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The legislature made some progress this week on PK-12 education funding. On Tuesday, the House passed a bill that provides a 2% funding increase in Supplemental State Aid (SSA) and categorical funding for Fiscal Year 2017. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats rejected that legislation, demanding a 4% increase for PK-12. That means the matter now goes to conference committee to reconcile the differences. It’s hard to predict when that will happen, but at least the issue has been put on the table early in the session.
In this newsletter two weeks ago I presented a “big picture” view of state spending over the last four years to explain the state budget situation to constituents. Here is why that’s important to understand. While we have had modestly increasing revenues into the state coffers the last few years, we have been spending more than the increased ongoing revenues when the books finally close for the fiscal year. As a result, we have largely spent down the $930 million budget surplus of three years ago. This year, when you subtract our estimated revenues from our current spending obligations, we will be left with $153 million in new revenues. The 2% increase in SSA funding, along with the teacher leadership program, will require an additional $143 million of new spending for PK-12 education over last year. That alone accounts for 93.5% of the available new revenue. It shouldn’t be difficult to understand that a 4% increase in SSA, which would total $228 million, is not possible. This becomes even more apparent when the ever-increasing cost of Medicaid is added to the equation.
While PK-12 funding tends to grab most of the headlines, there is a lot more to state government than education. Most legislators sit on one of a number of “budget subcommittees,” which are comprised of both House and Senate members, and make budget recommendations to the full legislature. I sit on the Agriculture and Natural Resources budget subcommittee, which deals with the spending for both the Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). We meet twice a week to listen to budget requests from a number of recipients of taxpayer dollars for a variety of projects, most notably DNR Director Chuck Gipp and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.
It’s worth noting that neither of these men has requested more money for their operating budgets in the four years that I’ve served on this budget subcommittee. They have made their respective departments more “lean” while still getting done what needs to be done. For example, according to Secretary Northey, IDALS has reduced the number of state employees from 453 in 1992 to 336 in 2015. In these days of increased size and cost of government these departments have been good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and should be commended for it! The only “new” money that has gone into these departments is additional funding for some of the water quality initiatives that the legislature and the public have demanded.
Again, let’s look at another “big picture” perspective by comparing the number of IDALS employees, down 26% since 1992, with education. Based on figures from the U.S. Department of Education, since 1992 the number of students in Iowa public schools has increased by 2% while the number of teachers has increased by 12% and the number of “other” staff, including administrators, has increased by 25%. All legislators, on both sides of the aisle, want the best education we can provide for our children. But I believe we also need to be accountable to the taxpayers who pay the bills. So I encourage teachers and school administrators to work with us to find ways to keep education both excellent and affordable.
Please join me at one of the upcoming legislative forums in Senate District 40. I will be at the Bridge View Center in Ottumwa from 9:30 – 11:30 AM next Saturday, February 6 and at Eggs and Issues at Smokey Row in Oskaloosa from 8:30 – 9:30 AM on Saturday, February 13.
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