Dear Iowa Legislators,
The new year is often a time to make resolutions. Forbes magazine claims that only 8% of people actually keep their New Years resolutions. With that in mind, I have read with interest many interviews in recent weeks with members of the Iowa legislature who say that setting education funding is their number one priority. I sincerely hope that is true. As you know, last year schools found out on July 2nd that they would only receive a 1.25% increase in Supplemental State Aid (SSA). This was after you had spent months in negotiations that led to that 1.25% increase and $56 million in one time spending that the Governor ultimately vetoed. Various news articles used the words “outraged” and “frustrated” to describe their reactions to his veto. Only 29% of Iowans supported the governor’s veto of K-12 funding last year.
The good news is that it’s a new year. You have an opportunity to identify your priorities through your actions. It is also exciting that 2016 is an election year. While the caucuses are absorbing a lot of Iowans attention right now, many of us are focused on the 2016 November elections for our statehouse. More than ever Iowans recognize that elections have consequences. Your actions in this session will surely impact the 2016 elections here in Iowa.
My plea to all of you is to listen to your constituents. Hear them when they tell you that they are outraged and frustrated. Hear them when they tell you that they want you to have a healthy debate and then come to consensus. While the roar from presidential candidates may make it seem that we are interested in noise and divisiveness, I think you will find that Iowans actually want action. In a state with a divided legislature, action means compromise.
I would ask you to reject the false narrative that we must be resigned to the austerity that has been created by recent legislative action. The Iowa Policy Project says, “Altogether business tax breaks will drain $611 million in fiscal revenue from the state general fund next fiscal year. At a time when the state is struggling to fund education at all levels, those business tax breaks take on added importance. And they tell us something about the state’s priorities.” I couldn’t say it better myself. Over the last 10 years, Iowa’s priorities have shifted. Forcing austerity on Iowa’s schools is a legislative choice. While the Governor says that Iowa is prospering (low unemployment, better wages, etc.), it is counterintuitive to say that there is not a way to do better for Iowa’s schools.
The governor has proposed a 2.45% increase in SSA for the next fiscal year. Compared to the 1.25% increase that he imposed on schools last year it is certainly a step in the right direction, but it falls short of keeping up with what Iowa’s schools are being asked to do. In addition, the Governor is asking you to divert sales-tax revenues to water programs from the “state penny” for school infrastructure. The Governor’s plan would reduce funds available to schools over the next 13 years. It also presumes that we can’t fully fund school infrastructure and clean water independently. Again, it is about priorities.
I would recommend you read study what the Iowa Policy Project has to say regarding state revenues (http://www.iowapolicyproject.org). I would recommend that read Dr. David Wilkerson’s editorial regarding the myth that Iowa’s schools are not succeeding (http://www.thegazette.com/subject/opinion/guest-columnists/stop-perpetuating-the-myth-that-iowas-schools-are-getting-worse-20160113). I would recommend you read what my friend Burton Hable has written regarding school funding (https://burhocky.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/gop-math-on-education-funding-doesnt-add-up/). I would also recommend you read what Scott McLeod said last July after the Governor vetoed that $56 million (http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2015/07/7-questions-after-governor-branstads-school-funding-veto.html). All of them do a far better job than I ever could in explaining why your job is so important this year.
At one time I had hoped to organize a rally this Saturday to show support for Iowa’s schools. It just wasn’t meant to be for a variety of logistical reasons. Instead I am going to watch hundreds of Iowa’s finest young people performing at a show choir competition in Waukee. There will be thousands of people there supporting Iowa’s young people. Those kids (and all of Iowa’s other young people) are the reason that what you do this legislative session matters.
Listen to your constituents. Know that we are watching and are looking forward to the 2016 elections. Iowans want you to act on our behalf. While the Governor may be enjoying his Imperial Governorship, polls would suggest that Iowans are not. You are our representatives. You are the ones who get to set our state’s priorities. I hope you will do right by us.
Patrick J. Kearney