DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate voted Wednesday to raise state aid to K-12 schools by $134.9 million effective July 1 and provide another $38.9 million to offset potential local property tax increases under the state’s school foundation aid formula.
The 26-23 party-line vote to approve a 4 percent “allowable growth” increase was pushed by majority Democrats’ desire to comply with the state’s forward-funding law that requires the rate of growth that elementary and secondary schools can expect to be set within 30 days after lawmakers receive the governor’s budget proposal.
GOP senators sided with Gov. Terry Branstad in voting against the bill, saying the governor was right to insist that education reforms be passed first before lawmakers take up the allowable growth issue.
“We’re moving ahead with allowable growth in a premature fashion,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, one of 23 Republicans to vote against Senate File 52. “Let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse” by approving a 4 percent boost in base funding for Iowa’s 348 school districts before lawmakers know how much general fund money will be required to implement education reforms that are moving on a parallel track through the legislative process.
That drew an incredulous response from Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the bill’s floor manager, who noted that lawmakers already are a year out of compliance because the GOP-run Iowa House refused to take up the Senate-passed school funding bill last year as prescribed by state law. “We’re violating the law by a year, and yet you say we’re premature,” he said.
Democrats argued that superintendents may be forced to lay off teachers, postpone purchases, eliminate support positions and reduce curriculum offerings if lawmakers fail to decide by March the level of increased state aid that K-12 districts will receive for next school year.
“If you want world-class education, you’re going to have to pay for it,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “We’ve got to quit doing this on the cheap. It doesn’t work. This is the right thing to do. School districts need this answer.”
The Senate bill, which would boost per-pupil funding by $240 — from the current $6,001 per student to $6,241 in fiscal 2014 — now goes to the Iowa House, where it faces an uncertain future as GOP leaders have indicated they plan to follow the Republican governor’s directive in passing his reform package before turning to the supplemental state aid issue.
In his Condition of the State speech on Jan. 15, Branstad detailed a five-year, $187 million education reform proposal that would increase pay for new educators — from a minimum of $28,000 to a minimum of $35,000 in the next five years — and redo career paths for teachers. He signaled that he expects lawmakers to approve the reforms before talks turn to education spending. To that end, he did not include any new money in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal to fund “allowable growth” for K-12 schools.
Under the state’s school aid formula, a 4 percent allowable growth increase in state would trigger a boost in local property taxes which cover 12.5 percent of the cost. Democrats offered a bill that was passed unanimously whereby the state will pick up that $38.9 million cost. A separate measure to also boost “categorical” school funding for class-size reductions, professional development and teacher salary supplements totaling $13.7 million also was approved on a 26-23 party-line vote.
Senate Republicans used the property tax measure as a vehicle to offer their proposal to return more than $800 million in surplus “overpayments” back to taxpayers in the form of income tax credits totaling $750 per household or $375 for each single filer, but Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, ruled that the amendment was not relevant to Senate File 53.
Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said he was disappointed the GOP tax cut plan was sidelined by a procedural move that denied taxpayers a “historic opportunity” to get back tax credits that would amount to “real money” that could be put back in the economy. However, he applauded the property tax relief measure that attempted to deliver some equity to districts with varying levies, noting the state offset likely would buy down about $2 per $1,000 assessed valuation in his community.