State lawmakers pass budget bills in two-day debate marathon

By: and - May 18, 2021 7:40 pm

The Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Austin Goode via Unsplash)

Iowa lawmakers broke through a weeks-long stalemate and approved the bulk of the state’s budget in a two-day marathon session.

The Republican majority in the House and Senate voted Tuesday to give state universities no funding increase for next year. They also agreed to a $20 million increase for state prisons.

Legislators will return Wednesday to wrap up loose ends on what may be the last day of the 2021 session.

Republican leadership in the House, Senate and governor’s office have been meeting privately for weeks to find compromise on tax cuts and budget deals. On Monday, lawmakers unveiled the tax plan that had been a sticking point. The Senate passed the tax proposal on Monday evening and the House followed suit on Tuesday evening, sending the tax plan to Gov. Kim Reynolds for approval.

With the tax fight resolved, lawmakers are shifting their attention toward budget deals. Lawmakers must pass a statewide budget before they can adjourn for the year.

This is where the state budget stands so far:

Education Passed the House and the Senate

The House passed several budget bills before reaching a compromise with the Senate. One of those was the controversial education budget, which would appropriate no additional funds to Iowa’s Regents universities. The bill would also create a study committee to examine administrative expenses, graduation rates and student retention rates. However, a tuition freeze originally proposed by the House was not included in the final bill.

The Senate initially proposed an $8.2 million increase for the Regents universities. The Senate approved an amended version of the House bill Tuesday night along party lines. 

The final version of the bill will increase education funding in Iowa by $26.4 million in fiscal year 2022. The Department of Education will receive an additional $13.6 million, including $2 million for the Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates program, $1.1 million for children’s mental health training and $1.6 million for therapeutic classrooms.

The Board of Regents will still not receive additional funding for the University of Iowa, Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa. Community colleges will see an increase of $6.5 million.

Lawmakers also introduced an amendment to the bill that will create new pathways for parents and community members to request public hearings on curriculum.

Infrastructure Passed the House and Senate

The House passed an initial version of the infrastructure bill on May 6. The Senate passed a strike-through amendment to the bill on Tuesday. The House on Tuesday afternoon tweaked that amendment, passed the bill, and sent it back to the Senate for a final consideration.

The Senate passed the bill Tuesday night.

The proposal would appropriate $108.6 million, including $92.4 million from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund. The money will go toward infrastructure initiatives — water quality, expanding and improving public buildings, improving public parks and more. Bill leader Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake, also highlighted the introduction of a statewide emergency system for schools and a fund to create a new statue of Brooklyn-born veteran Harold “Pie” Keller.

The House stopped mid-debate to remove the language that appropriated $2.5 million to purchase a school “panic button” system. Instead, the most recent version of the legislation provides the $2.5 million for “school safety, flood mitigation, or other emergency service programs.”

Senate Democrats asked why the budget did not appropriate more for the recovery from the August derecho storm, which devastated  Eastern Iowa’s tree canopy. The infrastructure budget appropriates $250,000 to tree-planting projects in addition to $1 million within  the agriculture budget, according to Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha.

“In Cedar Rapids, the municipal tree population damage was $112 million alone,” Mathis said.

Whiting responded that he had been in Eastern Iowa when the derecho rolled through and recognized the need to rebuild and restore tree cover.

“The amount that might be in there may not be satisfactory, but I appreciate that there is money in there and that there are private and public partnerships that are hopefully working to address and to rebuild not only the community, but the landscape,” said Whiting.

Economic development Passed the House and Senate

The economic development budget, which represents a compromise between the House and the Senate, appropriates $48 million from the general fund to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Department of Cultural Affairs, Iowa Department of Workforce Development and more. The bill also appropriates $29.8 million from other funds. 

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said the economic development budget was one of the most important, as it was meant to help grow the state for future years especially important, he argued, as the state passed controversial higher education policies.

“Those kind of things really sent a negative message across this state, especially to people who are thinking about going to college here,” Dotzler said. “Our universities and colleges are the place of recruitment.”

The Senate voted unanimously to pass the amended version of the bill on Tuesday morning. The House voted 54-36 to pass the bill on Tuesday afternoon, sending it to the governor.

Agriculture Passed the Senate and House

The Senate passed an amended version of the House agriculture budget bill Monday evening. The proposal would appropriate $48.8 million from the general fund to the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Department of Natural Resources. It also appropriates over $90 million from sources other than the general fund.

The amended bill includes increased funding for park operations and for the renewable fuels and infrastructure program, said bill leader Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa. It also extends funding for water quality for an additional 10 years to 2039.

The Senate voted 28-17 to pass the bill. The House on Tuesday afternoon concurred with the Senate amendment and passed the bill by a 54-36 vote.

Judicial branch Passed the House and Senate

The House passed a $193 million budget for the Judicial Branch late Monday, and the Senate followed suit Tuesday night. That’s an increase of over $9 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

“If we don’t have law enforcement, our courts, our public defender system, our prosecutor system, we have nothing,” said Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, who led debate on both the judicial and justice system bills.

The House voted 53-36 to pass the bill. The Senate voted unanimously to pass it, sending the legislation to Reynolds.

Justice system Passed House and Senate

The House passed a justice system budget early Tuesday, and the Senate followed Tuesday evening. The proposal includes increased funding for the Department of Corrections.

After two inmates attacked staff members at Anamosa State Penitentiary, the justice system budget became a flash point. The House and Senate both proposed budget increases, but Democrats and union representatives asked for significantly more. Under the compromise between the House and the Senate, the Department of Corrections will receive an additional $20.4 million over fiscal year 2020.

House Democrats attempted to pass an amendment that would require the Department of Corrections to fill current correctional officer vacancies and introduce new positions. It failed along party lines.

“Our number one priority should be funding and filling the positions that keep our inmates safe, our personnel safe and the state of Iowa safe,” said Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines.

The House unanimously passed an amendment to provide additional revenue for the Department of Corrections survivor benefits fund from the Iowa Lottery. The amendment also allows families of department employees who are killed in the line of duty to continue with that individual’s health coverage plan.

Worthan also amended the bill to introduce a new Bureau of Cyber-crime to help track and prosecute child pornography and other digital crimes in Iowa.

“I’ve waited 11 years to be able to write a budget that does the fantastic things that this budget will do for every department under our purview,” Worthan said.

The bill passed the House 53-36 and passed the Senate unanimously.

Health and Human Services Passed the House and Senate on Monday

The House and Senate passed a Health and Human Services budget Monday. Overall, the bill appropriates $2.04 billion from the state’s general fund to the Department of Public Health, Department on Aging, Department of Human Services, Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the Iowa Veteran’s Home. 

The funding for the state to take over the appropriation for mental health services is not present in this budget bill, but rather in the tax bill. An additional $50 million will be appropriated to the Department of Human Services to begin the buyout of the mental health and disability services system.

Bill leader Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, said some parts of the bill, including language on the child care “cliff” and telehealth parity, had been removed from the budget because Senate lawmakers agreed to pass them in other pieces of legislation or as part of the tax bill.

The Senate also sent a bill providing for a graduated phaseout of child care assistance, House File 302, to the governor’s desk Monday.

Transportation —Passed by the House and Senate in early May

The $397.8 million transportation budget was the first to make it through the Capitol. The Senate voted unanimously in late April to pass the proposal, and the House concurred unanimously on May 6.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.

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