Branstad wants education reform bill done by end of February

Timing would allow Iowa school districts to set budgets before deadline

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DES MOINES – Gov. Terry Branstad said Tuesday he believes the split-control Legislature can finalize work on an education-reform package by February and then decide what level of state aid K-12 schools would receive for the next school year without causing a financial pinch for districts facing budget deadlines.

“I believe that the Legislature has time in the months of January and February to pass significant education reform that still gives them plenty of time then also to indicate additional supplemental funding for education over and above that,” the governor told his weekly news conference.

Last week Branstad detailed a five-year, $187 million education reform proposal that would increase pay for new educators – from a minimum of $28,000 to a minimum of $35,000 in the next five years – and redo career paths for teachers to help garner the respect the teaching profession deserves. During his Condition of the State address, the governor signaled that he expects lawmakers to approve the reforms before talks turn to education spending.

To that end, the governor did not include any new supplemental state money in his fiscal 2014 budget plan for what traditionally has been “allowable growth” for K-12 schools. Branstad said traditionally lawmakers fight over education and other budget funding areas until the end of the session, oftentimes failing to address important issues, and he does not want to see that scenario repeated in a year when he has proposed major reforms to Iowa’s education system and property tax issues.

“I really believe Iowans are ready for us to work together on a bipartisan basis to improve education. I believe the Legislature should take this responsibility seriously, give it a priority and go to work on it now,” he said of his education reforms.

“I don’t accept the fact that we have to be Washington, D.C.; that everything has to be a gridlock and everything has to be a partisan fight,” the governor told reporters. “We’ve worked very hard to put together something that we think has broad-based support and I think it’s important for the Legislature not always to go back into the partisan corners and say, ‘let’s duke it out over this.’ Let’s instead say how do we come together.”

Schools officials around Iowa have expressed concerns that they face deadlines to certify their fiscal 2014 budgets that could force them into situations where they have to issue layoff notices to teachers or school employees if the Legislature and governor have not approved a level of increased state aid by March.

Last week majority Senate Democrats announced plans to approve a 4 percent increase in base funding for K-12 schools for the fiscal year beginning on July 1. That level of funding would require about $136 million in state aid, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said Democrats proposed taking $38.5 million from the state’s special taxpayer trust fund account to cover the property tax implications of a 4 percent boost in state aid.

On Tuesday, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he expected senators would begin a “careful and thorough” review of Branstad’s education reforms “without delay” but Democrats will insist on moving ahead immediately with legislation to raise base K-12 funding by 4 percent for the school year that begins July 1.

“There is no justification for us to create chaos in the very institutions we depend on to educate our children,” Quirmbach said a speech on the Senate floor. “Voters and taxpayers across the country are sick and tired of governments waiting until the last hours before a deadline to make crucial budgetary decisions. They are fed up with artificial crises created by obstinate politicians not doing their jobs and holding out for some personal or political advantage.”

Democrats have accused the GOP governor of trying to “bully” them by issuing an “ultimatum” that the reform measures had to be taken up first before talk turns to money for K-12 schools, but legislative Republicans said they viewed Branstad’s position as a “reasonable” request for improving Iowa’s education system. House Republicans planned to put the education reform issue on a fast track with subcommittee consideration already under way on Tuesday.

“I’m not one that puts out ultimatums. We want them to know we are serious about this. We have not asked them to do a lot, but we have asked them to focus on the things that are most important,” Branstad told reporters Tuesday. “The sooner those can be resolved, the better.”

Branstad said the biggest budget issues facing lawmakers this session are education funding, Medicaid funding and possibly expanding the program’s eligibility, state employee salaries current subject to collective bargaining negotiations and property tax reforms. He said he provided his budget blueprint to legislators last week in hopes that those issues could be resolved without “a repeat of two years ago” when it took the Legislature and governor until the last day of the fiscal year to strike a budget agreement on June 30, 2011.

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