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Worthan 'not panicking' about proposed cut in lake restoration funds

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Although lake restoration appears to have taken a significant cut during the state's preliminary budgeting process last week, Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, is confident Storm Lake's dredging will continue as planned.

For the fiscal 2014 lake restoration budget, Gov. Terry Branstad has allotted $1 million, but that number jumps to $16 million in fiscal 2015.

"There are other water projects in the state line-itemed in his budget," Worthan said. "We're still trying to figure out what he's doing, but we are not panicking yet for funds on Storm Lake's dredging."

When dredging first began in Storm Lake in 2002, about $8.6 million in state funds were available, decreasing to around $5 million last year. Storm Lake's project is expected to last another five years.

In fiscal 2014, Worthan said he believes funding will be between $1 million and $6 million; however, the final lake restoration budget will likely not be finalized until a half-day before the legislature adjourns in the spring.

"I can't guarantee that, but I think we will come close," he said, noting he and fellow Rep. Dan Huseman, R-Aurelia, will be watching the funding "like a hawk" throughout the session.

Discrepancies are nothing new. Last year, the Iowa Senate drastically cut lake restoration funding during the middle of the election, while there was an open seat.

"That was a campaign ploy, because funding was restored after a certain candidate made calls," Worthan explained.

The rest of the governor's budget appears to be positive.

"I believe 97.5 percent of revenue is what he has budgeted for fiscal 2014," Worthan said. "One of the standards that the house has laid out is to not spend any more than 99 percent of projected revenue, and the governor has met that goal."

The House has three weeks to set its budget target, but Worthan said the Senate likely has a "whole different idea," and hashing that out could be done as early as May 3 or take as long as June 29.

With state revenues up by about nine percent and an $800 million ending fund balance from last session, deciding what to do with the surplus will likely become a testy, hot-button issue.

"Although revenues are up, we want to make sure not to fall in the same trap Gov. Chet Culver did in 2007, with overspending and borrowing," Worthan explained. "While others have said we should spend it (fund balance), I look at it from another aspect. We made an agreement with the people to run the state on $6.25 billion, and need to pay back what we overcharged."

Property tax, mental health and educational reform, major issues from last session, are expected to surface again.

"We are really out of the mainstream as far as the cost of our property tax," Worthan said.

Currently, Iowa commercial and industrial land owners pay taxes on 100 percent of assessed value, making the state's rates among the highest in the nation.

Disconnect between the House and Senate has stalled progress. Last session, the House sent four property tax bills to the Senate, which failed to receive a hearing. The Senate also had its own version of the bill, but was unable to pass it.

"Over the last two years, we haven't gotten a whole lot of compromise from the Senate," Worthan said. "They have set their feet in stone, and have said, 'This is what we're going to do or not do anything."

Little progress with property tax reform has proven frustrating.

"One of the biggest disappointments last year was property tax, when our bills were ignored," he explained. "We pared features back and sent it (bill) back, and kept doing that, but each and every one was ignored. We'll see if the attitude is different this year."

The House is again at work on another version of a property tax reform bill, which details the state paying 100 percent of the foundational levy, rather than the 87.5 percent it is currently paying.

"That's a start, but we need to go father than that," Worthan said, noting suggestions have been made to tie all classes of property together, with commercial/industrial properties receiving the rollback agriculture and residential property currently has.

Reforming property tax while ensuring cities and counties receive enough revenue to function is a complex issue that will likely take all session, as will educational reform.

Teacher pay is expected to be a contentious issue.

Gov. Branstad has proposed multiple levels of teacher levels and pay, which includes beginning teachers, outstanding teachers and mentor teachers. While Iowa teachers have traditionally needed to pursue administrative careers to receive higher pay, the proposed levels give educators an option to stay in the classroom while still advancing in pay.

"The other side of the aisle has definite ideas for how teachers should be paid," Worthan said. "It will be a very spirited discussion before it's all over with."

Compromise will be necessary for mental health reform. When regionalized in 2014 to provide the same services statewide, county officials have expressed concern their tax dollars may be used to pay another county's deficit.

"It's not fair to the taxpayers of Buena Vista County," Worthan said. "The supervisors have been responsible and have levied to keep their mental health fund solvent."

Those three issues will take major time and discussion, Worthan said. "They're pretty heavy lifts, and if we get something accomplished, the session would be successful."

Smaller matters, such as an increased gas tax, legalization of medical marijuana and gun control are also expected to emerge during the session.

House Republicans appear to support an increased gas tax bill to make up for roadway repairs the state is falling behind on.

The DOT has reported revenues continue to fall short $215 million per year, which has delayed repair of over 5,400 structurally deficient bridges and completion of 135 highway projects.

Each extra cent has the potential to generate $22-23 million annually.

Bipartisan support will be needed.

"Both parties and both chambers will have to support it or it won't move," Worthan predicted. "While the governor has said he would sign it if it gets to his desk, which throws cold water on it. We need governor leadership on something that important."

Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, introduced a bill last Wednesday that would allow medical patients with certain conditions to use legally marijuana to lessen effects of debilitating diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer's disease.

"My own opinion is that anything to do with marijuana is a non-starter in the house," Worthan said, citing abuse in California. "I've heard there is a prescription drug that duplicates the effects of marijuana, which takes away the argument that marijuana is the only thing that suffices in those situations. While I don't want to see anyone suffer, I don't believe medical marijuana is the way to go."

While Worthan plans to propose a bill to keep gun ownership records confidential, he said he does not expect much change in law regarding gun-related issues.

"There's a lot of talk and smoke, but not much fire," he concluded.

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