Editor's note: The following editorial appeared in the July 9 edition of the Tribune in Ames, Iowa.
First off, a round of applause for the Iowa Legislature for reaching bipartisan agreement on the budget without having to shut down the state government. In this age of rancorous partisanship, this apparently is no small feat.
Witness our neighbors to the north, who closed their state parks and agencies just before the Independence Day weekend because they couldn't reach a budget compromise. The result has been the opposite of what some might have assumed: The shutdown is not saving Minnesota money; it is costing millions of dollars.
Consider, too, the U.S. Congress, which, faced with a loudly ticking clock, is having a difficult time agreeing on a reasonable plan to raise the debt ceiling. President Obama was scheduled to meet with congressional leaders this weekend to try to break the deadlock.
By contrast, Iowa's political leaders from both sides of the aisle sat down and made compromises. It wasn't easy, but they got it done. Nobody got what they wanted, which is usually a sign in politics of a job well done.
To be fair, Iowa's financial picture is prettier than those of many states and the federal government. Besides having a stronger economy than most (farming rocks!), Iowa made a difficult 10 percent budget cut in 2009.
In fact, the Cyclone State is now sitting on a $480 million surplus. According to an excellent explanation by Des Moines Register business columnist David Elbert, the approved budget will use roughly half of that total, leaving about $265 million sitting in the bank at the end of fiscal year 2012.
It's important to note that this surplus is in addition to the state's rainy day fund, which has a healthy $430 million in it.
The question, naturally, is what the state ought to do with this surplus money. Conservatives, certainly, would recommend giving it back to the people in the form of tax cuts or rebates. Liberals, surely, would urge that it be invested back into the state's infrastructure.
In the spirit of compromise on which the nation was founded, we believe a little of both is the way to go.
Perhaps the biggest issue the Iowa Legislature couldn't agree on, and therefore left on the table, was a commercial property tax cut. Gov. Terry Branstad originally proposed a whopping 40 percent cut. Later in the session, amid negotiations, that percentage dropped to 25 percent. The Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to tackle the issue in a way that would happen more gradually and be even more beneficial for small businesses.
If our leaders believe a commercial property tax cut would be the most effective way to give back, then let's come to terms on the best plan and make it happen.
Meanwhile, Iowa should look to invest some of the surplus into its schools and universities. Iowa's public education system from preschool to professional school is among the nation's best, but it's not going to stay that way if we keep cutting.
Also, perhaps some surplus funds could be used to improve and maintain Iowa's roads, highways and bridges. As Elbert noted, Iowa once was considered to have among the nation's best infrastructure, but according to a recent study, that's not the case anymore.
CNBC recently released a comprehensive annual survey titled "Top States for Business." While Iowa did well overall, ranking ninth, it finished an alarming 37th in the category of transportation and infrastructure. That's down from 32nd in 2010.
(Editor's note: In the same survey, Minnesota ranked seventh overall, and 15th in the transportation and infrastructure category.)
As CNBC notes, "Access to transportation in all its modes is key to getting your products to market and your people on the move."
With its surplus, Iowa has an opportunity to make progress in this vital area, putting people to work on projects that will benefit the state economy in the short and long term.