- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa Legislature has checked off several boxes that are needed to agree on a state budget and reach adjournment this session. Completed tasks include deals on taxes, K-12 education and what’s actually available to spend for the fiscal year that begins in July. Lawmakers could adjourn the session on schedule, a stark contrast to last year when they extended it into June amid disagreement over education funding.

Still, a number of issues remain in limbo. Here’s a look at five of them:



Lawmakers often disagree over how much money is actually available to spend on a new budget because they calculate the numbers differently. But a combination of legislative decisions and new revenue projections mean everyone appears to be on the same page this time around. The Iowa Legislature can legally spend about $7.35 billion for the next fiscal year, and about $176 million of that will be new money.

Both chambers agreed recently to spend about $153 million of those new funds on K-12 education. That means there’s about $23 million in new dollars remaining for issues like health care, corrections and higher education. Legislative leaders haven’t released additional information about where they think that money should go. Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged the tight budget and said lawmakers are working to find savings in areas like Medicaid. “We’ll see how we balance that out,” he said.



Senate Democrats have been vocal about their disdain for plans to switch Iowa’s $4.2 billion Medicaid program to private management. They argue the transition has been hindered by poor communication from the three companies set to take over the program, which provides health care to about 560,000 poor and disabled Iowa residents. State officials and the companies say those issues are being resolved.

The Democratic-majority Senate passed legislation to provide more state oversight of the program under the new system, but it didn’t survive a legislative deadline. A Senate committee has revived the bill, but it’s unclear what will end up on Gov. Terry Branstad’s desk by the end of the session. Leaders in the Republican-controlled House plan to introduce their own oversight bill, and those details haven’t been released. The new Medicaid program goes into effect Friday.



Branstad announced plans at the start of the session to pay for water quality initiatives with some money from a 1-cent sales tax fund that’s set aside for school infrastructure needs. The proposal was aimed at addressing longstanding water quality problems that have led a Des Moines utility to sue three counties over contaminated runoff from farmland.

The proposal, which Branstad said was his “boldest initiative,” has largely stalled. Democrats said it would pit education against water quality. Republicans introduced separate bills with different approaches to the issue.

House Republicans introduced a new plan recently to address water quality initiatives with other revenue sources, but some Senate lawmakers have already expressed reservations. Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, said Iowa voters in 2010 approved the creation of a fund for soil and water conservation that won’t go into effect until the state raises the sales tax by less than 1 cent. He said, “They’re complicating the issue in the House.”



There’s been a strong lobbying effort this session to pass a bill that would expand access to medical marijuana in Iowa. Supporters say the legislation, which would create a system for manufacturing, dispensing and possessing it in the state, would have benefits for people with multiple health conditions.

Medical marijuana legislation has an uphill battle in Iowa with a split Legislature, but its support from some House Republicans this year seemed to indicate a shift in momentum. That’s now stalled as supporters say the bill is in a House committee with no signs of advancement as time runs out.

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, has been vague on the bill’s future. She says she’s open to updating current state law, which allows some epilepsy patients to use cannabis oil. Critics point out that law gives patients no clear system for accessing it.



Both chambers approved legislation recently to increase K-12 education spending by 2.25 percent for the upcoming fiscal year. Some educators and lawmakers have criticized the deal, saying it’s not enough for some school districts with rising costs.

The Legislature is required by law to set such education funding a year out, but lawmakers typically struggle to agree on funding for the looming fiscal year. The issue held up adjournment last session.

It doesn’t look like lawmakers will get back on schedule before the end of the session, despite the recent deal. Upmeyer said she is open to having conversations about the issue but, “We aren’t interested in passing a false number that we will only come back and have to cut next year.”

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