Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 1)

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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Culver calls for new budget process

Speaking to the annual meeting of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation today, Governor Chet Culver said the way Iowa drafts its budgets should be changed:

Currently, the governor said he is required to submit a state budget by the end of January based on projections set by the state Revenue Estimating Conference in December, but then lawmakers craft their spending plan after the REC’s next quarterly estimates in March.

“That makes no sense at all. For three months, we sit around and wait for the March number in many cases before serious budget discussions take place,” he said. “We have a moving target. It is terribly frustrating and we need to make some changes.”

Several accounting experts have told me that it is impossible to estimate state revenues accurately. The current system leads to budget surpluses when the economy is doing well and shortfalls requiring rapid cuts when the economy heads downhill.

As usual, Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson has a better idea. Speaking to the Des Moines Register in October,

Swenson said he believes the budget-setting system is backward. Government should look at annual needs and adjust taxes and fees to accomplish goals. Instead, officials adjust needs by what’s available.

“It is a stupid system and makes no sense,” Swenson said.

The most recent Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register showed that broad majorities support increased state spending on various programs that Democrats have expanded in recent years. Even a majority of self-identified conservatives supported maintaining higher spending levels for teacher pay, state aid to schools, renewable energy research and development, health care coverage for children and repairing roads and bridges.

If politicians evaluate our state’s needs and then search for a way to fund them, we are likely to get some changes on the revenue side of the equation. Eliminating certain tax credits could increase revenue, and Culver has created a panel that will evaluate all of the state’s current tax credits before making recommendations for state legislators.

Our state income tax structure should also be on the table. A new poll by Selzer and Associates for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership found that a majority of Iowans would support eliminating federal deductibility, which mainly benefits high-income taxpayers. During the 2009 legislative session, Culver and legislative leaders agreed on a tax reform package that would have ended federal deductibility, but Iowa House leaders were unable to find 51 votes to pass that bill.

UPDATE: More details from the Des Moines Register are after the jump.

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Lower revenue projections to prompt more spending cuts

Three days after he announced plans to cut $40 million from the current-year budget and delay a planned expenditure of $37 billion, Governor Chet Culver said on Friday that he will announce a further $60 million in spending cuts next week. The total state budget for the current fiscal year is $6.1 billion.

Iowa’s Revenue Estimating Conference met the same day and “lowered this fiscal year’s revenue estimate by $99.5 million and next year’s estimate by $132.6 million.”

Iowa House Republican leader Kraig Paulsen slammed Democrats in a statement:

Democrats have put this state in a precarious position […] At a time when the national economy was on it’s way down, Democrats increased state spending by over $2,000 per family, over the span of two years they’ve hired more than 2600 new state employees, and loaded up budgets with pork projects for their preferred constituents. The only thing they have left to show for it is a gaping hole in the budget.

Give me a break. The Republican Party long ago stopped being the party of fiscal responsibility. John McCain himself admitted this:

We lost the election in 2006 because we lost our way. […] Spending lurched completely out of control.

Anyway, the New York Times reported last month,

At least 37 states and the District of Columbia have faced or are facing budget gaps totaling $66 billion in the 2009 fiscal year. Most states, which rely on sales, income and property taxes, are seeing a significant drop in such revenues or increases that are below the inflation rate, compared to the same period last year.

Click here to view a graphic showing which states have budget problems. If you look at that map, you can see that many states’ projected budget shortfalls are larger per capita than Iowa’s. This is a tough economy, and not only for states run by Democrats.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Pat Murphy promised,

We will take action in January to keep the 2009 budget balanced. There will be difficult decisions to make, but we will not balance the state budget on the backs of middle class families in these difficult times.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy commented,

We have over $620 million in the state’s rainy day funds and we have a Governor and state legislature that are committed to fiscal discipline.

Yet, we need to be prepared for real cuts in budgets for both 2009 and 2010.  There will be real cuts and there will be real pain, but I do believe that Iowa is in a better position to weather this budget storm than almost any other state.  

Jason Hancock’s piece about the various budget projections for Iowa is worth a read. The most pessimistic scenario is quite grim.

Very tough choices will have to be made during the legislative session. I wouldn’t expect the return of much, if any, of the state money that was “swept” from other programs last summer to pay for flood relief.

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