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Branstad says he’ll sign extra education money for Iowa soldiers

Rod Boshart, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday state’s fiscal house is in “solid” enough shape that he will sign a $1.3 million supplemental appropriation to provide needed money to assist Iowa National Guard members with educational costs such as tuition yet this school year.

“I will sign that bill,” Branstad told his weekly news conference, indicating he expected to hold a signing ceremony for Senate File 2007 sometime this week. “That will be the first bill of this session. I think it’s appropriate that the first bill is one that shows our support for the National Guard and for the significant sacrifice that so many families have made in service to our country in this critical time.”

The governor said he was confident the money for Guard education assistance “will not bust the budget” but it remained to be seen how the Legislature will deal with ongoing expenses that need to be addressed by June 30 while staying within the parameters set by Republicans who control the Iowa House that would hold overall general fund spending below their $6 billion target. Disagreements with majority Senate Democrats over spending levels for the current year budget kept lawmakers in session for 173 days and pushed them within hours of a possible government shutdown before they forged compromise and adjourned for the year with a $5.999 billion spending plan and a projected $389.6 million ending balance.

Last week the Senate voted 49-0 and the House followed with a 96-0 plurality to send the S.F. 2007 to Branstad’s desk but how the extra funding to be handled in the current budget remains unresolved. The legislation will allow the Guard to cover about 90 percent of returning Guard members’ tuition costs at Iowa colleges, universities and community colleges.

The Guard announced in December it would reduce the maximum Education Assistance Program award to 50 percent, which translated to a loss of up to $1,300 per semester for students at Iowa’s regents’ universities. Guard officials said the cut was necessary because more Guard members enrolled in college in the current semester than anticipated. When the cut was announced, the regents’ universities and community college began looking for ways to offset the cut, shifting funds for other budget line items to tuition assistance.

Senate File 2007 would increase the tuition assistance from $3,186,233 to $4,486,233 to pick up the tuition costs for Guard members enrolled in college this semester. The Guard anticipates the $1.3 million will more than cover students’ costs this semester. The remainder will be carried forward for use in the next semester.

Branstad also has asked the split-control Legislature to spend another $7.5 million to cover costs associated the state’s suspended film tax credit program and $6.5 million to pay for staff currently working at state prisons and community-based corrections facilities through June 30. Senate Democrats want to bump up the corrections supplemental to $8.5 million and cover the costs from the state’s ending balance but House Republicans say projected reversions should cover the film tax credits and Guard funding and they want any extra corrections spending to be offset by cuts in other areas in order to hold overall general-fund spending below $6 billion.

On a major fiscal 2013 budget front, Branstad said he believes he and leaders of the split-control Legislature are making progress on a session priority – easing commercial property taxes for job-creating businesses while capping future increases for agricultural and residential property at 2 percent a year and providing $50 million annually to local governments to offset potential lost revenue for cities, counties and school districts.

Branstad said he has adjusted his proposal to spread the yearly reductions for new and existing commercial property over eight years to improve Iowa’s competitive position. He said he has met with chairmen of both chambers’ Ways and Means Committees and characterized those talks as “constructive.”

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