Iowa Senate Blocks Plan to Drop Legal Ads From Newspapers

By: Mike Glover

A sweeping government reorganization effort aimed at squeezing $40 million from state spending to head off projected budget shortfalls received initial approval Wednesday, with lawmakers rejecting arguments that the savings weren’t real.

The Senate State Government Committee approved the plan on a 10-4 vote along party lines, with Democrats favoring and Republicans opposing. It now goes to the full Senate for debate as early as next week.

Supporters of the plan say it saves money by consolidating purchasing programs and computer networks throughout state government, as well as merging eight relatively small agencies into other organizations to save administrative costs. A host of boards and commissions are either eliminated or consolidated under the plan.

“I believe 2010 is going to be a year of reform in Iowa,” said Sen. Staci Appel, D-Ackworth, the measure’s main backer.

The measure is part of a larger package being pushed by Gov. Chet Culver to cut more than $100 million in state spending and close budget shortfalls sparked by a recession-driven slowdown in state tax collections. A consultant hired by Culver estimated roughly $180 million in savings in the first year of the restructuring effort, and $1.6 billion over five years.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, labeled the effort “a once in a generation review” of how state government operates.

“We’ll never know until we try,” Danielson said. “I think it’s a very healthy process.”

Critics said majority Democrats were simply taking the projections on budget savings at face value, arguing there’s little objective evidence the savings would take place.

“At first blush it looked great, but we’re creating more bureaucracy,” complained Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull.

The panel did balk at one proposed cost-saving, a section of the measure that would have ended a requirement that local governments publish accounts of their proceedings in local newspapers.

As a practical matter, those legal notices are life-sustaining for many weekly and small daily newspapers. Critics say no one reads them, and they amount to a newspaper subsidy.

“This is nothing but welfare for newspapers,” complained Sen. Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, the only panel member who favored ending the publication requirement.

Critics of the requirement said there are far cheaper ways to publicize government activities, including on the Internet.

“It really is the only revenue source they can hang their hat on,” said Sen. James Seymour, R-Woodbine. “Not everyone in the rural area has the Internet.”

More packages aimed at trimming spending are looming. The Senate is also scheduled to debate an early retirement incentive program for state workers that Culver projects can save up to $60 million a year.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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