Education funding divides Iowa legislative leaders

Preschool boost 'would be a significant additional investment'

Rod Boshart
Published: January 23 2014 | 12:41 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:34 am in

DES MOINES – Top Senate Democrats said Thursday they plan to set a state aid funding level for K-12 schools in the fiscal 2016 school year and provide more money to expand access to preschools for 4-year-olds who currently face access shortages in Iowa communities.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he expects his 26-member caucus will get an allowable growth increase for the 2015-16 school year on Monday and move the issue to the full Senate for floor debate by the following week to abide by a state law that requires action by mid-February.

“We believe it’s important to obey state law,” said Gronstal, noting that Iowa’s forward-funding law requires the Legislature to establish a future financing level for elementary and secondary schools within 30 days after the governor submits his budget plan – something Gov. Terry Branstad did on Jan. 14.

The governor and legislative Republicans have ignored the law in recent years, opting in favor of a biennial approach that avoids overpromising schools state aid before a clearer picture of state tax collections is available.

Branstad and the Legislature approved state aid increases for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 last session, but the governor did not make a fiscal 2016 recommendation in the budget plan he unveiled this month and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said his chamber will wait until the 2015 session to address state aid for K-12 schools.

Paulsen said GOP lawmakers don’t want to repeat a situation that occurred under former Gov. Chet Culver where a state aid increase was set but then had to be cut by 10 percent when an economic recession slashed state revenues.

“We’re not going back to that,” he said.

Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said Senate Democrats also expect to propose a boost in preschool funding to address thousands of youngsters who are unable to get into early childhood education programs that have helped close the state’s achievement gap.

“Right now we have communities where there are more children than slots open for those 4-year-old children,” she said.

Gronstal declined to say how much increased fiscal 2016 state aid or higher preschool money Democrats will propose, but he said the preschool boost “would be a significant additional investment.”

Paulsen said no one has approached him about preschool funding levels this session, but he added “if the Senate Democrats are saying it will have a significant pricetage, my guess is it will be pretty big.”

On another topic, leaders from both political parties in both legislative chambers said they expect to have joint fiscal 2015 budget targets earlier than normal, and Paulsen and Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said Republicans will stand firm in resisting efforts to balance ongoing revenue with ongoing spending.

The budget plan that Branstad submitted last week projected net state receipts of $6.983 billion and $7.719 billion in available funds, which was below the expenditure limitation of nearly $7.65 billion. The governor proposed spending $7 billion next fiscal year – a $508 million boost in general fund spending needed to cover commitments to tax relief and education reforms that were approved last session.

Paulsen said he expected next year’s budget would spend more than current levels, but added that his caucus views the surplus as an overpayment by taxpayers that should be returned to them. He said Branstad and legislative Republicans “are going to walk side by side” in reaching a budget agreement. “We’re going to figure it out.”

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