Iowa Legislature leaders still optimistic about adjourning soon

Overall budget remains sticking point, but 'people of good faith' exchanging ideas

On the 109th day of a scheduled 110-day legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said lawmakers will “stay until the job gets done.”

Although he couldn’t explain his optimism, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said that could be next week.

“People are talking about their differences and that’s what the end of session is about,” Gronstal said, refusing to handicap which priorities might be thrown overboard because lawmakers can’t reach consensus. “We’re working on all of them. People of good faith really are coming together, ideas are being exchanged.”

So while discussions continue, Paulsen and Gronstal conceded the sticking point is “the big number” – the overall budget number.

In February, Senate Democrats proposed an 11 percent increase in general fund spending to $6.9 billion in fiscal 2014. That’s about $487 million more than the 3 percent increase House Republicans proposed. Republicans said they would spend just 98 cents of every $1 of state revenue while Democrats would spend $1.05.

But those were just targets, and the parties and the governor have yet to settle on a final budget number. Both Gronstal and Paulsen said they continue to meet with each other and Gov. Terry Branstad’s staff and will continue to do so. Neither would say how recently they had met.

“If that’s helpful, that’s what we’ll do,” Paulsen said.

“There’s not a magic formula” for setting an overall budget number, he said. “We’ll figure that out. We’ll work through it.”

In the meantime, conference committees will continue to meet “and once we have agreement on a final number, those budgets will be settled in hours.”

Medicaid expansion

Gronstal rejected the suggestion that lawmakers might come back in special session to address plans to expand health care access for low-income Iowans. Senate majority Democrats have proposed a Medicaid expansion plan to cover as many as 150,000 more low-income Iowans. Gov. Terry Branstad and House majority Republicans have approved a Healthy Iowa Plan that doesn’t rely on Medicaid.

“The best option is for people of good faith to come to common ground,” he insisted, adding, “I always see common ground.”

Property tax relief

Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said the Democratic plan, which focuses on commercial property tax relief, “is not a true reduction.” It’s “unacceptable” the Democrats’ plan doesn’t address rising property taxes on homeowners and farmland owners.

However, Senate Way and Means Committee Chairman Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, thinks getting the competing property tax plans into a 10-member House-Senate conference committee is a positive.

“In the past, the leaders and the governor tried to work it out,” he said. The result was no relief. “So we think the conference committee process can be quite productive.”

The first step, he added, is for the conferees to decide what problem they are trying to solve. He favors the Senate plan to reduce commercial property taxes rather than the broader House plan that includes changes in K-12 school funding and returning the state’s budget surplus to taxpayers.

That’s a political statement, Bolkcom said, “not prudent or responsible budgeting.”

Dix said his caucus is “committed to staying at the table for how ever long it takes” to reach an agreement on any plan that reduces property taxes on all classes of property.

Education reform

Paulsen is “extremely frustrated” with Democratic responses to the House education reform plan.

“I do not understand why Democrats continue to slow-roll this,” he said. “Their last – I wouldn’t even call it a proposal – ignored all of our priorities. That’s not acceptable.”

He said Republicans have increased funding and incorporated some Democratic policy pieces.

“I can tell you, we’re not putting money in front of reform,” he said. “That’s what’s been done for decades. The reform is import. We need to move classrooms forward.”

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