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The art of accounting


Iowa is headed for a surplus that will be used to create tax breaks. Or, we’re spending $400 million more than we’re taking in, so you probably should start looking for a nice split-level in Yankton, S.D. Take your pick.

It’s no place for trusting souls or abacus users, the realm of state budget-making. Rough estimates lurk in every conference room, and if you can’t turn your opponent’s argument around on a dime, you might as well hand him your wallet and ask for a loan.

You walk into every fiscal year hoping for a list of reasonable needs and a nice, solid number preceded by a dollar sign. Before the proceedings are over, you start to suspect that the time-honored principles of addition and subtraction are nothing more than an elaborate cover story.

State Auditor David Vaudt, incoming Department of Management Director David Roederer and two members of the Legislative Services Agency recently took time to explain to journalists how the state budget process works, and it was appreciated. We had assumed that putting together the whole package must be like playing an accordion, but now we know better – it’s like playing an accordion while making sure that the number of quarter notes equals the number of half notes.

Roederer pointed out that Iowa has 742 funds to manage, ranging from the massive general fund to a casket full of cash for cemeteries. One theme of the day was that we get in trouble when we pour money from one fund to another, trying to adapt to changing situations. Or trying to put one over on the public. Take your pick.

If you think underground storage tanks tend to leak – and maybe you don’t; we’ve never really discussed it, have we? – take a look at what happened to the Underground Storage Tank Fund. Roederer reported that sizable amounts of money have drained out of it to the state universities, Department of Human Services field operations and school foundation aid.

Money seems to flow all over the place up on Capitol Hill; maybe that’s why they made the Statehouse corridors so wide. According to Roederer, a projected overall $456 million surplus for this fiscal year is nothing of the kind. By the time you figure in $900 million that is getting “shifted,” he contends, what you really have is a deficit of $444 million.

This strikes the untrained taxpayer as quite a discrepancy, and suggests that the state government could use a newer version of Quicken. Vaudt explains it this way: Think of the general budget as the state’s checking account. When we shift spending, it’s like using a charge card.

If you’ve ever opened an envelope from a credit card company and found a bill for $444 million, you know exactly how Iowa feels.

She’s still a nice, responsible state, but let’s face it – it’s easy to look good when you’re standing next to Illinois.

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a $25 billion state budget last May, and then in December proposed borrowing a cool $15 billion to pay the bills. If the budget target is up around the observation level of the John Hancock Center, Illinois’ actual numbers are on Lower Wacker Drive.

Still, we have enough to worry about on this side of the river. Branstad thinks we’ll face a $600 million budget gap in fiscal year 2012, but wants to use this year’s surplus – it looks like a surplus to him – for tax relief. We might continue to struggle for a while, but the theory is that these breaks can pay off down the road. Which sounds a little like an advanced form of shifting.

Here’s a comforting thing to think about when your tires are spinning on ice, or your workload seems unbearable: At least you don’t have to figure out a state budget.

Jim Pollock is the editor of the Des Moines Business Record. He can be reached by e-mail at jimpollock@bpcdm.com

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