Des Moines —
Since the economic downturn that hit in 2008, Iowa's vibrant economy has helped build unprecedented revenue growth and surplus funds for the state. We've generally outperformed the rest of the nation the last five years with a lower unemployment rate, quicker recovery, and fiscal discipline that has generated today's record surplus.
We laid the foundation for growth back in 2008 when the national downturn first hit Iowa and we've run a surplus every year ranging from $335 million in 2009-2010 to well over $800 million today. I was serving in House leadership at the time and we made tough choices that have helped our economy over the long run.
Now that we're in a strong position, there are a lot of ideas floating around about what to do with these surplus dollars. We can't - and shouldn't - spend every extra dollar we have but we also can't over-promise on tax cuts that will put us in the hole a few years down the road, especially with a world economy still anemic and farmers perhaps facing another year of drought.
We've all committed to commercial property tax relief of some kind. The Governor has recommended shifting $400 million from property taxes over to our general fund and spending an additional $149 million for education reform. House Republicans have proposed draining all of the surplus and using it for tax cuts.
While some of these ideas have merit, the reality is we can't do all of that. We need a balanced, targeted approach that keeps our economy growing and invests in the middle class.
While there is indeed some room for tax relief, we can't ignore our critical needs either. Our schools have been squeezed pretty hard over the last several years and are still struggling to keep up with rising costs. Businesses are facing a skilled worker shortage right now and it will only get worse if we don't keep tuition at community colleges and our universities affordable. The redesign of our mental health system also requires additional resources and too many of our roads and bridges are in need of critical repairs.
Fortunately, our strong budget gives us the flexibility to make progress on these critical needs and provide some tax relief.
First, we must keep our reserve funds full in the event of another economic downturn or lingering drought. Second, we should provide significant, targeted property tax cuts to Iowa businesses without giving over-sized tax breaks to out of state, big box stores that won't use the money to help our local economy. We should also target tax relief to the middle class through incentives like the Earned Income Tax Credit which give working families a boost.
Finally, it's time to invest in our people and make sure we can compete in today's global economy. It starts with a high-skilled workforce that never stops learning, a strong ag economy, and a solid infrastructure for the 21st Century.
While it won't be easy, we need to work together and use our state surplus wisely. It's an opportunity we can't afford to miss - or squander.