On a mostly party line vote, the Republican-controlled Iowa House approved changing the way the Legislature sets funding levels for local school districts rather than meet Thursday’s deadline under current state law.
House File 2194 is likely to be rejected in much the same manner in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
HF 2194 would change the budget process to have lawmakers set allowable growth every other year. For example, in 2015, the Legislature would set the numbers for 2016 within 30 days of the start of the session. Lawmakers would set allowable growth for 2017 before adjourning.
“The reason is simple,” Education Committee Chairman Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, told colleagues in a long and sometimes chippy floor debate. Setting state aid to local schools, which amounts to 43 percent of the general fund budget, should not be done outside the two-year budget process lawmakers use for the rest of the states $6 billion budget.
Democrats argued that state aid to schools should be set first because children are their top priority. Including the school funding in the budget process pits school aid against other line items.
They countered with an amendment to set allowable growth at 6 percent – the same number as Senate Democrats approved. It was ruled not germane to the bill.
Democrats called for Republicans to follow current law that requires the Legislature to set state aid within the first 30 days of each session. The session started Jan. 13.
“I have yet to hear why it is OK to ignore a law that has been on the books for 22 years,” Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said. “And what is the penalty? The penalty will not be felt by us, but by the over 450,000 public school kids and their families in this state, and the thousands of teachers and administrators trying their best to prepare our kids for the future.
“They are the ones that will pay the penalty, not this Legislature,” she said.
In the end, the bill was approved 54-43 with all Republicans and Democratic Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines of Des Moines voting for it. Forty-three Democrats voted against it.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said Democrats like the current forward-funding law that requires the Legislature and the governor to decide the funding level for K-12 schools early in the session and providing districts with 15-18 months of lead time to plan their budgets.
“We think the current law makes a lot of sense,” said Gronstal, who called it a “solid assumption” that the Senate would not take up the House-passed education funding law changes this year. “They’re looking for some excuse not to follow the law that’s on the books today.”
The House also made corrections to a bill approved last year that allows school to either operate on a 180-day calendar or a 1,080-hour calendar. The correction addresses situations in which a school shortens the school day for safety reasons, such as weather.
It was approved 94-0.