As they return to the Statehouse for an overtime legislative session, Iowa lawmakers find they’re facing many of the same issues that confronted them when they convened nearly four months ago.
And faced with disagreements over education reform, property taxes and how to boost the state’s economy, legislative leaders maintained they’re not in a rush to reach a compromise that might violate their beliefs.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said that’s even true of his 60-member Republican caucus, a quarter of whom face a primary challenge in June and likely would rather be campaigning for re-election rather than be spending long days at the Statehouse.
“I think House Republicans are committed to doing this work,” said Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “I have not had a single member come to me and say we need to wrap this up so we can go campaign.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said Democrats feel the same way and don’t intend to give on efforts such as their push for increased higher education spending.
“People have strong feelings about issues that confront our state,” said Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. “We strongly believe in a world-class community college system that trains workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”
Reaching a compromise on education reform efforts has been especially difficult. House Republicans backed Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s call for big changes to reverse what he claims are serious problems with Iowa’s kindergarten through 12th grade system, but Democrats have called for a different approach that includes more coaching of teachers and intensive help to students.
“I think the education conference committee is obviously struggling,” said Paulsen. “I don’t know whether they are able to bridge that gap and get over those hurdles.”
In some ways, differences over education also have spilled into the debate over Branstad’s call for deep cuts in business property taxes.
Gronstal said Democrats want to increase spending on worker training programs and community colleges. Such moves would do more to spur long-term growth in the economy than reductions in business property tax cuts that would largely go to large, out-of-state companies, Gronstal said.
“All of the studies indicate Iowa has a skill shortage more than a job shortage,” said Gronstal. “We’ve got a lot of jobs.”
Republicans have maintained that it’s essential to bring Iowa’s business property taxes in line with neighboring states.
Branstad asked lawmakers to cut business property taxes by 40 percent over the next eight years, and the Republican-run House largely went along with that idea.
Senate Democrats approved a significantly smaller tax cut that would target small businesses.
Legislative leaders have been negotiating for weeks and are reluctant to discuss details.
“We’re going to continue to work and talk to those guys, because there are areas where we are coming together,” said Gronstal.
One area that Democrats and Republicans agree is on an overall base budget figure — $6.24 billion, up from the current fiscal year’s $5.99 billion.
There are other sources of money outside the basic state budget, and Democrats are pressing to tap into between $50 million and $60 million of that money to pay for their education spending increases.
Paulsen said Republicans are leery of that because it could lead the state to pay for ongoing programs with one-time revenue sources.
Differences between the parties over such one-time funds could be the biggest hurdle to ending this year’s session, Paulsen said.
“I think we make a little progress every day, but we still have a long ways to go and I have no prediction about timing,” said Paulsen. “It’s all about spending. I don’t think it’s a secret the Democrats want to spend more than we do and that’s what’s holding us up. We just don’t have an agreement.”
Gronstal countered that the issue isn’t just spending, but what programs the state is spending money to improve.
Because the session has gone beyond its scheduled 100 days, lawmakers no longer are receiving expense payments of more than $100 a day. Typically the loss of those payments helps spur an adjournment, but last year legislators didn’t adjourn until the end of June, making for the third-long session in history.