DES MOINES — Majority Democrats in the Iowa Senate voted Tuesday to boost base funding for elementary and secondary schools by 4 percent for the next two fiscal years, a funding commitment that minority Republicans said the state cannot afford and cannot sustain.
Senators passed measures on 26-24 party-line votes to raise state aid to Iowa’s 338 K-12 public school districts by $212 million in fiscal 2016 and $217 million the following fiscal year. Democrats also agreed to raise categorical funding supplements for schools by 4 percent, while Republicans joined their majority counterparts in voting 50-0 to have the state pick up the 12.5 percent property tax share under the state’s foundation aid formula for both fiscal years.
“Education funding must always be our state’s No. 1 priority,” said Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, in pushing for the 4 percent yearly boosts. “Iowa’s future depends on high-quality local schools. This legislation is a serious, meaningful step in the right direction for Iowa schools.”
Republicans said they share Democrats’ commitment to schools, but Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said the Legislature has failed to meet its past commitments to K-12 schools six times since fiscal 2002 “to the tune of $600 million.” He said nonpartisan estimates say spending cuts or tax increases would be needed to balance the next two state budgets.
“I’m questioning the sustainability of 4 percent in fiscal 2016 and 2017,” Chapman said. “The real question is where do we make those cuts or where do we raise that revenue?”
While the subject was education, a property tax debate broke out for a time on the Senate floor as several Democrats blamed the commercial property tax reduction passed two years ago for taking a bigger increase in fiscal 2016 than education to provide tax breaks to large and out-of-state corporations at the expense of Iowa schoolchildren.
“The elephant in the room is the commercial property tax passed in this chamber two years ago,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, calling the tax cut “horrendous” and one that is having consequences for years to come. “We have no alternative until we deal with the elephant. I’m not saying repeal it, roll it back.”
GOP senators noted, however, the 2013 property tax cut passed with 20 Democratic votes and has helped small businesses in rural areas that are facing declining K-12 enrollments and school consolidations.
“It’s easy to throw darts at things of the past. We’re absolutely near-sighted,” said Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull. “In rural Iowa, this is huge. It creates and sustains our rural communities. I’m very offended when somebody comes up and says it’s the big, bad commercial property tax bill.”
Bowman said Iowa currently ranks 35th nationally, with per-pupil spending more than $1,600 below the national average. The Iowa House previously passed a 1.25 percent boost in state aid for fiscal 2016 and favors a 2.45 percent increase the following year, but it has not acted on a fiscal 2017 funding level for K-12 schools. a level that Bowman said would continue a downward slide for Iowa schools.
“For example, I know that at Maquoketa High School, textbooks for the government class haven’t been replaced since 1999,” Bowman said. “No 9/11. No iPods. No space shuttle Columbia disaster. No George W. Bush.”
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, called it “patently absurd to say that I or my colleagues don’t care about education,” but she questioned the sustainability of a K-12 funding level that goes beyond the $100 million in new money that House Republicans and Gov. Terry Branstad had committed for fiscal 2016.
Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville, praised the Senate for following Iowa law that requires the second year of school funding to be set within 30 days of receiving the governor’s budget, a deadline that hits Thursday.
The K-12 funding issue now likely goes to a House-Senate conference committee.
Under the GOP approach, current state per-pupil funding of $6,366 would grow by $80 in fiscal 2016 and another $158 in fiscal 2017. By contrast, the Senate’s 4 percent position would boost per-pupil funding to $6,621 for the 2015-16 academic year and $6,886 the following school year.