Guest Opinion
In Iowa, it’s really the budget rhetoric that’s out of control
By David Osterberg, Executive Director

As published in the June 23, 2011, Gazette, Cedar Rapids

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The Gazette’s opposition (June 16 editorial) to deep cuts to some services provided by the Department of Natural Resources is welcome. One essential fact should be added: Iowa’s budget is in good enough shape to avoid the need for such cuts in any part of the state budget.

Political rhetoric avoids the fact that state spending as a share of the economy has shrunk. The general fund budget is smaller now in relation to the Iowa economy than it was when Gov. Terry Branstad was last in office in 1998. (www.iowafiscal.org/101006-publicvalue.html)

In other words, state spending has not kept pace with the growth in wages and business profits over the past dozen years. Spending no more than we used to spend as a percent of the economy, we can avoid cuts in DNR and other agencies and keep critical services.

By not keeping our former level of funding, we shift costs to Iowa citizens. Look at the Regents universities. Last year, the state provided fewer dollars to the University of Iowa than it did in 1998. By not adjusting state funds for inflation, tuitions are forced ever-higher: 227 percent since 1998, from $1,333 per semester to $4,357.

In Iowa, budget rhetoric is what’s out of control. We have a manufactured “crisis,” not a real one. Let’s put our discussion about budgeting back on a foundation of logic and facts, rather than scare tactics.

When we do that, we can see that Iowa can afford to provide preschool for every Iowa 4-year-old, because we know it improves education and economic opportunity across the board.

We can hold down the rapid increases in tuition at Kirkwood and the University of Iowa. We can mow the grass in our parks, improve the low salaries of our teachers and nurses, and do much more while keeping spending at or below 1990s levels.

What we can choose to cut, in that effort to fully fund vital services, are the perks for the profitable. Tax cuts for big corporations that already avoid their fair share of the bill cannot be sustained if vital services are to remain.

Superior state services attract residents. These services also create a productive workforce, which is the real reason companies can make money.

Despite a short-term budget problem because of the Great Recession, revenues have improved. We can fund quality K-12 and higher education, clean air and water and safe streets. We can invest in Iowans as we once did, and foster both a dynamic economy and the services we have come to expect in our state.


David Osterberg is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, a non-partisan public policy research organization in Iowa City. IPP reports are at www.IowaPolicyProject.org. Comments: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.