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DES MOINES — Public and private education policy, changes to unemployment benefits and crafting the state’s $8.2 billion budget remain on state lawmakers’ to-do list as they approach the unofficial target date for adjournment.
And there appears to be some significant ground to cover before the Republican-led Iowa House and Iowa Senate reach an agreement on those big remaining issues.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, of Ankeny, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, of New Hartford, on Thursday fielded questions about some of the top issues left to tackle.
Whitver said he feels the Senate has passed the bills that accomplish priorities set out for the session by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and Senate Republicans, and said it is incumbent upon the House to now follow suit.
“A lot of those (bills) are in the House at this point. So it’s just a matter of, are they going to do the governor’s priorities or not?” Whitver said in an interview. “The governor rolled out an extremely bold, ambitious, conservative agenda that Republicans should be able to get done.”
The 100th day of the session, when legislators’ daily allowance for housing and food expenses expires, is April 19. But legislators can work beyond that date if needed.
There are key areas of disagreement between the House and Senate on multiple pieces of significant legislation, perhaps none more so than on K-12 education policy.
This week, both chambers passed education bills. But the House narrowly addressed transparency in and parent involvement with school materials and curriculum. The Senate passed a bill that not only addressed those topics, but also proposed a new program where taxpayer funding for public K-12 schools could be used to fund private school tuition assistance of $5,520 apiece for moderate and low-income families. The Senate bill is close to what Reynolds proposed at the outset of the session.
The House bill does not contain the private school tuition assistance because, just like in a similar attempt made in 2021, there are not enough House Republicans who support the idea. And Democrats have been unified in opposition.
“They cut the governor's priority bill in half,” Whitver said of House Republicans. “So they’ve passed half of it, and we’re kind of waiting on the other half.”
Grassley signaled Thursday that the sticking point among House Republicans remains concerns from those who represent areas with rural school districts. Many leaders in smaller, more rural districts have expressed concern that the proposal could cause significant issues if it leads to students leaving their schools.
“’There’s some (House Republicans) that just I don’t think are going to support it. But there’s others that continue to say, ‘We want to work through this process,’” Grassley told reporters. “We’re going to continue to see where those similarities are using the governor’s bill, and where we can get the caucus to, and what level of support that we can find, and obviously ultimately find 51 votes to take a step forward on school choice.”
The private school tuition assistance program could prove particularly disruptive if Senate and House Republicans fail to reach an agreement.
When asked if failure to pass the proposal could delay the session’s end, Whitver said, “It’s the governor’s top priority, or one of the top two or three priorities she laid out. So generally in a session, you don’t go home unless you address those priorities.”
Statehouse Republicans are more closely aligned on a proposal to reduce the duration of state unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 16, but holding up agreement is Senate Republicans’ desire to incorporate a one-week delay before benefits begin. House Republicans have not agreed to that provision.
And again, Democrats are united in opposition to the changes.
“Again, this is the governor’s priority that we sent to the House exactly as she asked for, and they watered it down,” Whitver said. “So it’s a matter of trying to figure out what we can get passed over there” in the House.
Grassley said the one-week waiting period is a difficult issue on which to compromise.
“That doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room. It either is or it isn’t (in the bill),” he said. “We’re continuing to have the conversation with the governor’s office.”
Reynolds earlier this week said she continues to hold frequent meetings with legislative leaders with the goal of completing their work and ending the session.
“We try to communicate all the time. … We’re all having conversation. It’s just part of the process,” Reynolds told reporters Wednesday. “We’re going to sit down and go through (budget bills) as well as the other bills to figure out where we can align and come to some consensus to end the session.”
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