Improving prospects for an early Iowa legislative deal on school funding?

The Iowa legislature’s 2016 session opens two weeks from today. Last year’s session extended more than a month past the scheduled date for adjournment, largely because House Republican leaders refused to compromise on education spending. Lawmakers finally approved a budget deal in early June, only to watch Governor Terry Branstad strike out the key concessions to Democrats on funding for K-12 schools, state universities, and community colleges.

Legislators from both parties sound determined not to let history repeat itself.

Incoming Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer has repeatedly promised to work toward an early agreement on school funding during the 2016 session. The key question is whether she will push fellow Republicans, who hold 57 of the 100 House seats, to approve a substantial increase in state aid for K-12 school districts. During the 2015 session, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen refused to go higher than 1.25 percent supplemental state aid (another way of saying “allowable growth”), well below the level school districts need to keep pace with rising costs.

Senate Democrats have already voted for 4 percent allowable growth for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Earlier this year, Branstad had indicated he could support a 2.45 percent increase in K-12 funding for next year, but last month he backed away from committing to that level. The latest projections from the Revenue Estimating Conference indicate that state revenues will be $281.8 million higher during the 2017 fiscal year than during the current year, but that projection was $21.5 million lower than the revenue estimate released in October. Branstad will submit his draft budget to lawmakers in mid-January.

William Garbe reported for the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald on December 27 that education funding “will top the priority list of many eastern Iowa lawmakers,” who hope for an agreement “within the first two weeks of the session.”

Rep. Brian Moore, of Bellevue, said he is working to push within his [GOP] caucus for a 2.5 percent to 3 percent supple-mental state aid increase for schools.

If his leadership doesn’t sign on, Moore said, he would consider breaking with his party to secure a higher increase. To be successful in obtaining enough votes to overcome his fellow Republicans, he would need to be joined by seven other Republicans willing to team up with Democrats.
“I’m not there yet for sure. I’ve got five solids and a couple of maybes,” Moore said earlier this month of the effort to draft his colleagues.

He said the GOP leadership will not be caught off guard by his effort.
“I’ve been telling them this all summer and all fall,” Moore said. “They know where I’m at. There’ll be no surprises.”

Other Republicans said they believe the budget can be settled if the Democratic Senate majority agrees to a 2 percent increase in supplemental state aid, less than the amount that Moore said local school administrators need.

Assistant House Majority Leader Lee Hein, R-Monticello, and Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, said they might be able to accept a 2 percent increase. They argue that if Democrats in the Senate accept that level of increase, the Legislature would quickly settle an education budget.

I don’t see Senate Democrats settling early for 2 percent allowable growth. The state legislature approved 2 percent growth for K-12 budgets in 2011, 0 percent in 2012, 2 percent in 2013, 4 percent in 2014, and 1.25 percent in 2015. Rising costs for equipment, supplies, and staff salaries have exceeded the increase in state aid during most of those years. Last week, the West Des Moines school board approved contracts with 3.5 percent salary increases for the coming academic year.

I’m intrigued to see Brian Moore take up this fight. He represents House district 58 in eastern Iowa (map), one of the most Democratic-leaning legislative seats now held by a Republican. President Barack Obama gained 55.6 percent of the vote here in 2012. The latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office indicate that Democrats outnumber Republicans in House district 58 by more than 2,000, though a plurality of active registered voters are no-party. Moore won a third term in 2014 by a comfortable margin, but in a presidential election year, the district could be up for grabs–and if Moore got fed up and retired from the legislature, an open-seat race here could tilt to Democrats.

As for who might join Moore in pushing for more than 2 percent allowable growth, likely suspects include two House Republicans not seeking re-election in 2016: Quentin Stanerson and Ron Jorgensen. Stanerson is a high school teacher, while Jorgensen works for Morningside College in Sioux City and chairs the Iowa House Education Committee.

I assume Moore is also counting on State Representative Josh Byrnes to back him on education spending. Byrnes has taught at the high school and community college level. When seeking the speaker’s position in August after Paulsen announced plans to step down, Byrnes said he was “disappointed” by the final deal on education funding this year. In 2013, he and Moore were the only two Republican lawmakers to vote with Democrats for expanding Medicaid as foreseen under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Another possible Republican advocate for higher education spending is Representative Bobby Kaufmann. He and Stanerson were the only two House Republicans to join Democrats in calling for a special legislative session this summer to override Branstad’s education spending vetoes. The lead editorial from the December 27 Cedar Rapids Gazette quoted Kaufmann as saying an early agreement “would open the door for so many good policy debates that sometimes get sucked up into the vortex of the education funding debate.”

Another GOP lawmaker told the Gazette editors,

“I would say this year people are on more of the same page. The conversations are occurring before the session,” said Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Cedar Rapids. “I don’t think anybody wants any end of session surprises. So I think we’re committed to getting a compromise on education early.”

Wanting an early deal is one thing. Committing enough money to make it happen is another. I have trouble believing Upmeyer will agree to more than a 2 percent increase in state aid to K-12 schools, and I doubt seven or more House Republicans will defy their speaker. The commercial property tax cut approved in 2013 continues to be a huge drain on the state budget, while House Republicans support a new tax break for manufacturers expected to reduce state revenues in fiscal year 2017 by $37 million, and possibly by much more than that amount.

Democratic State Representative Chuck Isenhart told the Telegraph-Herald’s Garbe he has little hope an education budget will pass early in the session: “I don’t see where the agreement is.”

For now, neither do I. Though chatter from House Republicans about a school funding compromise may be sincere, Paulsen’s reluctance to go higher than his caucus’s first offer proved to be a successful negotiating stance in 2015. I look forward to seeing whether the new Speaker Upmeyer’s actions match her words on this issue.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Megan Suhr brought to my attention comments Branstad made to Tony Correa of KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville. In that interview, broadcast on December 28, Branstad said education funding should be an “early order of business” for the state legislature. He noted that Iowa’s cash reserves are full, which will allow the state to “meet our obligations to education” in the coming year. In particular, the governor cited the third phase of a $150 million commitment to a new teacher leadership program, as well as allocating more resources to making sure students can read by the end of third grade. Branstad did not disclose his preferred level for allowable growth (increase in supplemental state aid to public schools) but said he will release his recommendation on January 2.

Click here to listen to the full segment on KNIA/KRLS, but be warned: you may start yelling at your computer when you hear Branstad say, “We don’t want to see what happened last year where schools have to wait till school is over in the spring before they know” how much state aid they will receive for the coming academic year. Such chutzpah from the governor who vetoed some $56 million in funding for K-12 school districts after the current fiscal year had begun.

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