- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Before the current session started, Iowa’s legislative leaders decided they’d work toward broad budget figures on which Republicans and Democrats could agree to prove divided government can work, they said Thursday.

Leaders from both parties acknowledged at a news conference that broad differences in political philosophy make it difficult to come to any consensus on spending, but public disapproval of Congress pushed them to work toward agreement.

“I think the federal government gave us some impetus by their bad example after the 2012 elections to work better together,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. “We did that last year and got a lot of things done and we came into this session kind of going: Do we really have to go through this stage where we stake out our differences with budget targets?”

He said he met with House Republican leaders and they agreed to start with areas of consensus which resulted in the joint budget targets released Wednesday. It’s the first time in the memory of most lawmakers that an early agreement was reached when state government control was divided. Republicans control the governor’s office and the House while Democrats lead the Senate.

The budget proposes to spend $6.97 billion in the budget year beginning in July, a 7.4 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Typically with a split Legislature, 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.

“We’re six weeks ahead of last year with our joint targets,” Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said Thursday.

Hard work remains as budget subcommittees started negotiating Thursday how to spend money within the targets leaders set.

“It’s not that there aren’t still significant differences but this is what we can agree on and that’s what our members are working on,” Gronstal said.

Republicans kept some promises in the proposed budget: Funding property tax reform and education at agreed-upon levels, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said. He said the state-funded property tax credits were worth about $50 million a few years ago but those credits, including commercial property tax credits and other programs, will surpass $300 million this year.

The budget also keeps spending within what the state receives - a principle Paulsen said his party promised to keep four years ago - and freezes tuition for the second consecutive year at the state-run universities and provides additional funding for community colleges.

The Senate’s minority leader, however, was less thrilled with the budget targets.

“The budget proposal spends nearly 8 percent in additional revenue at a time when we know that ongoing increases in state budgets generally are 3 ½ to 4 percent,” said Sen. Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock. He said family household incomes are growing at about that rate, too, but Iowa’s government spending far outpaces family budget increases.

“Growing government at twice the rate of family income is simply not acceptable,” he said.

If Republicans were in charge in both chambers, the spending growth would “be a number much closer than what family incomes are,” he said.

Some of the biggest increases in the proposed budget come in the Department of Health and Human services - a $107.4 million increase that Paulsen said is mostly due to a change in the federal government reimbursement for Medicaid - and education, which gets an $87 million boost from the current year.

A spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad said the governor looks forward to seeing the Legislature’s complete budget to make an “apples to apples comparison” to his, which spends about $29 million more.


Follow David Pitt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/davepitt

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