What Happens in a Bad Economy?

Politicians like to talk in abstractions.

Come to think of it, they like to argue and obfuscate in abstractions, as well. They campaign in abstractions and make abstract pledges until those abstractions turn into something tangible, like a subprime lending crisis or a downgrade from a particular private rating agency.

We spend so much time wading through abstractions that we cannot get to the meat of the issues that face us today. Enough of that.

What really happens in a bad economy? And what is the public's role during these tough times?

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Terry Branstad's spending promises don't add up

When Terry Branstad formally announced his candidacy in January, cutting the size of state government by “at least 15 percent” over five years was one of his central campaign promises. He needed to establish credibility with the Republican Party’s conservative wing after his record of growing the state budget by far more than the rate of inflation during 16 years in office.

Branstad repeated his intention to cut state government by 15 percent in his early television commercials and on the campaign trail all winter and spring. He never provided a road map for keeping that promise, however. The budget cuts Branstad has specifically proposed so far (ending the preschool program, family planning funding, and reducing administrative costs at Area Education Agencies) would not reduce state budget obligations by 3-4 percent in the first year, which would be needed to work toward a 15 percent reduction over five years.

Since the June 8 Republican primary, Branstad has continued to hammer Governor Chet Culver on fiscal issues (using false claims), but to my knowledge he’s avoided mentioning that promise to shrink government by 15 percent over five years. Nor have we seen any details about how Branstad would balance the budget while spending no more than 99 percent of projected state revenues.

While campaigning in Marshalltown this week, Branstad made an extraordinary pledge:

Branstad said that if elected governor again, he would look at moving some of the services that have been pushed onto the local governments, particularly mental health and school funding, and making those more state funded. Along with that, he would put on a caveat that mandates those levies be abolished, which he said would provide instant property tax reductions for all classes of property across the board.

He said he did something very similar when he was governor before, but critics have since tried to distort his record on those issues.

“That was property tax relief and they called it spending,” he said.

Branstad is borrowing one of Bob Vander Plaats’ key economic ideas here: helping counties provide property tax relief by having the state assume responsibility for mental health and some educational services. As a campaign tactic, it makes sense, because Vander Plaats nearly matched Branstad’s vote total in Marshall County and carried several nearby counties (click here to download the GOP primary results by county).

But think about this for a minute. Branstad now proposes to have the state take over some big new funding obligations. How would he pay for that? He supports at least $80 million in corporate tax cuts and appears to reject using federal funds or reserve money to help balance the budget.

Maybe Branstad hopes that Iowans will forget his earlier campaign promises. But it’s past time for Branstad to show how he would make the numbers add up. The final budget for fiscal year 2011 is now in effect. Let’s see a rough budget document for fiscal year 2012, which doesn’t dip into reserve funds, cuts general fund spending by 3-4 percent, and has the state take on more responsibility for funding mental health and education services.

Speaking of state budgets, did anyone else notice the Branstad campaign’s silence last week regarding Iowa’s improving fiscal condition? The Legislative Services Agency and the Department of Management both reported better than expected revenues and a larger surplus than anticipated at the close of FY 2010. The Branstad campaign said absolutely nothing. We know his staff keeps track of such reports, because a few days earlier they jumped all over a draft Legislative Services Agency document on school districts and property taxes.

Branstad has a habit of ignoring inconvenient facts. We’re still waiting for him to say something, anything, about numerous documents showing he and senior staffers did Republican campaign work on the public’s dime.

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What is Kim Reynolds' plan to prevent teacher layoffs?

Now that State Senator Kim Reynolds is officially the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, it’s time for her political views to receive more scrutiny. On the day Terry Branstad announced he had picked Reynolds, she said this:

We have a projected state budget gap of nearly $1 billion dollars.  And we have seen a dramatic slide in student test scores and teacher layoffs in school districts across the state. We can do better.  We must do better.  And, as Terry Branstad’s running mate, I will dedicate my every waking minute to sharing with Iowans his ambitious goals for our future.

She repeated those talking points in her speech to the GOP state convention on June 26. Republicans never tire of the “projected state budget gap” ruse. Reynolds is talking about projections for the budget year that begins in July 2011. Maybe she forgot that the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a balanced budget for the fiscal year beginning on July 1 despite a projected $1 billion shortfall last November. Reynolds also asserted that Governor Chet Culver has “spent too much, taxed too much, borrowed too much” and dismissed Iowa’s AAA bond rating as irrelevant: “That’s like my husband telling me, our checkbook and savings are empty, but we’ve got $15,000 we can still spend on the credit card.” Not really, Senator Reynolds: Iowa has money left in our state reserve funds (equivalent to a family’s savings account), and independent analysts affirm that our fiscal health is strong coming out of the worst recession since World War II. Many states fully depleted their rainy day accounts in response to an unprecedented drop in state revenues, but Iowa did not.

Like Branstad, Reynolds laments teacher layoffs across the state, and like Branstad, she fails to acknowledge that those education cuts would have been much deeper without the federal stimulus money Iowa has received.

Branstad’s not a numbers guy and hated tough budget meetings when he was governor. Having served four terms as Clarke County treasurer, Reynolds should feel more comfortable talking specifics on state spending. Friends have said she was able to save money as a county treasurer without cutting services. She’s campaigning with a guy who promises to veto any bill that calls for spending more than 99 percent of state revenues collected. Let’s see Reynolds produce an alternative budget for the current year that protects K-12 education without “spending too much.”

Details on the budget for fiscal year 2011 can be found here. All Reynolds needs to do is figure out how to spend no more than 99 percent of state revenues projected for the year. In other words, balance the budget without using the $328 million in federal stimulus money (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds) and the $267 million in reserve funds that Democrats included in the budget Culver signed into law.

If Reynolds is prepared to criss-cross the state bashing Democrats over teacher layoffs, she should be prepared to show us the education budget Iowans could expect under a Branstad administration.

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Show us your balanced budget, Terry Branstad

Republican candidate Terry Branstad claims he learned from his mistakes in handling the state budget and says he will “put the focus back on restoring fiscal responsibility and jobs and education” if elected to a fifth term as governor. Not only will he abide by generally accepted accounting principles, he promises, he will veto any bill that calls for spending more than 99 percent of state revenues collected.

Independent analysts have vouched for Iowa’s strong fiscal condition, but Branstad and other Republicans cry “overspending” because the balanced 2010 and 2011 budgets relied on some money from the federal government and from Iowa’s reserve funds. Never mind that supporting state budgets, thereby reducing the need for big service cuts, was one of the primary goals of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009 stimulus bill). Never mind that unprecedented flood damage in Iowa coincided with the sharpest drop in state revenues in 60 years because of the longest recession since World War II. Branstad claims Iowa should not spend more than 99 percent of state revenues collected in any fiscal year.

Last Friday Branstad used a story on teacher layoffs in Des Moines to score political points, ignoring the fact that education cuts would have claimed far more teachers’ jobs if not for the federal stimulus bill. Click here for more information on ARRA funds allocated to Iowa education programs for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years.

It’s time for Branstad to put up or shut up. He has a well-staffed campaign and a policy director who served in the Iowa House for ten years. Taking the 2011 budget Governor Chet Culver signed as a starting point, Branstad’s team should figure out how to do without the $328 million in federal fiscal aid (ARRA funds) and the $267 million in reserve funds that budget incorporates.

Then Branstad should produce the budget he would have demanded for fiscal year 2011, which would spend no more than 99 percent of state revenues projected for the year. Let’s see how K-12 education, Medicaid, public safety and other services would fare under Branstad’s “responsible” Iowa budget.

Hint: the spending cuts Branstad endorsed during the primary campaign (ending the preschool program, family planning funding, and reducing administrative costs at Area Education Agencies) would not come close to bringing the budget into balance for 2011.

Also keep in mind that the spending cuts Iowa Republican legislators proposed during the 2010 session were padded with wildly inaccurate estimates of how much could be saved on services to undocumented immigrants.

Voters deserve more than platitudes about fiscal responsibility. Let us compare the 2011 budget Iowa Democrats adopted with the one Branstad would have demanded.

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Let's see how Republicans spin this

To hear Iowa Republicans tell it, our state has suffered terribly under the leadership of job-killing, overspending Democrats. The reality, as measured by the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is quite different:

Iowa’s focus on entrepreneurship, innovation and exports has led to an eighth-place ranking on a list of top economic-performing states compiled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Chamber Foundation.

Iowa ranked high overall as “a solid performer across most of our metrics,” according to the chamber’s newly released Enterprising States survey, largely because “Iowa’s strength is perhaps its stability. The state’s largest cluster, agribusiness, food processing and technology, grew at a 1 percent rate since 2002, significantly better performing than the same group of industries nationally.”

The business group also listed Iowa seventh under “top export performers” due to overseas trade offices that provide help to Iowa companies looking to tap international markets. According to the study, “efforts are paying off, as the state places fourth in growth of exports as a share of gross state product.”

Read more at the Des Moines Register’s site, or download the whole report here.

Governor Chet Culver’s office recapped some other favorable reports by outside analysts looking at Iowa’s economy:

[E]arlier this year, Forbes Magazine, the national economic and business journal, named Des Moines as the No. 1 city in America for businesses and careers, and ranked Cedar Rapids as the No. 1 city for projected job growth.

In 2008, Iowa had the eighth-fastest growing economy in the nation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. CNBC’s 2009 “Top States for Business” survey ranks Iowa the fourth best in the nation and No. 1 for low costs of doing business. Finally, last year MarketWatch, another national financial publication, named Des Moines No. 1 in the country for doing business.

Unemployment is too high as we come out of the worst recession since World War II, but Iowa’s unemployment rate is still low by national standards. Contrary to what Republicans would have you believe, our state’s budget is balanced, and our per capita debt burden is low, which is why every major credit rating agency has given Iowa top marks in the past year.

So far I haven’t seen any Iowa Republican reaction to the Chamber of Commerce report. I’ll update this post with any relevant comments.

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