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Lawmakers to tighten focus on budget issues

Rod Boshart, CR Gazette –

DES MOINES — With much of the remaining legislative agenda set, members of the split-control General Assembly are focusing on the dollars and cents of shutting down the 2012 session.

The task of crafting the remaining pieces of a fiscal 2013 state budget that legislators began shaping last session under their new biennial budgeting format will get greater attention this week. Majority Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate will position themselves to again deal with the bulk of their differences in joint conference committees. Last year that process averted a government shutdown when the Legislature reached final agreement on June 30 — the day before the fiscal year began.

“Every session of every General Assembly is different, so I don’t think we’ll have a repeat of last year,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said last week.

Leaders in both political parties say they are committed to avoiding a repeat of last year’s protracted session shutdown. But they concede that finalizing a fiscal 2013 spending plan will be intertwined with the yet-to-be-resolved reform initiatives for commercial and other classes of property taxes, education and mental health service delivery — which all carry budget ramifications.

One lawmaker likened the cluster of related but unresolved priorities to a Gordian knot, while others have used a train analogy with the budget being the engine pulling a chain of issues subject to partisan derailments.

Paulsen said it was possible for many of the major priorities to become inseparably linked, but he hoped to avoid that.

“I think we can handle these pieces individually,” he said, adding that it won’t be easy to find common ground on the list of remaining issues.

House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, said he was hopeful that bipartisan agreements would emerge on the property tax, education and mental health reforms in the next three weeks.

“We’re still hopeful we can find some compromises,” he said. “We’re starting to run out of time.”

The Legislature’s two appropriations committee leaders — Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, and Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville — said the spending gap they must close to reach a fiscal 2013 budget agreement is between $200 million and $300 million, depending how you divide up the numbers. Gov. Terry Branstad set his fiscal 2013 spending level at $6.244 billion, while House Republicans set a target of $6.06 billion. Senate Democrats came in slightly below the governor but moved $113 million in general fund spending to the health trust account.

“There’s still a pretty big gap, both between the House and the Senate and the House and the governor, and we’re looking to resolve those,” Raecker said.

The biggest differences to resolve beyond the overall spending level are in the areas of higher education, mental health and Medicaid spending, and property tax relief, although there are a number of smaller budget disagreements that likely will be addressed in House-Senate conference committees beginning as early as next week, he noted.

Dvorsky said he was encouraged that House GOP leaders are indicating that their budget numbers are a starting point, which is different from last session when they set their $5.999 billion threshold as a spending ceiling.

“If it’s a starting point, then that gives us some hope to sit down and start negotiating,” he said.

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