Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 11, 2010.
"No money! No money! No money!"
That's the rallying cry of this year's Iowa Legislature. With budget shortfalls forcing government-wide, cost-saving measures -- including cutting back the legislative session from 100 days to 80 days -- legislators have a lot of difficult decisions to make about which state agencies need to tighten their belts even further.
Although the specific numbers differ depending on who is estimating, the state is facing a shortfall of somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion. The specific numbers get slippery because the larger estimates include the money the Legislature already has promised to schools, cities and counties as well as money to replace one-time federal stimulus funds. But it's obvious that legislators are going to have to renege on many of those promises.
The situation, in fact, seems worse than last year, when legislators had to clean up after some of the worst flooding and tornadoes in the state's history. At least then, lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum could find common cause to help Iowans recover from and prepare for natural disasters.
This year, however, the legislators have to clean up after the worst global recession in recent history, and they have to do so while trying to set up themselves (and their parties) to do well in the November elections. Democrats will be trying to persuade recession-battered Iowans that the party's trifecta of power should be extended for another two years; Republicans will be pointing out as often as possible that the state's fiscal and political health would be improved by ending one-party rule.
Republicans already have criticized Gov. Chet Culver for implementing a 10 percent budget cut across the board rather than calling for a special legislative session -- they say he's cutting the budget with an executive sledgehammer rather than with a legislative scalpel. But it seems unlikely that legislators are going to backfill anything but the most absolutely essential government services if they hope to avoid ending the current fiscal year in the red.
No state agency should expect its current budget to be made whole.
Nothing, in fact, should be spared from this budget-cutting Legislature. Democrats and Republicans already have been working together to figure out ways to reorganize state government to become more efficient, especially in the areas of:
• information technology,
• joint purchasing,
• consolidating boards and commissions and
• standardizing the ratio for the number of supervisors per the number of state employees.
The governor has implemented some of the recommendations through executive orders. Now we'll get to see whether a majority of the Legislature actually has the political will to implement some of the less attractive cost-saving measures.
And while state leaders say they don't want to raise any taxes during this time of economic uncertainty, they need to keep in mind that the Legislature is convening at a time when many members of the public are questioning why our cash-strapped state budget is bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars through tax credits to film producers, research companies and a host of other special interests.
We want our legislators to keep every cost-saving measure on the table, and that means they must improve the state's oversight of tax credit programs and begin cutting those tax credit programs that don't have any tangible benefit to the state.
Advocating for UI
Our local legislative delegation also needs to remind their colleagues regularly of the important role played by the University of Iowa and the other regent institutions in the state.
In November, an Iowa poll commissioned by the Des Moines Register found that only 31 percent of respondents favored sparing public universities from further budget cuts -- a number smaller than for many other essential state services. They need to tell the story of the good work being done at the university and the opportunities being opened up through the efforts of UI faculty, staff and students.
At the same time, they need to be more than mere UI cheerleaders. We also need our local legislators to step up and help ensure that UI is spending all of its public money responsibly.
Finally, with a shortened session, we fear that too many important budget decisions are going to be made quickly, behind closed doors and without enough of an opportunity for the public to highlight any unintended negative consequences.
Our local legislators say that they don't think this session will be any more (or less) secretive than usual, and they say all of the policy bills going through the normal committee process will be open for public review and comment.
But we again urge the state's legislative leaders to let the sun shine on their own proceedings and to increase the penalties against those officials who try to keep the public in the dark.