Trying to meet budget target

CAPITOL LETTERS

BY STATE REPRESENTATIVE GARY WORTHAN

District 11, R-Storm Lake

Chairman of the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee

We are at that time in the session when the Legislature slowly makes the turn away from policy bills and begins to concentrate on the budget. Policy bills need to have passed in one chamber and been approved in committee in the opposite chamber, in order to remain alive. That doesn’t mean that bills that have supposedly died in the funnel process won’t be resurrected as amendments to legislation that is still viable. Nothing here is unequivocally dead until the gavel falls on the sine die resolution that closes the session.

Budget bills were beginning to move in both chambers last week. There are nine budget bills in total. One half will start the approval process in the Senate and half in the House. This year the Justice Systems budget will start in the Senate. My Senate counterpart, Senator Garrett will manage the bill through the process in the Senate and send it over here to the House. While the Senate and the House have very similar priorities in this budget, the Senate has set a lower spending level than the House. At this point the Senate has opted to leave more in the treasury at year’s end than we have planned for. The Senate is working toward an ending fund balance near $330 million, while the House goal is $280 million. The difference in the Justice Systems budget is just over $7 million. While $7 million does not seem like a lot in a $760 million budget, the difference makes for a significant impact.  If we spend at the Senate’s level, most departments will barely be able to cover the increases brought on by the new labor contract settlement. The additional $7 million in the House plan will allow for increased staffing in the Clerks of Court offices in all of our county courthouses, more juvenile court officers, additional special agents in the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), and ten additional highway patrolmen.

I am hoping that we can bring the Senate much closer to our budget target as we negotiate. Their current budget may result in downsizing in the patrol and DCI which is absolutely contrary to the goals that I set back in 2011 when I became the chairman of the Justice Systems Budget Committee. From a high of 455 troopers back in the early 1990s the patrol had dwindled to 345 troopers through the 2000s due to budget restraints and shifting priorities. Since 2011 we have been able to build strength back to 390 troopers. My short term goal is to attain a force of 420, so as retirements and resignations occur between annual patrol academies, we can maintain a minimum force of 400.

Our House budget also allows for new agents in the DCI. The major case unit at DCI is operating beyond full capacity, and they are stretched to the limit when local law enforcement needs help when serious crimes occur in rural areas. As we look to the future, DCI will need to expand their capabilities in the area of cyber-crime. As more and more of our daily lives rely on computers and the internet, crime in this arena is escalating. Stemming the tide of identity theft, theft of intellectual property, and online larceny will take an increasing number of special agents who are nothing like our image of the detective that solves crimes by analyzing physical evidence and questioning suspects.

Policy committee chairs are holding their final committee meetings and finishing their responsibilities. The seven budget chairs in both the House and the Senate are ramping up to approve their budgets. They will enter negotiations between the chambers that will send a set of departmental budgets to the Governor that will meet the needs of our constituents and respect the taxpayer.