A Tale of Two Town Halls

I went to two town halls this past weekend, and the differences between the two legislators were interesting.  One had hers in the middle of the day on a Friday, the other on a Saturday morning. One arrived late, stating she was there to listen to our questions. The other arrived early, gave a summary of what she was doing, what was going on up at the Capitol that would impact us, and then took questions. One sat and just listened; the other listened and took notes.

As one who makes a habit of reading a lot of the bills that are up for debate, I had a long list of questions, which I did get to ask, however in the interest of space I want to focus on the one subject that was a concern in both forums:  our schools, and the fear of what our governor and legislators are doing to hamstring their effectiveness.

My small town is doing their budgets now, and like all Iowa schools, not only are they suffering under massive state budget cuts, they are now being told they have to spend down their cash reserves before hiking property taxes.  While that sounds like a good idea in theory, the governor and Senator Appel do not seem to understand the economics of cash flow, or how our property tax system works. Keep in mind, it takes a school up to two years before they even begin to see new revenues from a property tax increase, and by then it can be too late for a school if an emergency arises and drains their allowed reserves. Since the government has been a bit schizophrenic lately regarding how much funding the schools will get, can you really blame schools for wanting to have extra reserves in order to have budget stability? Our small town school alone got a cut of $290k. To that point, on Friday our own Superintendent Wright asked Senator Appel  why they put the reserve ceiling at 20%, when most economists agree that it is a good idea to have a minimum of 3 months of expenses in the bank for emergencies (a 25% reserve threshold). Her response was that the bill “used to have only 10% allowed reserves, and now it’s 20%”. Translation: be grateful for what you got.  So, what if our small town school ever needed more than that? Well, forget our elected school board deciding – we would have to go and ask permission of the new School Budget Review Committee in Des Moines, made up of four governor appointees. So, what is the point of having an elected local school board if unelected officials are going to have the final say? Senator Appel agreed that it would “be one more hoop” for the schools, but it was to just protect the taxpayers from having property taxes hiked via a “rubber stamp” from the school boards.  Translation: don’t make Governor Culver a liar about not raising taxes. So, then who exactly is going to protect us from the Governor’s own “rubber stamp”? Hello Pot, meet Kettle.

This subject was also a hot topic at the Town Hall in Winterset, where Jodi Tymeson held her town hall on Saturday. Winterset Superintendent Wells expressed his concern not only about the bill above, but the 2% allowable growth expectation. Where were the schools going to get this 2% if they were not allowed to keep reserves higher than 20%, their state funding was going to be cut, and they received no relief from costly unfunded government mandates? Not only that, what if they do go to the School Budget Review Committee (remember they are appointed by a Governor who promised not to raise taxes) to ask permission to raise property taxes and they are denied? The only recourse would be to go to court, which would be an even greater expense to the school. Representative Tymeson agreed, and said that she would take that back to the Legislature to see if a formal appeals process can added as an amendment to protect schools from costly court battles that this new regulation may trigger.  By the way, Tymeson took a lot of notes of the feedback from her district during that Town Hall. Apparently she felt that we were worth noting.

Remember, we are all in this mess because of poor stewardship and gluttonous spending, nothing more, nothing less. We need to start demanding that our government follow our lead, live below its means, not use debt to fund new spending, limit our budget to only needs instead of wants, put money in savings to only be touched in a true emergency (like say, a statewide flood), and not pass laws that put our schools in the position of choosing between a tax increase or a debt increase.  This new requirement for our schools to spend down their reserves is nothing more than “a fig leaf for Chet Culver” , period (hat tip to Rep. Chris Rants for this quote – but I’m still trying to get that image out of my head).

So, Governor Chet, other than for that fig leaf, I’d say you have no clothes.

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