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Iowa lawmakers still trying to bridge major differences on budget

James Q. Lynch, CR Gazette –

DES MOINES – Hopes for the Iowa Legislature adjourning this week gave way to the reality of fiscal and philosophical differences that already have kept lawmakers at the Capitol a week past their scheduled adjournment.

Legislative leaders and the governor’s office say they have agreed to a general fund budget of approximately $6.242 billion. The differences, however, are over how much to spend “off budget” or beyond that number.

“If there is a legitimate one-time expenditure to match up one-time money with, we’re open to having that discussion, but we’re also not going to start going crazy spending money,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said.

Although careful not to characterize the situation as a stalemate or stand-off, Paulsen and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, conceded there is little more for rank-and-file lawmakers to do until they reach agreement on the budget.

“We’re out of work – on the floor,” Paulsen told reporters, but was quick to say budget talks will continue along with negotiations on high-profile issues such as education reform and property tax reform.

“Every time we meet we make progress,” Gronstal added.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, painted a different picture, calling Republicans “discombobulated, divisive and dysfunctional.” If the negotiations were a cross-country trip, he said, Republicans got as far as Nevada before turning around and driving into the Pacific Ocean.

“That would not be my assessment,” Gronstal said when asked whether the differences between the parties were growing.

Both parties are “working in good faith toward resolution,” Paulsen said. “We just need to keep doing that. Keep talking, plowing through the pieces and figure out how the puzzle comes together.”

At the same time, the idea has been floated that solving that puzzle could be left for the 2013 Legislature. Unlike last year when lawmakers worked up to June 30 to complete its work, there’s little threat that state services would be interrupted if the budget is incomplete at the end of the state’s fiscal year.

The budget approved last year fully funds K-12 education through the 2012-13 school year and provides adequate funding for Medicaid and property tax credits,” said Sen. Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, a member of the Appropriations Committee. The budget discussion this year, Dix said, is about spending more money.

“That’s probably OK if it’s within reason,” he said. “There were a number of areas that, I think, people generally agreed should have more resources.”

Adjourning without completing the budget is not part of Paulsen’s game plan.

“We are committed to getting this resolved, but we are not going to roll the taxpayers of Iowa,” Paulsen said.

Likewise, delaying action on education reforms that were a priority for both parties and Gov. Terry Branstad may be an option, according to Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City.

Republicans have suggested the Legislature simply could extend an early education block grant for four years and leave reforms for another year, she said. The parties have major differences over student assessments, third-grade retention, online learning, teacher evaluations and religious exemption for accreditation of non-public schools.

It will be a “leadership decision” whether to continue negotiations or walk away, House Education Committee Chairman Royd Chambers, R-Sheldon, said after a meeting with Senate Education Committee Chairman Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames.

And while Paulsen held out hope for a deal on commercial property tax reform, McCarthy said “that train hasn’t left the station.”

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