PRICE OF POLITICS, ETC: Wondering What’s Next

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It’s day three of the Iowa legislative session. Here’s what we know…107 scheduled days left. Governor Branstad has laid out his ideas for spending and reforming. The biggest will be the continuation of his education reform package he began last year. He also made another push for property tax changes. Lawmakers haven’t been able to substantially improve that system for decades. My thoughts, questions and observations so far…

Question: What will the unexpected issue fight of the session be?

Day 1: The governor caught me a bit off-guard Monday. Monday mornings, he typically holds his weekly news conference with reporters. He used to do that when he was governor previously. And this term he has continued the tradition. Tom Vilsack continued the tradition and then started to drop off during his second term. Chet Culver never really seemed to embrace the idea. For reporters, it’s great to have the Monday morning gatherings since we get regularly scheduled access to the governor. And let’s be honest, it helps get the week off to a good, newsy start because of that access. The more politicians are willing to grant access, the more, hopefully, reporters can give a fuller take on their ideas and reasons for proposing them. Or, so the hope goes.

The governor laid out much of his education reform plans Monday. I wasn’t ready for that. I thought those were coming Tuesday with his annual Condition of the State Address. But by doing it Monday, he could talk about education more Monday and focus more attention on property tax reforms Tuesday. Nonetheless, the education pitch seems to be an obvious compromise from last year. Gone were the requirements tieing higher teacher pay to improved student/teacher performance. Democrats weren’t too keen on that last year. Neither was the teachers’ union. They see those efforts as having the eventual goal of ending teacher tenure guarantees altogether. Of course, that is the goal for those lawmakers/groups who think tenure guarantees ineffective/deficient teachers keep getting paid when they really should get shown the door. But supporters of it think it adds stability and comfort to teachers who shouldn’t have to keep fearing for their jobs if school administrators or school board members change.

Question: Will Republicans support more money for teachers without demanding performance measures as part of the package?

Under his new plan, the governor would give starting teachers a 25% raise, pushing their starting salaries up to $35,000 annually. He would pay the best teachers more to train beginning teachers. And he would reduce the teaching workload for those beginning educators to help them better get acclimated to the rigors of the job. He added another new part to the plan this year, too. He would start a pilot program so that education students would student teach for a full-year instead of just a semester. 

Question: Will those students pay full-year tuition for doing a free full-time job, basically paying tens of thousands to work for nothing? Can they afford that?  

The governor also scraps the “allowable growth” model. That’s the percentage increase in per-pupil funding lawmakers typically give school districts each year. The governor, looking to reduce the cost of government, wants to base those increases on inflation instead. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said the governor isn’t following his own law that he signed when he was governor previously that requires allowable growth. The governor counters that lawmakers have failed to follow the rules set forth by the law in previous years. By the way, Gronstal also points out that by his math, the governor’s funding formula would only give schools half the additional money a modest 2% allowable growth increase would.

Question: How will Gronstal’s possible 2014 gubernatorial ambitions affect his relationship with the governor this session?

The governor’s property tax reform is also a compromised pitch. It would only cut commercial property taxes by 20%. Last year, the governor wanted a 40% reduction. But local governments complained their reduced tax base would cripple their ability to provide vital services. Lawmakers heard their outrage. The tax plan died. This time the governor cut down the reduction and promised to fully fund the cuts so that the state pays for all of it. Locals won’t have to pay a penny. That will cost the state coffers, his office estimates, about $400 million by the time the plan is fully phased in after 5 years. The only way that works, though, is if lawmakers allow the year-end state surpluses until then to grow. That’s because, especially by years 4 and 5 of the plan’s implementation, those reserves will be the only realistic way of making the numbers work so that the state doesn’t spend more than it takes in. Good luck with that.

Question: Will lawmakers make that kind of commitment?

Gronstal also argues that larger, out of state-based companies will benefit more from the across-the-board decreases. He would rather the governor go back to a similar plan senate Democrats passed last session that provides smaller, more targeted tax cuts that Iowa-based companies could receive. That underscores a recent fight between the parties of whether the state should focus its resources toward attracting bigger companies, like Republicans have supported, or smaller businesses, like Democrats have suggested.

Question: Go big or go small?

The governor’s budget proposal for the coming year spends approximately $6.5 billion (not counting the additional $6 billion or so that the feds add to that). The state spending would be a 4.3% increase from the current year, according to Dave Roederer, the director of the Office of Management. However, that doesn’t include money for allowable growth or raises for state workers. So that percentage increase, in theory, could grow still higher, unless lawmakers cut out spending in other areas.

Question: Will Republicans, intent of cutting, agree to that much increased spending just because state revenues could allow it?

Many questions lie ahead already that lawmakers will have to answer between now until the session’s scheduled May 3rd conclusion. Or maybe longer.