Education compromise may be ‘tougher’ this year after veto

State Sen. Herman Quirmbach, Jan. 14, 2009, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Alex Hanson

Despite party leaders saying they hope for a quick deal on education funding, the Iowa Legislature may be heading for another bitter battle over funding of schools in the state when they convene Monday.

Last year’s funding

The divided legislature went back and forth over how much to fund K-12 schools and higher education throughout the entire session in 2015. Democrats were pushing for a 4 percent increase, while Republicans stood their ground on 1.25 percent.

In the end, both chambers passed a bill increasing funding by 1.25 percent, but it also included $55.7 million in “one-time” funds, meaning the schools will only receive that amount this coming year. Along with the K-12 funding, and a certain amount of money for each state university, the legislature also passed a bill giving money to universities in hope for a tuition freeze in the spring 2016 semester.

Branstad ended up using his line-item veto power, which allows him to strip out specific funds from appropriation bills without vetoing the entire bill. The veto cut out the one-time funding for schools, which included $2,254,079 for Iowa State University.

He called one-time funding of schools in the state “unsustainable.”

As for the tuition freeze the legislature was hoping for, the Iowa Board of Regents decided to raise tuition during this spring semester at Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa, while the University of Iowa’s student government president lobbied for another freeze. The Regents voted last month to freeze tuition at ISU and UNI this fall, while raising it at UI — so each of the three state schools will see a tuition increase following last year’s legislative session.

Compromise and negotiations this session will be ‘tougher’

State Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a professor of economics at Iowa State, said negotiations on a wide range of issues might be tougher with the governor’s veto still fresh in Democrats’ minds.

“[The veto] is definitely going to make deal-making harder, not just on education, but across the board,” Quirmbach said, adding the governors office told legislators they could not see Branstad vetoing the agreement.

“Well, low and behold, he vetoed it,” Quirmbach added. “The governor undercut the compromise.”

Two Republicans — Reps. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, and Quentin Stanerson, R-Center Point — joined every Democrat in the legislature in requesting a special session of the legislature to convene and override the vetoes.

State Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, who chairs the Education Committee in the House, said he hopes lawmakers will put the veto in the past and come together on any compromise this year.

“Let’s put that in the past and move forward,” Jorgensen said. “Let’s come together like I think we can and should, and work out a deal as best as we can. It’s certainly not going to affect me on my willingness to negotiate and get the quickest and best deal.”

State Rep. Tedd Gassman, R-Scarville, who is vice chairman of the House Education Committee, said while the veto may have been unexpected, he does not think it will have an effect, at least on the House side.

“I don’t think the [veto] will have a long-lasting effect on the House side because it’s controlled by Republicans, but I guess it was a surprise that [Branstad] would do that,” Gassman, who voted in favor of the education funding compromise, said.

“I can’t blame him for what he did with that because he ended up probably being right, we are running shorter and shorter on money all the time, and we’ve got to take care of our budget,” Gassman said.

He also said based on conversations he had with individuals in the education field such as teachers and administrators he liked the idea of one-time funds that could be used on items such as textbooks and computers, but he does not see the legislature doing it again this year.

While a large chunk of Republicans voted for the agreement originally, the required two-thirds of the legislature did not sign on to call a special session. 

“[The veto] does break a level of trust,” said state Rep. Lisa Heddens, D-Ames. “It is going to put a strain on negotiations. I do think for our [Democratic] leaders, there will be a little more cause for concern. They’ll probably want to make sure they have something more in writing from the governors office on what they agree to and don’t agree to.”

In the veto, Branstad also knocked down an agreement by the legislature to reopen mental health facilities in Clarinda and Mt. Pleasant. 

“I’ll put it this way — you sit down with someone, you negotiate, you come to an agreement, nobody gets everything they want but you get some of what you want, you shake hands and you sign off,” Quirmbach said. “A deal has got to be a deal, and if you can’t trust that a deal is a deal, then negotiations are going to be tougher.”

House and Senate leaders told reporters at the statehouse Tuesday that they were hopeful for a quick resolution, including passing funding for schools early on in the session.

Education priorities this cycle

As for specifics on education funding this year, Quirmbach wouldn’t speculate on an exact percentage of an increase Democrats in the Senate would push for, but he said he has “no interest” at all in passing “one-time” funds for schools this session because of the veto. 

Gassman made similar comments, saying he cannot name a specific percentage increase because the estimates on state revenue continue to differ as they come in. Leaders disagreed on estimates at a news conference at the capitol on Monday.

Jorgensen said on the House side, he hopes his committee will move faster and have a level of funding established in a more “timely” manner so that schools will have more time to plan.

At the K-12 level, Jorgensen said another priority is address funding inequities between school districts in the state.

At their September meeting, the regents approved a request for a 4 percent increase in general university support. Board President Bruce Rastetter said they would revisit tuition if the legislature fails to approve the funding support.

Gassman said he has had a discussion with members of the House GOP caucus and they have signaled they want to pass state funding within the first few weeks, “but if the Senate is going to battle it out again, it could be a drawn-out process.”

“We’re going to come up with what we think we need to do and go from there in the House,” Gassman said. “These [state revenue] numbers move around, so you can’t really put them in the bag so stringently.”

Ben Hammes, a spokesperson for Branstad, provided an email statement to the The Daily about working toward a deal on K-12 and higher education funding. 

“The governor’s state goal is to hopefully reach 2.45 percent for supplemental state aid,” he said. “We look forward to working with legislators on both sides of the aisle and hope they can send the governor a school funding bill early in the session.”

News also broke last week that Branstad is planning to ask the legislature to extend a 1 percent sales tax currently used for school infrastructure from its original expiration in 2029 to 2049. 

The proposal would offer a minimum projected amount of base funding for school infrastructure and new dollars from projected growth, but the remaining growth in sales tax revenue would support water quality initiatives, The Des Moines Register reported last week.

“I don’t know what type of reception it will get in the House, but the voters voted on that money to go toward education … if the governor is proposing diverting some of those dollars, then I think that needs to be voted on by the people,” Heddens said.

Jorgensen said he, along with some other legislators, would like to see revenue from the sales tax increase go toward the funding inequities he mentioned, but he is willing to look at the proposal when more information is available. 

As for a tuition freeze, Heddens said she has spoken with students and they have said they are dealing with higher costs in areas outside of tuition. In regards to how much money the state “invests” in education versus how much a family contributes, Heddens said she would like to see the two “balance out” with more state support.

“You have to look at the whole picture of what sounds like a good political soundbite and how it’s actually impacting the students,” Heddens said.

Gassman said the House will have to continue looking at state revenue for a tuition freeze, but said he is personally focused on community colleges, places where you can “spend money wisely” on job training programs.

“We do as much as we can to help the regents out to keep tuition rates as low as possible,” Jorgensen said. “I think we’ve been doing a good job over the past few years, and we’ll certainly look at doing that again.”

State law requires legislators to establish the growth rate for funding a year in advance, and Quirmbach noted the Senate has obeyed that law for the past few years, meaning if it wanted to, the House could come in and pass a 4 percent increase right away.

Jorgensen said the House has passed a 2 percent increase that the Senate committee, chaired by Quirmbach, could pass.

“I think we’re going to do as well as we can for education,” Quirmbach said. “My priority is funding education because I think it’s the principle investment we make in our future.”

The 86th Iowa General Assembly will convene Monday, with April 19 as the target date for adjournment. Last year’s session went over schedule by several weeks as legislators negotiated on items.

Branstad will deliver his annual “Condition of the State” address, where he will lay out budget and policy priorities, to a joint session of the legislature Tuesday.

“My hope is that it won’t be a hugely contentious session, and that we can focus on issues facing Iowans, move forward and complete the session on time, or close to on time,” Heddens said.