Republicans have underfunded Iowa's State Hygienic Lab for years

Staff at Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory have been working around the clock to process tests that reveal the scope of the novel coronavirus epidemic. Governor Kim Reynolds has often lauded their “yeoman’s work” at her daily news conferences.

But as former Vice President Joe Biden famously said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” In real terms, state support for a facility critical to Iowa’s COVID-19 response dropped considerably over the last decade.

The Iowa legislature hasn’t increased dollars allocated to the State Hygienic Lab since 2013, when Senate Democrats insisted on doing so. Not only has state funding failed to keep up with inflation since then, the laboratory’s annual appropriation has yet to recover from a mid-year budget cut in 2018.

“HEALTH AND SAFETY PUT AT RISK”

The Legislative Service Agency’s archive of appropriations bills analysis is an invaluable resource for tracking changes in Iowa’s state funding levels from year to year. The State Hygienic Lab’s annual reports covering fiscal years 2010 through 2018 are available here. Fees for testing services consistently account for more than half of revenues for the facility responsible for Iowa’s “disease detection, environmental monitoring, and newborn and maternal screening.” State appropriations have fluctuated between about 15 percent and 18 percent of the annual budget.

Democratic State Representative Dave Jacoby represents the Coralville area, where the laboratory’s main facilities are located. He tweeted on May 11 that the State Hygienic Lab “is doing fantastic work,” in spite of layoffs last year due to what Jacoby described as a “cut to public health and safety” by the governor and Republican lawmakers.

The following day, Jacoby posted tables from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency showing that state funding for the current fiscal year (which ends on June 30) and the two previous years was $105,583 below the level in fiscal year 2015, and supports 17.44 fewer full-time positions at the lab.

I was inspired to look further into funding trends for this vital piece of Iowa’s public health infrastructure.

A FUNDING BOOST ENDS DURING “GREAT RECESSION”

Education appropriations bills contain a separate line item for the State Hygienic Lab, which is housed at the University of Iowa. Lawmakers approved $3,849,461 in funding during the 2006 legislative session, when Republicans controlled the state House, the Senate was split 25-25, and Democrat Tom Vilsack was governor.

To have the same buying power, the state would need to allocate $4,898,061 to the State Hygienic Lab now. But the current-year appropriation was only $4,297,032 (about 12 percent less).

Democrats gained majorities in both chambers in the 2006 election, and Chet Culver was elected governor. The hygienic lab’s appropriation remained at the same level ($3,849,461) during the first year of full Democratic control in 2007.

The following year, Democrats bumped up state funding to $4,182,151. In real terms, that would be equivalent to a $4,991,353 annual appropriation now.

The “Great Recession” led to a steep decline in state revenues across the country, beginning in 2008. The budget bill Democrats approved and Culver signed in 2009 slightly reduced the hygienic lab’s funding to $4,077,715, a figure that would translate to $4,902,838 in today’s dollars.

As state and local budgets were further strained, Democratic lawmakers cut the lab’s funding to $3,669,943 during the 2010 legislative session. Though that was a significant hit, the appropriation for fiscal year 2011 still represented more in real terms ($4,316,028) than the facility now receives from the state.

SENATE DEMOCRATS INSIST ON A FUNDING HIKE

Following the 2010 elections, Republicans had a large Iowa House majority and Terry Branstad returned to the governor’s office, while Democrats clung to a 26-24 advantage in the Senate. They tried to keep the State Hygienic Lab’s appropriation stable at $3,669,943. House Republicans sought to cut that line item by about $220,000, a 6 percent decrease.

The compromise Branstad signed into law in 2011 set the lab’s funding at $3,536,716, a decrease of $133,227 (3.63 percent) compared to the previous year. In today’s dollars, it would translate to $3,941,044.

State support for the hygienic lab didn’t change in the following year’s education appropriations bill.

Democrats drove a harder bargain in 2013, though. House Republicans wanted to keep the lab at the same funding level, which was consistent with Branstad’s proposed budget. In contrast, the Senate’s budget for Regents institutions called for raising the lab’s appropriation by $866,000 “to meet current statutory responsibilities.” That position prevailed in the conference committee.

The $4,402,615 allocated to the facility for fiscal year 2014 would be equivalent to $4,854,329 in today’s dollars. The lab’s annual financial reports show that state support rose from about 15 percent of the facility’s budget in fiscal year 2013 to 18 percent the following year.

That was the last time the legislature increased its appropriation to the facility. House Republicans and Senate Democrats agreed to keep funding for the lab stable during the 2014, 2015, and 2016 legislative sessions.

MID-YEAR BUDGET CUTS HAVE STAYING POWER

The new Republican trifecta slashed budgets for other institutions affiliated with state universities in 2017, but maintained a $4,402,615 appropriation for the hygienic lab. However, the facility was not spared when revenue shortfalls led to mid-year budget cuts in early 2018. GOP lawmakers cut that year’s funding for state universities by about $11 million. (Soon after, they approved and Reynolds signed a tax cut skewed to benefit the wealthiest Iowans.)

A University of Iowa news release noted a few months later, “The State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) and UI Research Foundation (UIRF) have also experienced budget challenges and have reorganized to do more with less.” The lab ended up receiving $4,297,032 during fiscal year 2018, a reduction of $105,583 from the budgeted amount.

Republican appropriators kept the lab at that level in the education funding bills approved during the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions. Reynolds’ first draft budget (released in early 2018) would have cut the hygienic lab’s appropriation by a bit less to $4,353,044. The following year she proposed sticking with $4,297,032 for the facility.

Lawmakers had not finalized the education budget for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1 when they suspended their work in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

House and Senate members won’t come back to the statehouse until June 3 at the earliest. Many budget line items will surely be cut, given the expected collapse in state revenues. But one hopes even Republicans will recognize the urgent need to scale up operations at the hygienic lab for the foreseeable future. Tracking the spread of coronavirus across Iowa will require processing thousands of tests daily for many months.

Top image: Photo of Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory, from the facility’s Facebook page.

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    ….with how much the state funds the veterinary diagnostic lab to address infectious animal diseases, both operating budget and capital improvements.

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