Budget bills advance in both chambers as lawmakers aim to end session

By: and - April 27, 2023 6:20 pm

Domes at the Iowa Capitol. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As Iowa lawmakers hit their final day of paid work, House and Senate lawmakers advanced the first round of budget bills Thursday.

The House Appropriations Committee passed four spending bills in Thursday’s meeting: Senate File 558 for the departments of natural resources and agriculture, Senate File 557 for state government administration and regulation, House Study Bill 248 for veteran’s care, health and human services, and Senate File 576 for the department of transportation.

Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, told Appropriations Committee members to expect a busy day Monday as House and Senate members finalize agreements on the remaining budget bills.

“As you know, we still have five bills,” Mohr said. “We hope we can come to agreement and we’ll close on them with the Senate, but we’re not there on some of them. I would hope to come to agreement today, or between now and Monday.”

As the House moved bills through the committee process, the Senate voted budget bills out with amendments Thursday, as bills were approved by Committee without numbers earlier in April.

Friday is the 110th day of the legislative session. Lawmakers will not receive their daily expense payments for session days after this week.

Democrats criticize lack of transparency

Democratic leaders criticized Republicans, who control both chambers, for adding spending figures to budget bills on the Senate floor, and for holding negotiations behind closed doors. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls criticized Republicans for not allowing the public to be a part of the conversation, and for the lack of transparency on the outstanding budget bills.

“The justice budget, judicial system budget, education budget, they still don’t have numbers,” Wahls said. “Republicans are trying to shut the session down, but Iowans are still in the dark and how we’ll actually be funding huge and critical areas of state government. It’s time for them to get to work to shut the session down, and next year, to make sure that they’re actually giving people the opportunity to weigh in.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley said lawmakers in the House and Senate were still negotiating final details in the remaining budget bills in meetings Thursday, but that they are trying to put themselves in a position to finish session next week.

“By the end of the day, I fully expect that those are all wrapped up,” Grassley said. “We’re just ironing out just last few of the details before anything would go final. But we’re in a good position, that my expectation would be, by the end of the day, that we’re sitting really good, prepared for next week.”

Some, but not all, of Reynolds’ health care priorities added to budget

The Senate passed its version of the Department of Health and Human Services budget, Senate File 561, on a 32-16 vote Thursday. It’s more than $63 million more than Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed budget, Sen. Mark Costello, R-Imogene, said, with $15 million appropriated for a nursing facility rebates increase and $13 million toward mental health and substance use services.

Senate Republicans rejected several Democratic proposals on more funding for postpartum Medicaid expansion, raising personal needs allowances under the Medical Assistance Program, and expanding child care assistance availability.

Parts of the governor’s health care omnibus proposal made it into the budget. The spending bill includes funding for the OB-GYN training fellowships and regional Centers of Excellence grants. It also allots another $500,000 for the More Options for Maternal Health program, but does not hit the $2 million expansion Reynolds requested. It also does not include the governor’s proposal to increase access to birth control. The proposal passed the Senate as an independent bill that has been taken up in the House.

Grassley said House Republicans have had conversations on “different variations” and amendments for the over-the-counter birth control bill, but did not say the caucus was likely reach a resolution before the end of session.

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, criticized Republicans for finalizing the budget behind closed doors and rejected proposals, like the postpartum care and child care amendments, that would help Iowa families and children.

“This brings tears to my eyes and makes my heart heavy,” Jochum said. “It is sad what we are doing to children in this state right now. A budget defines our priorities, and by the way, taxes are a part of that budget. And I want you to keep that in mind as I go through some of this right now. … In my humble opinion, this legislative session will go down in history as one of the most anti-child sessions.”

In the House, Democrats and lobbyists thanked Republicans for working with them to get some of the funding goals approved by the Senate. Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo, said she’s happy with the funding the House was able to secure, but remained concerned that the nursing home funding outlined in the bill will not be enough to help the industry as more facilities close.

Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, said he shared some of the concerns brought up, like funding for nursing homes, but that he stood by the budget as presented as a compromise. But Fry also said he’s had conversations about open nursing home beds available throughout the state and finding better ways to utilize existing resources.

“As it relates to the nursing home funding, as you know, our initial bill had $25 million, and it was pretty clear that I was the only negotiator in the building that was going to be pushing for that,” Fry said. “And so, my job became making sure that we got funding that would not be vetoed, ultimately, and that would sustain in the budget. And that’s where we landed finally at the $15 million and so I hear and echo your concerns related to nursing homes.”

Livestock disease assistance grows, but water quality research funding falls

A House subcommittee gave preliminary approval on Thursday to a Senate budget bill that would increase assistance for livestock diseases but would reduce funding for research related to the state’s water quality problems.

“All we have do is look at what avian influenza did and what happened to egg prices and how that affects the whole state,” said Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, in support of Senate File 558.

The bill — which sets funding levels for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources — was approved by the Senate 33-16 on Tuesday. It would earmark $250,000 apiece for euthanasia equipment and for vaccine development to protect Iowa livestock from “foreign animal diseases.”

Nearly 16 million chickens and turkeys were culled in Iowa last year to prevent the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza. Commercial and backyard flocks were infected during the spring and fall bird migrations.

Wild birds are still carrying the virus during this spring migration, but infections have not been as significant nationwide. The last confirmed infection in Iowa was in late January in a Buena Vista County flock of about 28,000 turkeys.

The budget bill would also siphon at least $500,000 of funding from the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and redirect it to the Department of Agriculture.

The center gave about $1.4 million in each of the past two years to support research of farm field nutrient management, edge-of-field practices to reduce nutrient runoff, land management and others.

Part of that money instead will be used by the ag department to implement some of the practices that have been developed with the help of that research.

Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, who opposed the bill in the Senate vote earlier this week, was worried that the shift of funding would affect available research money to track the contaminations of the state’s waterways.

“Without data, it will be easy to say there’s no problem or we don’t know how to measure the problem,” she said on Tuesday.

Rep. Sean Bagniewski, D-Des Moines, voted against the bill in a subcommittee meeting Thursday, saying he took issues with the nutrient research and water quality budgeting changes.

“I’m sad to see that about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and some of the water quality initiatives, but otherwise, pretty good budget,” he said.

Democrats express concerns over unspecified increase for governor’s office

When the Senate passed the state government administration and regulation spending bill Wednesday, Democrats questioned what the $494,000 increase allotted to the governor’s office would be used for. Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, said he knew the funding would not go toward full-time equivalent positions, but that he was not sure what specifically the money will go toward.

“I think we asked the governor the same question, but I’m not positive what the answer was coming out of that,” Kraayenbrink said.

Kollin Crompton, Reynolds’ deputy communications director, said the money will go toward staffing expenses.

“The increase in office budget will help recruit and retain the talent necessary to support the significant whole-of-government work that Iowans expect the Governor to lead,” Crompton said in a statement. “The Office of the Governor’s budget has been near stagnant for over 10 years and is significantly smaller than similarly-sized states like Arkansas, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Utah. Moreover, according to a 2021 Council on State Government report, Iowa is the 20th smallest state but tied for the 4th smallest governor’s office staff.”

Rep. Mike Bergan, R-Dorchester, told House Appropriations Committee members the funds will be used to add staff positions.

“We’re not in making changes to that staff number, we’re still at 25,” Bergan said. “But the additional funds will help with recruitment, as well as retention of the talent that’s necessary to support our governor, our executive branch in the process, and this budget reflects the support for that ask.”

Rep. Jerome Amos Jr., D-Waterloo, echoed Senate Democrats’ concerns about the governor’s office budget increase. He said until the Legislature gets answers on the details for the governor’s office spending, he could not support the bill. The bill passed out of committee on a 16-7 vote.

Outside of the governor’s office budget increase, Bergan said the bill largely keeps administration and regulation spending at the “status quo,” matching the current fiscal year funding with adjustments to reflect the realignment process signed into law in early April. The budget also includes allocating $4 million for the creation of a centralized cybersecurity services fund, replacing the current process of billing each individual department or agency for the work.

While Democrats have brought up concerns that the government reorganization process would lead to the elimination of government jobs, Bergan said there were “very few” changes to full-time positions in the budget bill from the previous year.

The legislation also included $1.4 million more for five new full-time equivalent positions at the Iowa Utilities Board “to support their work with utilities and pipelines,” and $2.5 million more for Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System to hire 10 new individuals for member support and financial investment positions, Bergan said.

With several departments now under the new Department of Inspections, Appeals and Licensing umbrella, Bergan said, lawmakers worked with state government staff to ensure funding and positions were kept at the same level as fiscal year 2023 in the budget.

“We looked at departments with budgets coming in status quo — FTE status quo — as we did that alignment, really without upsetting the applecart through this reorganization,” Bergan said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Rep. Sean Bagniewski voted in favor of advancing the agriculture and natural resources budget bill out of a House subcommittee Thursday. The bill advanced 2-1 from the panel, with Bagniewski not recommending it advance.

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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.

Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.