Legislature takes step in right direction with budget agreement
“Compromise” and “bipartisanship” might be two of the most overused buzzwords in politics, but the Iowa Legislature gave the age-old catchphrases some merit last week when they agreed on a budget for the next fiscal year.
The 2014 General Assembly has been an outlier compared to recent sessions. There’s been debate, but contentious arguments about hot-button topics have been few and far between. It’s an election year after all, and no politician wants to wind up on the sour side of an angry electorate. Tax exemptions for military veterans and strengthened laws for convicted kidnappers are only two examples from an agenda ripe with bipartisan legislation. Even so, discussion on things like medicinal marijuana and a minimum wage increase have given lawmakers the opportunity to pound their partisan chests and do some grandstanding – they have to get it out of their systems somehow.
In a surprising change of pace, legislators threw political differences to the wayside last week and fast-tracked a budget compromise that amazed many pundits and reporters throughout Iowa. The House, Senate and Gov. Terry Branstad agreed on a $6.97 billion budget for the 2015 fiscal year beginning on July 1. The total is $29.1 million less than the $7 billion budget proposed by Branstad in January, and it increases overall general fund spending by 7.4 percent compared to the current year’s budget, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
The accelerated agreement is certainly an anomaly. The House and Senate typically pass separate budgets and then spend the remainder of the assembly reconciling the differences. It’s long and tedious, and it can result in a session drawn out beyond necessity. They opted to forgo that process this year, and will now work in subcommittees to fill in various portions of the budget with the $6.97 billion general fund amount. Many legislators and analyists expect the General Assembly to dismiss early this year following the streamlined budgeting process.
Some Iowans might not think the fast-tracked budget is anything to raise a fuss about – we send our lawmakers to Des Moines each year to pass one, so they're just doing their job. However, it's somewhat remarkable compared to the horse-and-pony show that is modern day politics. We live in an era where the federal government can completely shut down for weeks at a time, filibusters are the norm, and Congress remains in perpetual disarray over bickering matches and partisan finger-pointing. The Republican Party can't even agree with itself right now, let alone Democrats. Quite honestly, the General Assembly's speedy work and cross-party cooperation seems like an episode of "The Twilight Zone;" like we've somehow jumped into another dimension where things actually work, and work well.
Iowa's lawmakers have a unique opportunity to take this moment of compromise and run with it. They've proven they can reach across the table, but how far can they go? Many contentious issues like the minimum wage debate and the proposed increase in Iowa's gas tax are poised to continue indefinitely. These issues won't get solved in an election year, but our lawmakers could build on their recent progress during the next session and tackle these pressing matters head-on with proactive cooperation. It’s obvious that all our problems won't be fixed by an isolated example of bipartisan agreement. Iowa's lawmakers still need to divvy up the $6.97 billion general fund account for each individual budget area, so there's still plenty of time for squabbling and disagreement. At the very least, last week's compromise was a step in the right direction. Iowa's legislators proved this year that they can negotiate effectively while streamlining compromise, but all of it really means nothing if they don't use this opportunity as a catapult for bigger and better things in the future.