- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Republicans have had plenty to celebrate this legislative session, as they pushed through a conservative agenda ranging from gun rights expansion to public worker collective bargaining restrictions, but none seem to be enjoying the final task of balancing the state budget.

Although GOP lawmakers pride themselves on reducing government spending, they acknowledge it’s hard to make the deep cuts needed in the face of sluggish tax revenue growth. Available money has also been reduced by tax cuts and credits approved in previous years.

“We have to leave here with a balanced budget,” said GOP Rep. Pat Grassley, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “We’re going to have to make difficult decisions to do that. But I think Iowans expect us to make the tough decisions, not kick the can down the road.”

Lawmakers could complete work as soon as this week on a roughly $7.24 billion budget that is more than $110 million less than what lawmakers approved last year, following a mid-year budget cut. A separate shortfall of more than $130 million was plugged with a rainy day fund, but Republicans have promised to pay back that money within two years.

Under a budget outline backed by Republicans who control both legislative chambers, the spending plan taking effect in July would include about $70 million less for health and human services and nearly $50 million less for the Department of Education when compared to spending approved around this time last year.

Iowa’s public schools would see a small funding increase, and the judiciary would face a $3 million budget reduction because its mid-year reduction won’t be restored. School advocates said the K-12 budget will lead to more students in classrooms, and court administrator David Boyd has alerted judicial branch staff of possible layoffs, reductions in hours and the elimination of specialty courts and programs.

“Make no mistake these are tough times,” he wrote in a memo.

The Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees Iowa’s three public universities, faces deeper cuts, as the schools collectively would have about $30 million less than a year ago.

Republican Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, co-chair of the education budget committee, acknowledged tuition increases were inevitable but hoped the regents “will recommend a moderate and modest increase to just cover what’s necessary.”

Programs such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University could have to close if lawmakers stand by plans to cut nearly $400,000 and remove other revenue spelled out in state law for the center. And the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa could take a substantial budget hit, though not an initial $1.5 million cut that would have largely ended the program.

Some cuts appear relatively small but could carry serious weight. Republicans have proposed reducing $1.7 million from grants that help provide services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. GOP lawmakers argue the reductions will be directed at staffing, but advocacy groups said the cut would slash more than 20 percent of overall state funding for victims.

Lindsay Pingel, spokeswoman for the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the reduction would threaten staffing for crisis helplines, counseling and emergency assistance to law enforcement.

“It’s absolutely horrifying” she said. “It will create a terrible ripple effect for years to come.”

Legislators blame the opposing parties for the budget dilemma, with Democrats saying GOP-backed efforts to cut taxes and approve more tax credits have resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars despite a relatively healthy Iowa economy. Republicans argue Democrats want to spend money the state doesn’t have.

“This is a really bad, ugly budget not caused by a national or global recession, but caused by poor budgeting decisions,” said Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids.

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