- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Disagreements remain on several budget bills and priorities Gov. Terry Branstad outlined at the beginning of the year still have obstacles to overcome, but leaders in the Legislature say ending the 2014 session this week is likely.

They have a strong incentive to close up shop and go home - their daily allowance for working and living in Des Moines runs out Tuesday.

“Getting out next week is a realistic opportunity,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the outlook for adjournment week is decent. Three budget bills have been assigned to conference committees, where lawmakers from both parties work out difference in House and Senate versions of a bill. A few other measures also could go that direction.

“We’re being careful and thoughtful about the budget,” Gronstal said. “Whenever we do that, we squeeze budgets and we squeeze members in terms of what their priorities are and they want to continue to fight for their priorities and I commend them for it.”

One of those differences is funding state universities in the education budget. A House amendment cut the negotiated increase allotted to the University of Iowa by $2 million, or about 2 percent. It was decided earlier that the three universities would get a 4 percent increase if they agreed to freeze tuition. Democrats say giving less money to UI could result in a tuition increase. House Republicans said the university has enough cash reserve to avoid raising tuition.

Branstad said he’s confident most of the priorities defined in his Condition of the State message at the beginning of the session remain on track.

That includes legislation that would connect veterans with jobs, education and housing opportunities. The Senate’s bill was amended in the House and must return to the Senate for approval of the changes.

Democrats and Republicans differ on their approach to reduce bullying in schools, another of Branstad’s priorities, but House and Republican leaders said they think differences can be overcome.

Branstad also remains hopeful that a measure to expand broadband Internet access to rural areas will survive, and he believes lawmakers will pass a bill intended to establish an apprenticeship program.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Branstad appeared unfazed by the weeks of criticism from Democratic lawmakers about several issues that have emerged recently in the executive branch.

The Senate Government Oversight Committee is investigating who approved spending $500,000 to pay state workers who filed grievances after being disciplined or fired. The money was part of settlement agreements reached with the workers. In some cases extra money was offered if the workers agreed to remain silent about the deals.

Branstad fired Mike Carroll, director of the Department of Administrative Services, earlier this month after Carroll said no offers were made and it was revealed later some had been.

Branstad’s appointee to run Iowa Workforce Development also is facing an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor into claims she exerted too much influence over judges who decide unemployment cases for fired workers.

And the Senate oversight committee is looking into allegations that DAS managers hired friends and acquaintances without posting job openings, and examining state polices that created a do-not-hire database of more than 900 former workers who cannot be considered for state jobs. Carroll and other officials initially denied its existence until The Associated Press published a story about it after receiving a list of the names.

The issues have brought harsh criticism of cronyism, misappropriation of funds, and other allegations against Branstad, who is running for re-election. He said it’s politically motivated by Democrats out to help the campaign of Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, who is challenging Branstad for the governor’s office.

“Regardless of the nasty things and the accusations people have made against me, I don’t reciprocate,” Branstad said. “My focus is on the substance of the issues on the agenda we have laid out for this session and I’m very optimistic and hopeful.”

He said in an interview with reporters Friday that the session has gone on longer than necessary because of the investigation and attacks on him.

“This legislative session should have been over by now, according to the legislative leaders,” he said. “They need to quit playing politics and get to work, complete the work on the bills and on the budget, and get the work done in the month of April.”

Branstad suggested lawmakers may not be able to finish this week.

Paulsen said the investigations are a diversion and the daily haranguing by Senate Democrats of Branstad makes it more difficult to reach consensus.

“Every single morning, they start out with a fight and I don’t know that that’s conducive to getting Iowans’ work done,” he said.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, has taken to the Senate floor daily for the past few weeks to accuse Branstad of “denials, delay, and deflection” on the issues.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, called it grandstanding, but Gronstal questioned use of the term.

“The grandstanding has led to the governor finding it necessary to fire one of his top department directors for lying to him and to the committee,” Gronstal said. “I don’t think that’s grandstanding. I think there’s something there.”

The Senate Oversight Committee plans to continue investigating the issues past adjournment. The committee can subpoena witnesses and place them under oath if needed.

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