Caution advised

BY ART CULLEN

We are told there is a $100 million hole in the bucket we call a state budget. This being Iowa, one could hope that legislators would enter Des Moines sober-minded and ready to dig in with discipline and public spirit to keep the people’s fiscal priorities whole. What we got was discussion of clamping down on Iowa sanctuary cities, restricting abortion, instituting voter identification, expanding access to guns and curtailing collective bargaining rights for public employees — none of which will plug the leak.

Republicans in control of state government can pretty much do what they want. They are long frustrated by former Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, leader of the Democrats, but he is history. The GOP is piling on with all the delayed ideology of the past decade or so. Overreach is almost irresistible. Gov. Terry Branstad is urging restraint on many deaf ears.

For those who take the governor seriously — and he does know how to survive — we offer a few humble suggestions:

First, set state aid to public education at a 2% increase. It will take all the fuel out of the Democratic fire.

Second, don’t cut taxes anymore when the budget is in deficit. Even Branstad says this.

Third, increase hunting and fishing licenses for the first time in 10 years. Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp, a former Republican legislative leader, is pleading for the increase as static budgets are not keeping up with costs. That’s why IDNR moved to shut down its Storm Lake office, why the Chautauqua Park jetty is eroding into the lake, and why island restoration has been delayed. And that’s just in Storm Lake. Gipp warns that there will be painful cuts to program and staff of up to 15%. Iowans want clean air and water, trimmed parks and good fishing. They have voted for increased natural resources appropriations by strong numbers — a 60% super-majority amended the Iowa Constitution in 2010 to fund the environment with a sales tax increase. Party leadership is opposed to increasing the sales tax. Bring relief by allowing an increase in hunting and fishing fees sufficient to allow IDNR to provide baseline services. And that is what we are talking about — just maintaining a budget that has not been fully funded since the 1980s.

Fourth, maintain the state promise to backfill losses of revenue to local government for commercial and multi-residential property tax cuts. Gov. Branstad is committed to it, but he won’t be around all session as he is set to become ambassador to China. This item could be the difference between smooth sailing and disaster for Storm Lake City Hall. Those property tax cuts that took effect last year caused staff and program reductions across the city budget. Plus, local residential property taxes skyrocketed. The state legislature must keep its word to local government and property owners.

Fifth, it would appear from the outside looking in that Medicaid “reform” put upon us unilaterally by the Branstad Administration is the cause of the deficit. Handing Medicaid over to private health insurance companies has resulted in $100 million in extra costs to the state, from the early accounting. Republicans must find a way to restore order from the chaos Branstad created. Good luck with that.

In short, legislators should concentrate on causing the least amount of pain this session. If they want to hold the majority, they should leave the social issues alone and get the budget under control early in the session while the experienced Branstad is still available to advise on the politics and to take the heat for them. It will not be easy. The task becomes more difficult if voters think that the majority is trifling with ghost problems (like sanctuary cities or fraudulent voting) or the serious work of ordering Iowa’s fiscal priorities.

Seeking justice, equality

Congratulations to Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser, who will receive the individual achievement award from the Iowa Department of Human Rights in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Prosser will receive the award next Monday at the Des Moines Botanical Center. He was nominated for his work with immigrants, and he should be deservedly proud. Storm Lake’s police department has been cited as a model for policing diverse communities. The chief is a frequent speaker on how rural communities can deal with immigrant influxes. And, he has made it clear that his department’s priority is not arresting undocumented immigrants.

Prosser was reared next door to East St. Louis. He led a homicide task force that worked mainly in African American neighborhoods. He understands as well as anybody the tensions between police and minority communities. He could have come to Storm Lake with a different point of view. Instead the department hired community service officers who can speak Spanish and Lao. Regular focus groups are held with low-income and minority groups. The chief was the first to note that Anglos commit crimes in the same relative numbers as African Americans or Latinos in Storm Lake. That opened up a lot of minds. And it takes guts. So he deserves the award.

The challenge is to constantly prove you are worth it. That’s the weight that MLK’s name brings. It’s hard work living up to those standards of equality and justice that King defined. That’s what community policing is all about, in the end: treating everyone equally regardless of their creed or color or accent and pursuing justice.