Legislators wrestle with budget woes

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Sen. David Johnson answered questions from constituents at a legislative forum in Spirit Lake on Saturday.
Photo by Doris Welle

Two weeks into the Iowa Legislative Session, area representatives in the state's capitol are faced with a $117 million deficit for the current 2017 fiscal year. Three legislators gathered with 24 of their constituents in a forum at the Spirit Lake City Hall on Saturday.

"This is a problem we need to correct," said state Rep. Megan Jones, who serves the southern part of Dickinson County. "Income is still down and will not meet projections."

Rep. John Wills, a Spirit Lake Republican, agreed.

"We have only 25 percent of the budget that we are allowed to make cuts in with 75 percent excluded," he said. "We are allowed to cut into the judicial but that would mean cuts in the Iowa Highway Patrol and prison guards not a good place to cut."

Senator David Johnson mirrored the representatives' concerns: "I am also concerned with the priorities of our governor," he told the Spirit Lake audience. "It took to the 26th minute of a 33-minute speech to talk about water quality. It doesn't seem like a priority of his to me."

Jones says legislators are leaning toward questioning sabbaticals for state employees and its possible misuse, putting a freeze on all vehicle purchases, putting a freeze on land acquisitions for the rest of the year and have the regents "seriously" look into cuts.

"I would like to see us establish an ongoing review of all programs, have a sunset for that program in five years," Wills said. "Fifty-nine legislators have signed on to this bill (House File One). Each of those programs would have to prove why they exist and should continue to do so."

Much discussion centered on minimum wage.

"Various counties are raising it county by county, making it difficult for companies who cross county lines," she said. "Hy-Vee for example. So the greater challenge is to make it pre-emptive so the state sets minimum wage, not county-to-county."

Wills saw the dangers for many of raising the minimum wage.

"If we raise the bottom earners, most are 17 to 18 years of age, to $10.10 as it has been suggested, many who count on state aid to help them, won't qualify so it becomes regression," he said.

The state representative advocated for finding a way to increase the business atmosphere to allow business owners to increase the wages of their employees. Wills also encouraged community colleges to teach minimum wage earners a skill so they could improve their income status.

Johnson, in his 19th year in the Iowa Legislature, was strong in his defense of equal pay for equal work.

"We need to be sure men and women are paid equally for the work that they do," he said.

A question came from the audience concerning IWILL. IWILL stands for Iowa Water and Land Legacy; a trust fund enacted by the legislature seven years ago to aid with grant money for water quality projects.

"It is seven years later and the funding hasn't happened," the constituent complained. "Our water sources are in danger and there is no money for grants."

Johnson appeared as frustrated as the audience.

"The trust fund was approved by 63 percent of the voters on the ballot so everyone would pay three-eighths of a cent and it is supposed to be a constitutionally-protected dedicated fund," he explained.

Jones commented on the changes by administrative rule that are taking place in the Department of Natural Resources.

"We are expecting an administrative rule change about a concealed, carried, permitted handgun for bow hunters," she said.

Johnson discussed disabled hunters.

"We are expecting the DNR to change the rule so disabled hunters can use bows for hunting carp as well as the deer they are now permitted to hunt with a bow," he said.

Audience members expressed concern about the ramifications to the already-distressed budget if the Obama Administration's Affordable Care Act is eliminated.

"We have already expanded Medicaid so it will affect us tremendously," she said.

"We hope we will clean this up somewhat," Wills said. "We passed a bill that was signed by Governor Branstad forcing the Department of Human Services to run a complete asset verification on all applicants for aid, but DHS doesn't want to follow the law.

Wills said it is possible the Iowa Legislature will have to take the Department of Human Services to court if verification isn't enacted.

"We are estimating that the verification process could produce as much as $18 million in savings to our budget from fraudulent practices," Jones told attendees.

"While we struggle with the last half of the 2017 fiscal year budget shortfall, we will begin working on the 2018 budget and we will not budget every dime of income. We will attempt to be more fiscally responsible," Wills concluded.

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