- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa Legislature worked into the evening Wednesday approving additional pieces of the state’s $6.97 billion budget but leaving behind significant pieces of Gov. Terry Branstad’s priorities.

Work continued eight days past their scheduled April 22 target date, when their daily allowance for living expenses expired.

Iowa legislative leaders began the session acknowledging this year’s accomplishments would be far less flashy than last year’s property tax overhaul and increased education spending, but one of this year’s top four goals set by Branstad in January failed to gain enough traction to pass and another was in trouble.

He had asked lawmakers to improve tax credits for telecommunications companies to expand high-speed Internet to rural areas but in a surprise vote, the bill failed to pass in the Republican-led House last week.

“Since there was no point in taking up a bill that had already been rejected by the House, we considered a scaled back version in the Senate that would have been designed as a first step toward ‘connecting every Iowan,’ ” Sens. Steve Sodders and Liz Mathis, members of the Senate Economic Growth Committee, said in a joint statement. “We are disappointed to report that the governor’s office offered no support for this idea. Instead, the governor’s office insisted on a bill that mirrored the legislation that had already failed in the House.”

They said they would focus the next seven months to resolve issues and try to pass a bill next year.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said in a statement that Branstad remains committed to the idea.

The governor’s school anti-bullying priority also was in trouble and unlikely to receive final approval.

A bill to provide tax breaks and incentives for retired veterans to settle in Iowa has gone to the governor, and his idea to create an apprenticeship program allowing youth to learn a new trade while getting paid is in an economic development spending bill and likely to pass.

The year began with promises of bipartisanship and a goal to make quick work of the budget and perhaps leave early in an election year with all House seats and half of the Senate seats up for re-election. A short session seemed possible in early March when the Democratic-led Senate and the Republicans holding a majority in the House declared they’d agreed on how much money to spend for each of the eight major budget areas, an unusual if not unprecedented accomplishment in a split legislature.

By mid-March, however, former employees surfaced claiming they had been paid for silence as part of settlement agreements they reached with the state. It turned out more than $500,000 was paid out, and lawmakers, particularly Senate Democrats on the Government Oversight Committee, began to investigate where the money came from and who approved it. The committee investigation broadened as members began getting calls from state workers about sexual harassment, reprisals for reporting such incidents, issues with contract bidding practices and hiring policies that appeared to cross the line to cronyism.

The mood changed, the pace of progress slowed, and Branstad defended his administration weekly, charging the Democrats were trying to help the campaign of Sen. Jack Hatch, a Des Moines Democrat running for governor.

Some significant policy bills passed.

For the first time since horse and dog racing began in Iowa in 1983, the Legislature passed a bill to curtail gambling by approving a measure that ends dog racing at a Council Bluffs casino. The bill allows greyhound owners and breeders to lease the track in Dubuque in attempt to keep the fading sport alive in Iowa.

In the education budget, lawmakers approved a 4 percent increase for the state-run universities, allowing them to promise a tuition freeze for a second year for in-state undergraduate students.

Lawmakers also began the process of regulating the use of unmanned aerial drones this year, made the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors illegal, enhanced penalties for human trafficking and included coaches in the state law that prohibits school employees from having sex with students.

Other proposals left for another day include a gas tax increase, legalization of fireworks, enhanced texting while driving laws, tougher penalties for offenders in kidnapping cases, and increased minimum wage.

Many lawmakers want to return home to the campaign trail. At least five are running for higher office, including Sen. Jack Hatch, a Des Moines Democrat who’s in the governor’s race, and Sen. Joni Ernst, a Red Oak Republican, a candidate for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin.

Running for Congress are Anesa Kajtazovic, D-Waterloo; Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque; and Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.



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