Energized Republicans in the Iowa House jump-started the legislative session that begins next week by releasing a wide-ranging bill Monday that hits on spending cuts, shrinking government and tax savings.
Under the bill, state employees would have to begin paying toward health insurance, parents who can afford it would have to pay for preschool, a rail project in the Quad-Cities would be cut and mental-health funding would be revamped.
House Speaker-elect Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, and Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, stopped Monday in Davenport to talk about Republican plans for the legislative session that begins next week, including the Taxpayers First Act that would cut $114 million from the current fiscal year budget. Many of the GOP ideas were proposed in the past two years when Democrats controlled the Iowa House and Senate.
“We’re excited about this; we’re excited about this year,” Paulsen said. “There is a lot of energy.”
When the House convenes next Monday, Miller will chair the Health and Human Services Committee, and she looks forward to hearing new ideas.
“I’ve been in office for four years, and I haven’t had one idea I’ve had addressed,” she said. “I have a lot of things I want to try to do.”
They pointed to three issues that would be the focus of the Republican agenda — cutting spending, the economy and voting on a definition of marriage.
The Taxpayers First Act includes several ways to trim state government and cut $500 million from the remaining fiscal year budget and the next two state budgets.
“If we don’t address the current year’s budget, it is going to make it that much more difficult to deal with the fiscal year 2012 budget, and because Gov. (Terry) Branstad wants a bi-annual budget, then it sets us back for the fiscal 2013 budget,” Paulsen said. “If we don’t get it under control right out of the gate, then we will have some problems.”
Democrats have indicated a willingness to look at the proposals, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, expects that in addition to some good ideas, the GOP also will have “some bogus ideas and some bad ideas.”
“We’re not going to stall it,” he said about the de-appropriations plan. “We’re more than willing to look at (cuts). We’ll have a few ideas on cutting the current budget as well.”
The Republican plan also calls for minimum premiums of at least $50 for state employee health insurance and charging legislators and legislative staff for health insurance. The speaker-elect said it was embarrassing, as a legislator, to admit that he didn’t pay for his health insurance.
That’s unlikely to be popular with employees. AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan said it’s not something the legislature can do on its own because benefits are a mandatory subject of collective bargaining.
“We’re glad to work with the legislature on cost-savings, but I’ve already negotiated our contract for 2011-13,” he said. “We’re done. I’m not going to debate this in the newspapers. Bring it to the bargaining table.”
Of local concern, the bill would cut $8.5 million in appropriations for passenger rail between the Quad-Cities and Iowa City. It also repeals the current mental health statute and returns the burden of paying for programs to the state.
Paul Rumler, executive director of the Quad-Cities Passenger Rail Coalition, said a statewide passenger rail group will work to stop or lessen the proposed cuts.
Scott County officials have lobbied to take the burden of paying for mental health from the counties, but Lori Elam, the county’s director of human services, said the counties should retain some control over the programs.
“I have some serious concerns with the state managing this,” she said. “The county system managing the local community services is best because we know the clients and the responders, and we can help them at the drop of a hat.
“If someone is in a crisis, are they going to have to call a 1-800 number for help, and how soon will they get it?”
Elam anticipates several meetings in Des Moines regarding the bill that includes a $25 million one-time appropriation to eliminate waiting lists for services and cut empty shelter care beds.
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The bill also makes cuts in several educational areas, including voluntary preschool, area education agencies and at the regent universities.
Glenn Pelecky, chief administrator for the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, understands the bill is the first move of a political chess match but still worries about the loss of $1 million in funding to his agency. A cut of that size likely would result in the loss of 13 or 14 positions from a staff of 200 that would follow the loss of 30 positions caused by federal stimulus money ending.
“This is the first proposal, and most of the legislators in our area understand the AEA, and we are a long way from getting services cut,” he said. “I don’t think superintendents and parents will let this get cut.
“Every legislator respects education — it is just understanding the impact and then sitting down and making a tough decision. I don’t envy their position.”
The bill also cuts anti-smoking education and other smoking cessation efforts, the “Save our small business” fund and the Generation Iowa Commission that was created to attract and retain young workers.
Paulsen described the bill that was released Monday as “a starting point.”
“We’re serious about everything being offered in there,” the House leader said. Depending on how the bill moves through the process and what Gov. Branstad’s input is and what the Senate’s input is, I think it might have the opportunity to grow and save more money over time.”
Branstad welcomed the proposal.
“I’m pleased that they are seriously looking at changing the way we’re doing business,” he said.
“Obviously, we want to review and analyze all of their proposals, but I think that they are being very aggressive in looking at can we find a different way to do things and reduce the size and cost of government.”