- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa lawmakers were on the brink of adjournment Thursday night, after approving budgets for economic development, agriculture and infrastructure spending.

The Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House did not conclude their work for the year but are likely to soon, with just a few budget bills awaiting final votes.

Lawmakers have agreed to a spending plan of about $7.3 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The tentative deal includes $7.17 billion in ongoing general fund spending, plus $135 million in one-time payments for items like schools, universities and Medicaid. Lawmakers had originally estimated the one-time spending at $125 million.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said Thursday night that there were “no major roadblocks” before lawmakers.

One key policy bill was approved Thursday. Lawmakers in both chambers voted in favor of a plan to support broadband Internet enhancement in the state. It would provide property tax relief to help service providers with the cost of adding infrastructure for broadband, also known as high-speed Internet, in underserved parts of the state. The plan would also establish a grant fund to support broadband, but no state money would be provided for the purpose.

The House and Senate backed the $42.3 million economic development budget, which covers the Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Workforce Development agency. The compromise budget is a slight decrease over the current year’s funding, largely because the Economic Development Authority still has some funding from the current year to spend.

The Legislature approved a $51.8 million budget for administration and regulation, which includes dollars for the governor’s office and the department of inspection and appeals. They also passed a $43.1 million budget for agriculture, as well as some spending from other funds. And they backed $119 million in infrastructure spending, with most of that spending coming from a fund that collects gambling tax revenues.

Bickering over the amount of available spending dragged the session well past May 1, when their daily expense payments expired. At the center of the debate was a philosophical difference over the funds available to spend. Senate Democrats and Gov. Terry Branstad supported using some of the state’s surplus money to balance the budget, while House Republicans said the state should not spend more than the projected revenue for the upcoming fiscal year.

The latest projection from the Revenue Estimating Conference said the state will take in $7.18 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That’s about 6 percent more than the current year. But farm incomes have slowed, Branstad said Wednesday. He also noted that the bird flu outbreak has taken a toll on farmers in the state.

“It is a difficult and stressful situation in order to budget,” said Branstad, who has largely refrained from comment on the individual budget bills.

One educational item remains unclear. Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said Thursday that tuition will be frozen at state universities for the fall semester, but he said officials will need to assess if the institutions have enough state funding to maintain the freeze in the spring.

Under the compromise spending plan, universities will get a funding increase, but not the full $8.8 million requested to maintain a third year of tuition freezes.

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