Senate committee moves budget bills without figures

By: - April 3, 2023 7:24 pm

An Iowa Senate panel approved four state budget bills on Monday with no dollar amounts included in the bills. (Photo by Getty Images)

An Iowa Senate panel approved four budget bills Monday — without any numbers included.

None of the budget bills approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee contained details on how much money senators plan to appropriate to Iowa’s government agencies, entities like Board of Regents universities or public assistance programs.

The committee — and subcommittees of the whole for the appropriations bills — discussed Senate Study Bills 1209, 1210, 1211 and 1212. All four bills outlined the new budget structure under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ agency reorganization plan. Reynolds plans to sign  legislation Tuesday to reduce Iowa’s current 37 cabinet agencies to 16.

Democrats said they understand the move to rewrite the budget language to reflect Iowa’s new state government system, but criticized Republican senators for putting the legislation through the committee process before releasing their spending plans.

“I understand you’re trying to get the House to move along with their budgeting process,” Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said. “This is might convince them to hurry up and do something — I kind of doubt it. Republicans are the ones that need to get together on this stuff and put some numbers in their budget.”

The Senate’s lack of communication on budget proposals has already been a point of contention between the two Republican-controlled chambers. House Republicans released their planned budget targets March 23. The House’s proposed $8.58 billion spending total is more than $90 million higher than the Senate Republicans’ and governor’s proposal.

House Speaker Pat Grassley said Thursday that more than $40 million of that increase is spending for programs lawmakers have already approved, like Reynolds’ agency reorganization bill. The remaining $50 million will put more resources toward programs like mental health resources and Medicaid reimbursement rates for Iowa nursing homes.

The House Republican numbers show where they plan to put more resources to solve problems — such as mental health care, law enforcement officer retention and recruitment — but Grassley said the details will be shared and discussed in the committee process.

“What they end up looking like, at this point, is probably difficult (to say), because the subcommittees will sit down and and hammer that out with themselves,” Grassley said. “But you know, we left the room in there to be able to address some of the priorities, I just don’t know what that’ll end up looking like at this point.”

Republican Sens. Jeff Taylor and David Rowley, in charge of the education and administrative budget bills respectively, said they were using the governor’s budget proposal laid out at the beginning of session for preliminary planning, but that those figures could change.

Democrats argued that by not confirming these numbers before holding meetings, Republican lawmakers were cutting the public out of the state budgeting process. Only one speaker, Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist with the Urban Education Network and the Rural School Advocates of Iowa, spoke during the four bill’s public comment periods.

Rowley disputed the idea that Iowans’ views were not considered when making the budget.

“So I took it upon myself to meet with several department heads, staff, and visit, get as much information as we could,” Rowley said. “I just want to make sure that everybody realizes that at no point were Iowans’ voice has cut out, or anyone’s. We’ve been working through this process and we will get that opportunity to debate on the floor as well.”

But without the information being public, it’s not yet clear what the financial impacts of the government restructuring plan will be on department budgets and personnel, Democrats argued. Senate Democrats asked for information on the personnel cuts, whether the loss in federal funding to programs like Iowa’s College Student Aid would be made up for with state dollars, and which properties the state plans to sell through the restructuring process.

“I commend the governor and her staff for at least putting some numbers to their budget,” Celsi said. “I think it’s ridiculous that this entire committee’s time and the entire lobby’s time and the entire public’s time — the few people from the public that were here — was wasted on this bill and the others. Not only do we as senators deserve to have numbers in budgets, but so does everyone else.”

One of those points was the state’s Workday contract, which ended suddenly in March. The state had spent nearly $16 million in the planned $50 million in contracts with the company, beginning in 2019, to convert the state’s human resource and financial management system, and the state has contracted again with its former vendor, CGI, to upgrade the financial management system.

Legislators and an Iowa Department of Administrative Services employee said they did not have answers to Democrats’ questions on issues like whether the state would attempt to recoup money from the Workday contract or if remaining allocated funds will go toward the new CGI contract.

Celsi criticized the Workday contract, which was controversial for not going through the traditional bidding process. Lawmakers approved $21 million for the already-signed contract in 2021 after first rejecting it. Reynolds had used federal coronavirus money to pay for the contract but was forced to return the money when state and federal officials said the project didn’t qualify.

“If we had gone through the normal procedure for approving this contract in the first place, the citizens of Iowa wouldn’t be out $15 million dollars and three years behind in implementing a new accounting software system for the state of Iowa,” Celsi said.

Senate Republicans said they plan to advance the other budget bills not discussed in the Monday meeting without spending details as well.

House appropriations subcommittees have held public meetings with agency officials but have not yet begun consideration of the budget proposals.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.