass a new law without the governor's support, by over-riding a veto with a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

Iowa House Republicans and Governor Terry Branstad don't like current state law on setting state funding for K-12 education a year in advance. However, they lack support in the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate for changing that law through the normal legislative process. So, they have decided they can pretend the law doesn't exist.

It appears that nothing short of a court order will change their minds.

For decades, Iowa's Democratic and Republican lawmakers have argued over the appropriate level of state funding for education. Arguing over whether the legislature has to follow the law is a relatively new phenomenon. As Bleeding Heartland discussed here and here, the Iowa Code is clear on the timetable for lawmakers to adopt school funding bills. Legislation setting the level of "allowable growth" (basic school aid) is supposed to pass within 30 days of when the governor submits his draft budget to the legislature. This year, that deadline works out to February 13 for the Iowa House and Senate to approve bills on school aid for the 2015/2016 academic year.

Public school districts need advance notice in order to plan their own budgets. But the governor views the law as "out-moded," and House Republicans agree.

On February 5, the Iowa Senate approved on party lines two bills that would increase K-12 school funding by 6 percent for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2015. The Senate Journal includes the roll calls (pdf). The same day, senators unanimously approved a separate bill designed to prevent local property tax increases related to the 6 percent allowable growth.

At the end of this post, I've enclosed comments from both Senate caucuses on last week's school funding votes. While I don't share Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix's view that Iowa cannot afford 6 percent allowable growth, at least he is arguing over the level of school funding, and not whether lawmakers should follow state law.

It should be a major scandal that Governor Branstad and Iowa House Republicans have unilaterally decided not to follow a law simply because they don't like it anymore. But I doubt many newspapers or broadcast media will even cover the story when the Iowa House fails to meet the February 13 deadline for approving school funding bills.

School superintendents may gnash their teeth, but given the lack of public attention to this problem, I don't see any way to enforce Iowa's school funding law other than a lawsuit.

Although I am not a lawyer, it looks like an open-and-shut case, at least against Iowa House leaders. Lawmakers are free to change almost any state law they dislike, but they don't get to pick and choose which laws to follow just because they've determined a particular statute is "antiquated."

I don't know whether individuals would have standing to file this kind of lawsuit. It may be difficult for ordinary taxpayers or public school teachers or parents of students to prove they were harmed by the state's failure to approve school funding in advance. Perhaps only associations of school boards or school districts would be able to take this case to court, showing that contrary to Iowa Code (and explicit legislative intent underlying that statute), they were forced to draft and approve school budgets before they knew the level of state aid.

I wonder whether the governor could be sued in this case. He can only sign bills that reach his desk so arguably, it's not his fault the Iowa House didn't meet its obligation to approve school funding on time. Then again, Branstad himself supports ignoring the law he would like to see changed.

I hope some attorneys in the Bleeding Heartland community will weigh in on the relevant legal issues.

More likely than not, Iowa courts will never be in a position to resolve this dispute. Litigation is expensive. Suing the state legislature and/or governor would make political waves that school boards and school district administrators would probably rather avoid. I wish some organization or some individuals could prove standing to take this case to court. From my perspective, statehouse Republicans are setting a dangerous precedent.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Branstad argued recently that the Democratic-controlled legislature ignored the school funding deadline in 2010. But that was a different situation for a few reasons. First, lawmakers did not ignore the deadline. Rather, they passed and Governor Chet Culver signed a bill on schedule during the 2010 legislative session. That bill delayed a decision on allowable growth for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2011. It passed the Iowa House and Senate unanimously, in part because educators supported delaying the school funding decision. Looking at the lobbyist declarations for that 2010 bill, you can see that both teachers' advocates (the Iowa State Education Association) and school districts (the Iowa Association of School Boards, the Urban Education Network of Iowa, the School Administrators of Iowa) supported the decision.

In contrast, last year and this year leaders of K-12 school districts have urged the Iowa House and Senate to approve school funding on schedule.

Iowa Senate press release, February 3:

Inconsistent Governor continues attack on "predictable, sustainable, stable" local school budgeting

January 27, 2011: "We must restore predictability and stability to our state budget..."  (Branstad budget address),

April 4, 2011: "If they send me a one-year budget, I'll veto it, and I'll veto it, and I'll veto it until we get a two year budget and get the state on the right financial track."  (Des Moines Register)

April 15, 2011: "Before 1983 we always did a two-year budget in Iowa... and we're going to have a two-year budget and we're going to make sure that it's sustainable for the long-term. That is the stability, predictability Iowans elected me to do and I want to work with the legislature to get it done." (Iowa Press)

Statement by Senator Herman Quirmbach, Chair of the Senate Education Committee

"For the fourth year in a row, Governor Branstad is refusing to follow the Iowa law mandating two-year budgets for local school funding. Under the allowable growth law-which Governor Branstad signed in 1995-the Legislature is required to determine basic school fund two years in advance.

"By setting 'allowable growth' 18 months before the start of a school year, the state tells local school boards how much money they may spend two years in advance.  That allows them to plan more effectively how they will hire teachers, buy textbooks, and  organize programs in a stable and sustainable fashion.  It allows them to get the best educational value for the taxpayer's dollar.

"I'm calling on Governor Branstad to give local schools the same stable planning environment that he himself wants at the state level.  I'm calling on him to honor the law he himself signed."


True in 2012, still true in 2014

"It'll be a cyclical process of a level of confidence followed by a period of no confidence," Iowa City School Superintendent Stephen Murley said. "But the way schools are set up on short notice, we don't have the opportunity to make changes to the budget."

February 1, 2012 (Daily Iowan)

Excerpt from Iowa Senate press release of February 5 (click here to view how much individual Iowa school districts would receive under 6 percent allowable growth for 2015/2016):

Senate votes to boost investment in local schools

Iowa educators tell us that predictable, sustained state investment in education is the most effective way to increase student achievement.

That's why we voted this week for a 6 percent increase in local school funding for the 2015-16 school year (SF 2079 and SF 2077). This money would pay for the basics: up-to-date textbooks, heating bills, teacher salaries and gas for the buses. We also approved additional state dollars to prevent any related property tax increase (SF 2078).

Developing the state budget is the one thing we are required to do in our job as state senators, and the largest part of that budget goes to education. State law requires us to set school funding 18 months ahead of the academic year so that school boards, administrators and educators can plan for local needs and make the best use of state resources.

A 6 percent increase would be welcome news for our local schools. It would help them bounce back from several lean years while also implementing the education reforms we approved in 2013. Since 2011, school funding in Iowa has suffered. As a result, our state has fallen to 37th in the nation when it comes to per pupil spending. Iowa is more than $1,500 below the national average in terms of how much we invest in each student.

However, we have the money to reverse this trend. Our reserve accounts are full at more than $650 million, and we have a surplus of $842 million. The major U.S. financial rating agencies all give Iowa the highest rating of AAA. Only seven other states match us with an across-the-board AAA rating.

Iowa Senate Republican press release, February 5:

Senator Dix: Senate Republicans support sustainable increases, honoring commitments to Iowa students

Posted on February 5, 2014.

DES MOINES - Senate Republicans remain dedicated to honoring commitments made to Iowa schools, while maintaining responsible budgeting practices, Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said Wednesday.

"The 6 percent increase Senate Democrats offered for education supplemental aid is quite concerning," Senator Dix said. "This would be an additional $222.5 million added to the state budget. Senate Republicans are dedicated to making sustainable commitments and keeping promises to our educators and young people. There is a long history of overpromising and under-delivering on funding for education in Iowa.

"We have learned from past lessons what happens when the Legislature makes irresponsible budgeting decisions," Senator Dix said. "Since 2002, the Iowa Legislature has failed to keep its commitment to local schools six times - to the tune of nearly $600 million."

Senate Republicans are open to having meaningful discussions about honoring our commitments to Iowa's children, Dix said.

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