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April 10th, 2011

Republicans Struggle With Branstad’s Biennial Budget

By Nathan Tucker

Republicans in the Iowa House refused this past week to support Governor Branstad’s proposal for a two-year budget, just as questions are being raised over how a two-year budget can be reconciled with Iowa’s Balanced Budget Act.

The House passed a two-year transportation bill on March 30th, the first budget bill of the legislative session.  The Des Moines Register reported that the governor was “chipper” and congratulated the House for taking “a bold and important first step in passing a two-year transportation budget.  I want to thank them for helping me put Iowa on a path to a sustainable budget future.”

Perhaps the governor’s chipperness was premature.  Foreshadowing a lack of commitment to a two-year budget by House Republicans, Representative Scott Raecker, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told the Register that we “are just responding to the governor’s comments that he’s going to insist on a two-year budget and veto anything that’s other than that…It’s not our idea, but we’re trying to respond to the governor’s insistence that that’s what he wants.”

Undaunted, however, Branstad “got fiery on the topic” at the GOP-fundraiser “Night of the Rising Stars” Saturday night.  According to media reports, the governor told the crowd that “the budget that I’ve submitted and that I’m going to insist on is a two-year biennial budget…If they send me a one-year budget, I’ll veto it, and I’ll veto it, and I’ll veto it until we get a two-year budget and get the state on the right financial track.”

The Senate, however, wasn’t persuaded.  Citing concerns over giving the executive too much power with a biennial budget, the Senate passed a one-year transportation budget on Wednesday.  Without putting up any apparent fight for the governor’s proposal, the House passed the one-year budget later the same day.

Showing a lack of conviction on the issue, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said on Iowa Press Friday that “House Republicans are supportive of that initiative…[The governor] is going to get his first opportunity to change his position…into action.  We are going to send him the transportation budget…We’ll know by Wednesday” if he is serious about the two-year budget.

In short, if the governor wants a two-year budget, he’s going to have to fight for it himself with the veto pen.  When asked by The Iowa Republican (TIR) if Branstad will veto the one-year budget, Tim Albrecht, the governor’s communication director, simply reiterated old talking points without any reference to past veto threats.

As legislators and the governor argue over the policy merits of a one-year versus two-year budget, questions remain over how a two-year budget can comply with Iowa’s Balanced Budget Act.  The act specifically requires that expenditures cannot exceed 99% of the estimated revenue for the coming fiscal year.

By law, the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) must determine by December 15th the estimated revenue for the following fiscal year beginning on July 1st.  There is, however, simply no provision for estimating revenues two years in advance.  Since the REC does not have a revenue estimate available for Fiscal Year 2013, Branstad has based his proposed two-year budget on figures determined by the Iowa Department of Management.

That appears to be a flagrant disregard for the law, which mandates that budgets can only be based on estimates provided by the REC.  When asked by TIR, Tim Albrecht failed to explain how a biennial budget could be reconciled with the current Balanced Budget Act.  Similarly, all three members of the REC declined comment.

Though he also declined to comment, State Auditor David Vaudt had earlier admonished a Democratic governor that he cannot propose, and the legislature cannot pass, an unbalanced budget.  It would seem that the criticism would equally apply to a Republican governor as well.

Photo by Dave Davidson

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About the Author

Nathan W. Tucker
Nathan W. Tucker is a Davenport attorney and author of We The People: The Only Cure to Judicial Activism. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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