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Senate Democrats pass school spending increases

Senate File 171 Debate BolkcomBy The Iowa Statesman

 

The Iowa Senate passed six bills today to substantially increase education spending for preK-12 school districts in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, while also shifting some of the burden away from property tax payers in those years.

Senate File 171, Senate File 172, Senate File 174, and Senate File 175, collectively increase preK-12 spending by 4 percent in both FY 2016 and FY 2017. They each passed on strict party-line votes with all 26 Democrats voting in favor, while all 24 Republicans voted against them.

State Sen. Tod Bowman (D-Maquoketa) – who is himself a high school teacher – managed the floor debate for all six bills, but much of the debate was had prior to considering SF 171. He said education funding must be Iowa’s “number one priority,” noting that Iowa spends $1,600 per student less than the national average, ranking it 35th nationally.

“Iowa’s future depends on high-quality local schools. This legislation is a serious and meaningful step in the right direction for Iowa schools. The amount we invest in each Iowa student should be at least at the national average. We can’t reach that goal in two years, but 4-percent increases in each of the next two years will reverse Iowa’s slide downward and start us in the right direction when it comes to education.”

Bowman said he has spoken with parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members who say the 1.25-percent growth approved last week in the Iowa House of Representatives “won’t get the job done.” He said the House-approved measure would result in more crowded classrooms, less one-on-one time with teachers, outdated technology and textbooks, and “deep cuts” in arts, sports, and music.

The House has not considered allowable growth for FY 2017 yet.

State Sen. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa) offered and amendment to the bill that was ruled out-of-order. Senate President Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque) said the amendment’s alterations were not permissible under state law.

To view the entire floor debate on all six bills, click here.

Democrats lamented the 4-percent increases being offered were “not enough” for schools. Republicans said they would prefer to do more, but 4-percent increases were “unsustainable” given the state’s current revenue streams.

A war of words then erupted over corporate property tax relief offered two years ago. Democrats, led by state Sens. Tony Bisignano (D-Des Moines) and Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City), railed about tax cuts for “corporate special interests.”

Republicans, on the other hand, reminded their colleagues that Democrats were in charge and controlled floor debate in the Senate when the property tax relief bills were approved. After the Senate adjourned, Minority Leader Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) continued the sharp rebuke of Democrats.

“It appears Senate Democrats declared war on Iowa property taxpayers and our rural communities,” he said. “Senate Democrats continue to demonstrate a clear lack of understanding for the struggles facing Main Street businesses, the mechanic we rely upon to help us commute to work and the daycares we entrust with our children.

Dix said it was “irresponsible” to suggest raising taxes on “hard-working Iowans” and eliminating “essential” job-creation tools for local communities. He said the Democrats’ suggestion would be a “devastating blow” to the state’s economy and rural communities.

“Today, Senate Democrats blamed property tax payers and job creators for the perceived shortfall in education funding,” he added. “The blame falls on Senate Democrats who continue to demonstrate they have a never-ending appetite for other people’s money.”

With the House and Senate substantially apart on funding, the matter will likely have to go to a conference committee. Conference committees are comprised of five representatives and five senators, each selected by the leadership of their chambers, and are tasked with finding compromise on House and Senate versions of legislation.

Senate File 173 and Senate File 176 each pass on the burden of a portion of the spending increases to the General Fund instead of local property taxes. In FY 2016, the amount is $17 million; in FY 2017, it is $62 million.

Both bills passed unanimously in the Senate. All six bills were immediately messaged to the House of Representatives for consideration.