- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Legislative leaders from both parties in the House and Senate on Wednesday accomplished the rare task of agreeing from the outset on figures for the state budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.

Lawmakers released joint budget targets proposing the state spend $6.97 billion from its general fund, a 7.4 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget. Gov. Terry Branstad had proposed spending about $23.5 million more, or just over $7 billion.

In typical years when different parties hold majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans in both chambers arrive at their proposed spending levels and Democrats do the same. The two parties then wrangle over the figures until they agree on budget targets for eight broad areas of state government.

This year, however, both parties in both chambers of the Legislature went into the session agreeing to try to release joint budget figures in an effort to keep the legislative session shorter in an election year that has many lawmakers eager to get back to their districts.

In his 28 years in the Legislature, Coralville Democratic Sen. Bob Dvorsky, who heads the Senate appropriations committee, said he couldn’t recall joint budget figures from both parties being released early in the process.

“Democracy actually works. As strange as it may seem, that’s part of it. We just sat down and started talking and going through all these budgets and kept working away,” he said. “So it actually does work.”

He credits Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen with agreeing before the session began to attempt to arrive at joint budget targets.

The figures include funding for the Iowa Board of Regents that will allow the state-run universities to freeze tuition for another year. It also includes a 4 percent increase in funding for community colleges, said Rep. Chuck Soderberg, a Le Mars Republican who heads the House appropriations committee.

“It fully funds the priorities of Iowans and complies with the budget principles which the House laid out four years ago,” he said.

Those principles included spending less money than the state generates in revenue, not using one-time money to pay for ongoing expenses, and not intentionally underfunding entitlement programs to balance the budget.

Much of the proposed spending increase comes from providing money for laws passed last year, including education reform and the state’s largest-ever property tax cut.

Budget subcommittees for each of the eight budget areas will begin work Thursday on determining how money will be spent within the targets set.

A spokesman for Branstad, a Republican, said the governor looks forward to seeing the Legislature’s complete budget and “making an apples-to-apples comparison with the governor’s budget recommendation and working with the Legislature to pass a fiscally responsible budget.”

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