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Vaudt critical of both parties’ Iowa budget targets

Rod Boshart, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

State Auditor David Vaudt took legislators from both political parties to task Tuesday for using fiscal 2013 budget targets that represented partisan position papers rather than transparent spending plans that would allow Iowans to assess priorities, as the split-control General Assembly and Gov. Terry Branstad work to finalize a budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The auditor said Branstad released a 1,300-page document that spelled out the specifics of his fiscal 2013 spending plan, while Democrats who control the Senate and Republicans in charge of the House issued two-page spending target documents that sketched out goals but failed to adequately inform Iowans regarding details or allow them to track what spending might be shifted to accounts outside of the general fund budget.

For that reason, Vaudt, a Clive Republican, said it was “just plain impossible” for him to make “an apple-to-apples” comparison of the various budget ideas that are being offered or to provide any overall conclusions about how the competing plans stack up. While the legislative spending goals are open, they are far from transparent in providing interested people with details they need to assess line-by-line details of next fiscal year’s state spending, he told a Statehouse news conference.

“Let’s lay it out. Let’s show people what we’re actually doing and let’s not come up with techniques that kind of camouflage what’s really happening. Let’s be honest with the taxpayers and show them what’s exactly happening,” Vaudt said. “It’s an incomplete picture. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. It makes it impossible to fully evaluate.”

The GOP auditor criticized legislative Republicans for starting a “highly misleading practice” last session of shifting $106 million in state spending from the general fund to a health care trust account as a way to hold the overall fiscal 2012 state general fund budget below $6 billion, when it’s actually spending around $6.3 billion. This year, he said, Senate Democrats want to move another $113 million into that same fund as a way to “camouflage” general fund spending, which would actually mean they propose to spend $88 million more than Branstad, as opposed to their claim of spending $25 million less than the governor’s budget plan.

“It’s just an expenditure shift,” Vaudt said. “It simply moves and hides millions of dollars of Medicaid spending outside the general fund.”

Vaudt also criticized legislative Republicans for including $63 million worth of proposed spending cuts in their fiscal 2013 targets that do not appear to be feasible.

GOP lawmakers plan to save $43 million by requiring a $200 monthly contribution per state employee and elected official for health insurance costs, but he questioned whether unionized state workers would agree to reopen current collective bargaining agreements to approve such contributions – a factor that skews the targets. Also, he said, it did not appear the $20 million in government efficiencies to be achieved by selling state-owned land was realistic either.

Vaudt said he hoped lawmakers would provide more detailed information in the future so the public can better assess what is transpiring during the budgeting process.

“You can have all kinds of openness but if you give people all kinds of information that they can’t interpret, it doesn’t help. You have to be transparent in how you present that information,” he said.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the state Constitution prescribes that the governor must submit a detailed budget plan within 30 days after delivering the Condition of the State address and both sides have sketched out the priority areas of the budget where they want to play the most emphasis as negotiations to finalize the fiscal 2013 spending plan before the Legislature adjourns in April.

“At least he’s being bipartisan,” Dvorsky said the auditor’s criticism of the House and Senate spending targets.

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