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Hope for compromise in Iowa General Assembly fades

Just as lawmakers could see a flicker of compromise on the state budget, it fizzled, some legislators are saying.

Thursday morning, Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley (R-Chariton) was upbeat about on-going resolutions and negotiations between Democrats and Republicans in both chambers on bitterly fought topics, especially abortion, property tax, education and, of course, the state budget.

“We don’t know when the session will close down,” McKinley admitted, though he added “we’re pretty close together, and it’s a matter of posturing and negotiating good will at this point (regarding the state budget). I think the Republicans have done that, and I think (Senate Majority Leader) Mike Gronstal is meeting with his people to see if they can come to some sort of agreement.”

But before the end of the business day, the optimism McKinley expressed seemed like a pipe dream to some under the golden dome. Republican key leaders said a break down in budget talks happened during a meeting yesterday afternoon in Senate President Jack Kibbie‘s office, causing Democrats to walk away from the table.

“It is both disappointing and wrong for Senate Democrats to abandon the productive bi-partisan negotiations that were happening and walk away from the efforts to craft common sense compromises that would move Iowa forward,” McKinley said following the meeting.

Gov. Terry Branstad, who spent part of the week meeting with constituents across Iowa at town hall meetings, echoed McKinley.

“I have no idea why Senate Democrats have chosen to abandon this critical work,” Branstad said. “Our office has been negotiating in good faith and believed progress was being made.”

Gronstal denied the accusation that his party had abandoned anything. Democrats, he maintained, are willing to discuss budget issues, however, the party will not make certain concessions — specifically, a two percent allowable growth provision for public school districts. Branstad and House Republicans have pushed back, saying no increase for the next two fiscal years is sufficient.

“With more money than ever in the state of Iowa’s saving account, Democrats are committed to making the investments in education – including preschools, K-12 schools and higher education – that will help Iowans recover from the national recession and expand our middle class,” Gronstal said Thursday afternoon.

Gronstal said the Senate Democrats are willing to talk budget strategy, but warned they are acting on constituents’ wishes.

“Iowans are telling us loud and clear that the Republican proposal for a two-year starvation diet for Iowa schools is a big mistake,” he said.

However, as the new July 1 deadline to end the session approaches, key lawmakers have noted some signs of compromise in both chambers and the Governor’s Office.

The Iowa Senate did pass a mental health system reform bill Thursday afternoon, 36 to 9. The legislation was the result of bi-partisan negotiating and planning, though House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer characterized an amendment making significant changes to Senate File 525 as “a bit disingenuous,” aimed at Sen. Jack Hatch (D-Des Moines).

This week while on his town hall tour, Branstad admitted it was “unlikely” his income-based voucher system for preschool would be approved, a measure Democrats have bitterly opposed, and that universal preschool would remain in place for the time being. Republicans did not express disdain, but rather said they saw the universal preschool ground as a gain for the Republican lawmakers, who are willing to discuss reducing the spending on the program, while allowing it to run adequately.

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) said Republicans will aim for a figure 60 percent or less of what it costs per-pupil in elementary or secondary schools in a public school district, adding some school district superintendents have told him they could operate adequately on less because the school day for preschool students is shorter.

“I think it is a gain for Iowans if we’re able to address that funding (for preschool), because .6 weighting is more money being spent than is necessary to run that program, at least that’s what we’ve consistently been told,” he said. “Something less than 60 percent is reasonable.”

Gronstal said Democrats would make themselves available for negotiations three days next week, following the holiday weekend.

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