- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa lawmakers convened Monday for the 2016 legislative session, with a fight looming over how much additional funding to provide to schools in a year with limited new dollars available.

Now that legislators in the Republican-majority House and Democratic-controlled Senate have gaveled in, Gov. Terry Branstad will unveil his budget Tuesday during his Condition of the State address.

The Republican governor said Monday he will seek a 2.45 percent increase to basic state aid for schools for the 2016-2017 school year. He said the spending increase combined with new money for a teacher leadership program would cost $145 million in the next fiscal year.

“My message is that we should not spend the whole session fighting. We should instead reach a reasonable consensus on supplemental state aid,” Branstad said Monday. “Schools, they really want to know how much.”

Still, it may be tough to resolve the issue quickly - though lawmakers agree it is a top concern - as the percentage increase is less than Senate Democrats want to spend and more than House Republicans will support.

“We didn’t think it was adequate last year. We still don’t think it’s adequate,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said that even funding a smaller increase was going to be a challenge. She said she looked forward to seeing Branstad’s budget “to see if there’s an opportunity, but the caucus remains absolutely steadfast in not spending more than we take in.”

Republicans and Democrats agree that resources are limited, though they disagree on exactly how much new revenue is available.

A panel of state budget experts predicted last month that revenue for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would be $7.33 billion. That’s about 4 percent more than the expected revenue for the current fiscal year, but less than previously predicted. Officials have said income for farmers is dropping primarily because of low commodity prices, slowing the state’s economic growth.

Branstad has already outlined another top priority - a proposal to fund water quality initiatives with the help of an existing 1-cent sales tax for school infrastructure improvements. That plan could be challenged by lawmakers questioning whether that’s the best use of the money.

Tensions have been high since last summer when Branstad vetoed several budget compromises negotiated by lawmakers. The governor slashed some one-time education spending, saying he could not support one-time money for ongoing operating expenses. He also axed a deal to keep two mental health institutions open. The vetoes drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans.

Lawmakers outlined their goals in opening day speeches. Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, sought support for legislation to increase the minimum wage and to provide more oversight of Branstad’s plan to privatize Medicaid. Gronstal said that “failing to invest in education and health care is certain to be ruinously expensive.”

House Minority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-West Des Moines, stressed a commitment to budget caution, saying the state must live within available revenue. He also promised to work to support businesses and job creation in the state.

Monday marked the first session for Upmeyer as speaker - the first woman to serve in that role. She said she hoped that her election shows young women and others “that opportunities abound.”

The session is scheduled to wrap up April 19, when daily payments for lawmakers end, though the process could conclude before or after that date. In recent years, lawmakers have continued working after the payments expired. This year is an election year, with all House members and half of the Senators up for re-election, which may motivate some to adjourn and hit the campaign trail.

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