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Column: Spending decisions to dominate session's final days

By DAVID JOHNSON, Iowa State Senator

DES MOINES, Iowa — Did you see the movie “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”?

A desperate group of men hijacks a New York City subway train, holding the passengers hostage and demanding $10 million be paid within 60 minutes.

That’s how I would describe the scene in the Iowa Legislature last week, on two unrelated but not unconnected tracks: first, budget talks between Senate Democrats and House Republicans got sidetracked into a tunnel; and second, campaign rhetoric roared at full speed past the Senate station.

The state budget has been and will always be the deciding factor in when the Legislature adjourns. Our target date for having our work done is April 22. Spending for next fiscal year will total nearly $7 billion. House Republicans would like to be on the lesser side of that budget target; the Senate Democrats, not so much. Before you cry out “End the Partisanship!” it’s simply the nature of a split-control Legislature in a two-party system. It’s still the best system in the world.

Democrat and Republican legislative leaders have previously agreed on the overall spending pie. That pie is sliced into 10 pieces, but not equal portions, of course. The slices range from $43.l million for Agriculture and Natural Resources to $1.86 billion for Health and Human Services. The targeted (agreed-to) increase in spending is $480 million, or almost 7.5 percent from the current fiscal year. Iowa household income is rising by an annual rate of a little more than 3 percent, according to a recent study.

That’s where the Legislature is at a dangerous crossing. And we’ve seen and heard the crossing signals before. Senate Republicans believe — and have a non-partisan study to back us up — that within two years expen ditures will pass revenues, meaning a return to deficit spending. Many people say we have money to burn, pointing to the nearly $700 million held in reserves. These “rainy day” funds are set in statute. Held in two different accounts, I look at these “savings” accounts as necessary to meet the state’s financial commitments during more difficult economic times or unanticipated emergency situations.

My budget votes will be aimed at trimming the proposed 7.5-percent spending increase. To be sure, within each budget I will be advocating for priorities important to northwest Iowa, such as extending the current tutition freeze at Iowa’s public universities, soil conservation programs, and mental health and disabilities services, to name a few. But overall spending must be controlled.

Now to that campaign rhetoric. Since the first fall of gavel in January, the majority party has taken to the Senate floor to wage war against the governor. Some attacks have had nothing to do with the people’s business we were sent here to complete in a timely and efficient manner. At the same time, questions have been raised about fired state workers, “secret” settlement payments and “hush money” amid charges of cronyism in hiring within Gov. Branstad’s administration.

The governor has said he was unaware that some state agencies were involved in secret settlements until he read media reports. He has issued an executive order eliminating the practice, which appears to have also occurred during the Culver and Vilsack administrations. Senate Republicans have made it clear we want to get to the bottom of the matter, that more answers are needed. But we don’t need legimitate oversight committee meetings to be turned into a political sideshow.

It’s no coincidence that a Senate Democrat who is challenging Branstad gor governor in November has been uncharacteristically quiet this session, while several of his colleagues take to the Senate floor almost daily to loudly deride the governor.

We would see the light at the end of the tunnel toward adjournment sooner if we keep the 2014 campaign in the future, not in the present, tense.

Your questions and comments are always welcome. You can reach me in the Iowa Senate by calling (515) 281-3371 and leaving a message; or by e-mail at

David Johnson of Ocheyedan represents Iowa Senate District 1 — all of Clay, Dickinson, Lyon, Osceola and Palo Alto counties.