Budget decisions will set tone

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

In this two-part series, local legislators Sen. David Johnson, Rep. John Wills and Rep. Megan Jones weigh in on what they anticipate during the 87th Iowa General Assembly. The first part of the series offers a basic overview of the current session and their plans to fund education. The local leaders will address the state's healthcare system and the environment in part 2.

Monday's gavel launched in the first day of the 2018 legislative session in Des Moines. Local legislators, Iowa District 1 Rep. John Wills R-Spirit Lake, Iowa District 2 Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids and Iowa District 1 Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, are busy readying for the 87th Iowa General Assembly, which will once again be filled with state revenue challenges, increased budget demands and departments being asked to do more in the most efficient way possible.

Wills was first elected in 2014 and is midway through his second term in office. He is an assistant majority leader and serves on the Administration and Rules Committee. His other committee assignments are: Agriculture, Commerce, Natural Resources and Transportation.

Sen. David Johnson

"We're going to have a short session," Wills said. "Not necessarily because we want to get in and get out, but because the budget is short. We don't want to spend any more money than we have to. I think we're going to focus on tax reform — and water quality is going to be one of the first things that we do."

Rep. Megan Jones

Johnson said one of the senate's first orders of business is to cut the current fiscal year budget. He is entering his 16th year in the Iowa Senate after first being elected to serve in 2002, following a four-year stay in the Iowa House of Representatives. Johnson currently serves as a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committees. He had previously served as assistant leader of the Senate Republican Caucus for 10 years before his separation from the party during the 2016 Primary Election. A divide with some of the state and national party leadership and elected officials, coupled with the party’s selection of Donald Trump as its presidential candidate, prompted Johnson to leave the party.

Rep. John Wills

"The Legislature and governor need to move quickly as it will affect the budget year ending June 30," the senator said. "Revenues are growing slightly, but not at a rate to sustain some government operations.”

Jones also said the budget will be the biggest hurdle. She was first elected to the House in November 2012 and began her first session in the Des Moines statehouse in January 2013. The lawmaker currently serves as assistant majority leader and serves on the Administrative Rules Review Committee, Administration and Rules Committee, Education Committee, Judiciary Committee and Local Government Committee. She has previously served as chair of the Environmental Protection Committee.

"Iowans work very hard to send the state money," she said. "It is very important to be respectful of that money and to not burst the budget. ... The Revenue Estimating Conference met on Dec. 11 to update their estimate for FY 2018 revenue and to set the official budget estimate for FY 2019. The panel chose to keep the FY 2018 estimate at the level they set in October, $7.2375 billion."

She continued, "As for FY 2019, the group decided to set the revenue forecast at $7.5270 billion. That is just slightly below the October estimate of $7.5363 billion. The December estimate calls for revenue growth of $289.5 million over the FY 2018 estimate. That equates to a growth rate of 4 percent, just below the 4.1 percent growth forecasted back in October."

Wills said, "We can do about a billion dollars of tax reform. That doesn't mean cutting taxes — that means we're just reforming where that money comes from. I'd personally like to see us cut corporate taxes from 12 to 6 percent and cut individual taxes from 8.98 percent to 5 percent. Those two things alone would be huge for economic development in the state of Iowa. It would prevent us from having to cut these multi-million-dollar deals for these big corporations to come into the state. We wouldn't have to negotiate so much to get them to come here. Right now, it's just too expensive for them to come to Iowa with our current tax structure."

EDUCATION

The largest portion of the state budget is dedicated to education and Johnson did not hold back any punches when it came to reviewing the 2017 session’s impact.

"State aid for K-12 education would have made Scrooge proud," he said. "Research dollars for our public universities are disappearing. Community colleges, the postsecondary institutions we depend on for higher-paying skilled jobs, took it on the chin again. Families with children are emptying out of Iowa’s rural areas, as are the early-childhood services they need. Long story short: Find something positive in that picture."

Jones tried.

"While nearly every other area of the state’s budget received a cut or a status quo budget, we were able to increase funding to education by $40 million," she said. "… Additionally, last session we were able to broaden the conversation on education to more than just funding. We gave schools more flexibility in how they can spend their resources and also gave them home rule authority to be innovative."

Jones noted K-12 education — regent universities and community colleges excluded — account for 44.5 percent of the state’s budget. When higher education is taken into account, education funding is over half of the state’s budget.

"Unfortunately, school funding is always a partisan issue," Jones said. "Last session, we were able to protect K-12 education from any budget reductions and provided education with an additional $40 million, and it was still partisan."

She added, "House Republicans are committed to appropriating the first piece of the budget to education while staying within the means of the budget."

Wills said, "I really believe that education is an important issue and we need to fund education adequately. I kind of wonder where we're going to be able to go with funding education this year as far as dollars that we have available — I do think we'll put any money that we can toward education — but we also have to look at public safety and other issues as well. Right now, we don't have enough money to hire highway patrolmen. So, at some point, we have to say 'OK, highway patrolmen are important. We need to stop ignoring that.'"

Wills suggested policy changes, including less-restrictive language for designated funds, could give local school districts more spending flexibility.

"First, let’s end the partisanship," Johnson said. "When I attended Iowa schools, education was valued as a building block for our communities. Former Govs. Bob Ray and Harold Hughes both saw schools as doorways to opportunity. Today, it’s the most important economic-development tool in the machine shed. One-party rule last session led to the destruction of well-established rights for public workers and that is going to lead to the exodus of needed middle class jobs, especially in our rural areas."

Johnson said of particular interest to him this session is making sure "community colleges get their due dollars."

"Employers needing skilled workers have stepped up to the plate," Johnson said. "It’s way past time for the state to do the same."

Johnson said he also plans to work on future recruitment of highly qualified K-12 teachers and college and university personnel.

"I’m introducing a bill addressing the K-12 situation that especially affects school districts in border counties in hiring teachers educated out of state," he said.

"In meeting with several school districts and administrators, they are very concerned about SAVE and supplemental state aid," Jones said. "… We currently pay a one cent sales tax that is designed for school infrastructure. That penny is set to expire in 2029. Each year that progresses, the school districts become less able to bond against that money."

"It’s critical that we eliminate, which I favor most, or extend the penny sales tax for school infrastructure," Johnson said. "Also known as SAVE, this statewide penny expires in 2029. It's impossible to bond for projects without sufficient future revenues. Anti-tax legislators need to be held accountable if this situation isn’t fixed."

He continued, "For the past couple years I have sponsored bills calling for eliminating or extending the SAVE 'sunset' date."

"The extension of SAVE or the removal of the sunset will likely be coupled with tax reform," Jones said, "although I am open to any ideas or concepts."

She added, "I’ve also heard from a lot of parents who would like to see more school choice options available to their students."

Jones also has a couple of pieces of legislation she has been championing, after being approached by constituents.

"Over the course of the last several years, I have worked to improve safety for our students, particularly when it comes to the sexual exploitation of minors by school employees," she said. "This issue was brought to me by a constituent and I have worked and will continue to work across the aisle on this issue. Additionally, the issue of concussions continues to be a bipartisan issue. This was also brought to me by a constituent and it is great to see so many legislators interested in helping to keep our kids safe."

Johnson cited a couple of other concerns he would like to see addressed in the 2018 session.

"We need to find a way to equalize the disparity among school districts in transportation costs," he said. "Districts with higher costs struggle to offer a world-class education in the classroom."

Johnson also noted that many constituent discussions include "fear of another round of school consolidation."


Iowa Legislative Schedule

Jan. 8First day of session
Jan. 19Final day for individual Senator and Representative requests for bill drafts to the Legislative Services Agency
Feb. 16Final date for Senate bills to be reported out of Senate committees and House bills out of House committees
Feb. 19-23Senate only considers Senate bills and unfinished business

House considers only House bills and unfinished business

Feb. 26-March 9Debate not limited by rule
March 16Final date for Senate bills to be reported out of House committees and House bills out of Senate committees
March 19-23Senate considers only House bills and unfinished business

House considers only Senate bills and unfinished business

March 26Only the following bills are eligible for consideration:

• Bills passed by both Houses

• Appropriations Bills

• Ways and Means Bills

• Government Oversight Bills

• Legalizing Acts

• Administrative Rules Review Committee Bills

• Committee Bills related to delayed or suspended Administrative Rules

• Bills co-sponsored by Majority and Minority Leaders of one House

• Conference Committee Reports

• Companion Bills sponsored by Senate and House Majority Leaders

• Concurrent or Simple Resolutions

• Joint Resolutions nullifying administrative rules

• Bills on the veto calendar

• Unfinished business

April 17100th calendar day of the session (Per diem expenses end)

* The Feb. 16 and March 16 committee deadlines do not apply to Appropriations Bills, Ways and Means Bills, Government Oversight Bills, Legalizing Acts, Administrative Rules Review Committee Bills, Committee Bills related to delayed or suspended Administrative Rules [Iowa Code Sec. 17A.8(9)], Bills co-sponsored by Majority and Minority Leaders of one House, Conference Committee Reports, Companion Bills sponsored by the majority leaders of both Houses after consultation with the respective minority leaders, Concurrent or Simple Resolutions and Joint Resolutions nullifying administrative rules.

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