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Branstad vetoes $56 million in school spending, rejects plan to preserve mental health centers


DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Terry Branstad announced a series of budget vetoes Thursday, using his powerful pen to cross out $55.7 million in one-time education funding as well as a bipartisan deal to keep two state mental health institutes open.

Branstad announced the vetoes late in the day before a holiday weekend, as he acted on a slew of budget bills. While the governor approved much of the more than $7 billion in spending passed in the Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate, he struck down several carefully negotiated deals.

In a veto message, Branstad said he was being fiscally prudent, writing: "As the chief executive of this state, it is my responsibility to have a long term vision that maintains stability and predictability in our state's budget. I made the decisions today in order to prevent across the board cuts that occurred under the previous administration."

The vetoes came after a particularly difficult legislative session that dragged well past the expected concluding date. At the center of the debate was a philosophical difference over the funds available to spend. By using some one-time spending in the deal, Republicans could maintain a pledge to keep ongoing spending in line with projected revenues, while Democrats got more money for key priorities such as education.

But in the end, Branstad removed much of the one-time spending. After his actions, the spending for the fiscal year that began Wednesday includes $7.17 billion in ongoing general fund expenses, as well as $56 million in one-time payments. The one-time payments — originally set at $135 million by lawmakers — come from surplus fund dollars left at the end of the previous fiscal year.

In addition to cutting funds for K-12 education, Branstad removed one-time payments to higher education in the state. In a statement, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said the board remained committed to a tuition freeze in the fall semester at the three state universities.

Education funding had been a point of contention during legislative budget talks, with Democrats seeking to spend more than Republicans. The final agreement included an increase in ongoing money for K-12 education, as well as the one-time payment. But Branstad said one-time spending was not wise and that the state was investing in schools in a variety of ways, including a teacher leadership program created under his watch.

Democratic lawmakers disagreed with his move.

"The Branstad-Reynolds Administration is deliberately undermining bipartisan efforts to boost student achievement in our K-12 schools and to make higher education affordable for students from working families," said Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, in a statement.

The fate of the two mental health institutes — in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda — was also hotly debated during the session. After Branstad sought to end funding for the facilities, lawmakers reached a deal to keep the Mount Pleasant center open and to seek a private provider to run the other.

Branstad argued in his veto message that it was not in the best interest of the state to "continue operating an aging, antiquated mental health institution." He said the state could continue with two remaining facilities and provide better care.

Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, said he was disappointed.

"In the end, the Governor ignored the will of a majority of Iowans and once again took the 'my way or the highway' approach to getting things done," Taylor said in a statement.

This story has been updated to correct that Taylor is a Democrat.

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