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Iowa Politics Roundup: Senate Trims House’s Budget-Cutting Package PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 18 February 2011 14:35

In a debate that spanned eight hours, the Iowa Senate voted 48-1 late Thursday afternoon for House File 45, a bill that once made $500 million in budget cuts over three years and would now make a $6-million cut in the current fiscal year.

The near-unanimous vote came only after a party-line 26-23 vote for the Democratic strike-after amendment that pared back the House bill. Senator Jeff Danielson (D-Cedar Falls) said the end result is a bill that increases efficiency; increases transparency by creating a searchable budget database with both tax-expenditure and -comparison information; and deappropriates $6 million this fiscal year.

But Senator Roby Smith (R-Davenport) compared a box of tissues to a tack of 10 office boxes on his desk to illustrate the $6 million of savings in this bill compared to the $500 million in savings over three years in the version approved by the Iowa House. “I just don’t understand how we can justify such little savings,” he said.

Danielson and Senate Appropriations Chair Bob Dvorsky (D-Coralville) defended the Senate’s changes. “I appreciate their audacity; I question their judgment,” Danielson said of House Republicans. “For those of you who think this is the final bite of the apple, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This is not the final answer. This is the first step.”

Senate Democrats turned back more than a dozen attempts by Republicans to make additional budget cuts and provide additional tax relief. Democrats rejected most amendments on a party-line vote.

The Senate did approve an amendment that would pave the way for the Iowa Communications Network to be sold or leased.

Senator Jerry Behn (R-Boone) argued that the time has come for sale or lease of the system. “It’s wrong for the state of Iowa to be a phone company and compete with private providers,” he said.

The amendment passed 25-24, with Democratic Senators Swati Dandekar of Marion and Matt McCoy of Des Moines voting in favor.

Push and Pull Over State Funding of Preschool Continues

The Democrat-controlled Iowa Senate took a stand Thursday in saving Iowa’s $70-million-a-year state-funded preschool program, but it was only the third salvo in what appears to be a long battle over the issue.

The budget-cutting House File 45 as approved by the Iowa House would have wiped out the preschool program. But under the latest version of the bill approved Thursday by the Iowa Senate, the preschool program would be saved.

“Today, we’re amending that bill; we’re going to send it back to the House and we preserve preschool,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs).

“We think it’s an important effort that was brought to us by the business community many, many years ago,” Gronstal said. “If we’re going to have the workers of the 21st Century, we need to be educating like we’re in the 21st Century, and it’s important to have preschool programs in the state.”

The move came after Governor Terry Branstad on Monday proposed a new $43.6-million Iowa Preschool Program. Under Branstad’s plan, the current program would be eliminated, but families up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level would qualify for $3,000 scholarships to public or private preschool programs that meet state requirements.

“With limited state dollars, it makes sense to invest in children who will benefit the most from high-quality preschool,” Branstad said when he introduced the plan. “The new Iowa Preschool Program helps families who need a hand with the cost, while more affluent families pay full tuition.”

“Clearly, that’s a middle position,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha). “There is a whole lot of discussion that still needs to take place on that.”

But Democrats don’t see it that way. They say they will continue to fight for keeping Iowa’s current state-funded “universal” preschool program that all Iowans qualify for, regardless of income.

“We do not believe the governor’s effort is the middle ground,” Gronstal said. “He may have negotiated with the House, he hasn’t negotiated with us.”

DHS to Cut More Than 230 Jobs

The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) will need to reduce its staff by 230 positions in the budget year that begins July 1, DHS Director Chuck Palmer told his staff and key state legislators. That number includes both layoffs and keeping positions vacant.

“Our latest projections show that our budget for Fiscal Year 2012 will support 4,777 positions,” Palmer said in a letter to staff. “That’s 5 percent fewer than the 5,029 funded positions today. Nearly half of the shortfall will be managed by keeping funded positions vacant, including positions that we expect will be vacated in the coming months. The remaining positions will be laid off, for a total reduction of about 230 funded positions. Our current hiring freeze will continue indefinitely, with only the most critical positions being considered for filling.”

Palmer said the planned reductions assume that policymakers will not appropriate funds to cover the costs of negotiated salary increases, which for DHS is about $8.9 million. That alone will lead to the elimination of about 136 positions at the DHS. The remaining reductions are due to provisions of the governor’s budget recommendations and budget-cutting legislation approved by the legislature last spring.

The most significant impact will be in DHS field operations. More than half of the total positions – an estimated 135 – will come from field workers. About 56 field positions will remain unfilled, and another 79 will be laid off. Caseloads for income-maintenance workers could exceed 800 per worker, compared to just under 700 now. Caseloads for social-work case managers will also rise.

Palmer said there will also be staff reductions in general administration, the child-support-recovery unit, the juvenile facilities at Toledo and Eldora, and the resource centers at Glenwood and Woodward.