Lawmakers should follow laws

House GOP's decision to skip school funding vote is a mistake that leaves districts in the dark

Todd Dorman
Published: February 6 2014 | 8:21 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:16 am in
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So the Republicans who run your Iowa House say they won’t approve public school funding for the 2015-2016 school year, even though the law requires it.

That law is silly and outdated, they insist. They’re smart and responsible, so they don’t need some dumb law to tell them what to do. And it’s totally unfair to make lawmakers follow a law they made.

It’s tough to tell whether these are legislators or teenagers trying to buy a six pack.

The not quite 20-year-old state law directs the Legislature to set state per-pupil funding two years in advance, and within 30 days of receiving a governor’s budget. The goals are pretty simple. Make school funding a top priority, give school districts ample time to plan ahead and make it less likely that critical school bucks will get tangled up in all the budgetary horse-trading that happens late in a session.

These are the state bucks that determine the size of local school budgets, what programs they can offer, how much staff they can afford, and so on.

Lawmakers have missed the 30-day deadline lots of times, under both Democrats and Republicans. But for most of the life of the law, passed by a bipartisan Legislature and signed by Gov. Terry Branstad, legislators have tried their best to get advanced funding passed. Until recently.

Last year, House Republicans delayed passing a funding bill because they wanted to pass a series of school reform measures first. Now that those reforms are law, the excuse this year is that they don’t want to pass funding in advance because they don’t know what state revenues will be in the future. They’d rather wait until next year.

I’m not saying Republicans are anti-education, or that they must accept the 6 percent funding increase passed by the Democratic Senate on Wednesday. They can set a percentage they think is reasonable and then negotiate. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

What I am saying is their excuse for breaking the law is bogus. They had no problem at all passing big commercial property tax cuts, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in state payments to local governments over the next several years, with no inkling of what future revenues will look like. State leaders hand out tax breaks and credits like candy with no worries about future revenue. This desire for revenue clarity is highly selective.

And while the House GOP claims to pine for certainty, uncertain school officials must draft their budgets in pencil and wait until Statehouse types get around to telling them how much money they’ll have. We’ll get back to you by March. Make it April. May for sure. Republicans say they’re doing schools a favor by not making a promise they can’t keep. The schools don't see it that way. And since the law was passed, the vast majority of those funding promises have been kept.

Figuring out how to make a promise that can be kept is lawmakers' job. It's also the law.

This is not the path to the world class schools the governor says we should have. Districts are far less likely to try transformative initiatives and launch innovative programs if their budgetary visibility is reduced to just a few months. Uncertainty encourages districts to hunker down and cling to the status quo.

Maybe Republicans are waiting because they’re sure they’ll control the Legislature next year, and then they won’t have to negotiate. The governor has said he wants to change the way schools are funded, but doesn’t say how. It would be great to hear these big plans, in advance. But like school districts, I bet we’ll have to wait.

 

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