Up at the Statehouse, there arose such a clatter...

Todd Dorman
Published: January 28 2013 | 8:27 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:38 am in
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Gov. Terry Branstad’s budget advisers had a simple, festive message for state lawmakers as they returned to the Statehouse.

You’d better not pout. You’d better not cry. And don’t go playing Santa with the big surplus.

Good advice. But it’s getting drowned out by all the sleigh bells.

There’s no shortage of ideas on how our state’s $800-million-plus pile of good fortune should be dispatched. Almost everyone has a list. Checked twice.

This past week, Senate Republicans endorsed a House GOP plan to give nearly the entire surplus back to we the taxpayers in the form of an income tax credit of up to $750 per household.

Elsewhere, lawmakers are talking about a possible gas tax increase. This is what’s known as two-pocket tax policy. Into one and out of the other.

Democrats who run the Senate would rather aim any surplus-based tax relief at lower-income Iowans, while also making many “investments,” also known as spending. Education, mental health and health care have been mentioned, among others. Branstad wants to use some of the surplus to kick-start his efforts to reform K-12 schools and his ambitious plan to slice everybody’s property taxes.

So what do voters want? You got me. Most Iowa voters did endorse Branstad’s agenda in 2010. As for the Legislature, we left control of the joint divided last fall. So signals are mixed.

And lawmakers’ track record on handling surpluses is not great. They tend to plow them into permanent tax cuts or ongoing spending. When revenues eventually dive, the budget busts.

So maybe it’s our turn to blow the surplus. How much worse can we do? Instead of just sending us a tax credit, our Statehouse leaders could send us a menu of surplus options.

Some of us would take the money. Some of us might have other ideas.

Perhaps we’d like our share of the surplus to go toward state aid for our local school or to patch a highway or buy some wholesome family movies for viewing in state prisons. A tasteful portrait of my family in the Capitol rotunda might be nice. Or “Dormanville” on the new DOT road map.

Say, how much is a gubernatorial proclamation? A legislative resolution? A senator?

If you’re going to play Santa, the least you can do is ask us what we want. Just pretend we’re lobbyists.

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