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Lawmakers Finishing Work on Landmark Session

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DES MOINES, Iowa State lawmakers are working to finalize bipartisan agreements on tax relief, school reform, more health-care coverage for needy Iowans, and an increased state budget plan before adjourning what some regarded as a landmark session.

The split-control Legislature required 129 days to complete its work, but was working Wednesday night to finish strong by addressing a trio of priority measures and putting the finishing touches on a spending plan to appropriate $6.483 billion from the general fund in fiscal 2014, spend nearly $204 million in gaming profits for infrastructure needs and devote more than $452 million in one-time surplus funds for a variety purposes over two fiscal years.

However, the march to adjournment hit a glitch when House GOP leaders informed Democratic minority leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, that around 10 votes from Democrats likely would be required to pass a health & human services budget due to objections by some majority Republicans over language in the bill permitting taxpayer-funded abortions in limited instances.

McCarthy said he planned to would discuss options with his 46 fellow Democratic representatives and was uncertain how an orderly session shutdown might be affected due to the fact that majority Republicans "have lost their ability to govern."

While the development temporarily sidetracked adjournment, it did not dampen legislators' enthusiasm for bipartisan accords they were able to strike earlier in the day on three major issues that had been stalled for the entire 2013 assemblage.

"I think that has been a remarkable session," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.

"Voters elected a Democratic Senate and a Republican House and a Republican governor and said deal with it. We could have chosen the partisan route that others have encountered in other places, including Washington D.C.," he said. "We worked long and hard. We all have strongly held beliefs, but when it's all said and done, this was the first session in 35 years that we were able to do something significant on property taxes."

Supporters said the tax relief package was the largest in state history.

Not only that, lawmakers forged bipartisan agreements to implement education reforms, expand health-care coverage for nearly 150,000 needy Iowans, earmark $66 million to address the workplace "skills gap," significantly boost funding for environmental and water quality programs, grow state funding for K-12 schools by $116 million over two fiscal years, and increase funding for higher education while enabling a tuition freeze at state universities in three decades.

"In just a whole host of ways, I think this has been a landmark session," Gronstal said.

Gov. Terry Branstad agreed, saying it took a lot of patience and determination for legislators and his office to reach resolution on some challenging issues.

"From our perspective, people will look back on this legislative session years from now and remark on how much significant legislation was passed and in an environment with split control," said Jeff Boeyink, Branstad's chief of staff. "That's one of the things were most proud of. Iowa gets to show the way in terms of how you can get things done with Democrats and Republicans putting election aside for a while and focusing on good public policy."

Among Wednesday's highlights was floor action on a wide-ranging tax relief package that will benefit all property classes, provide an estimated $120 credit to income taxpayers, and give a break to low-income working families.

Supporters called Senate File 295 a long-awaited compromise that will stimulate the economy by helping businesses create jobs and returning money to taxpayers' pockets. Detractors called the package an unsustainable drain on state resources that will hurt education, public safety and local governments.

"This is a true watershed moment for the state Legislature," said Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, who hailed S.F. 295, which passed the Senate on a 43-6 vote, as the first significant relief for commercial and industrial property owners since 1979.

"Just because it's a compromise doesn't mean it's a good compromise," said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, one of six Democrats to vote against the bill. He said an "excessive" tax cut is not needed at a time when state government is not providing resources adequate to meet its essential obligations.

Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, said much of the groundwork for Wednesday's agreements was done during previous sessions, but noted that "this year we're starting to see the result of all that hard labor and some negotiation."

During Wednesday's floor debate, House and Senate members passed a compromise calling for paying talented teachers a bonus to spend time coaching other teachers. House File 215 also calls for a study of teacher evaluation methods and grants new independence for parents who teach their children at home.

In the end, the governor's call for education reform passed the House 95-0 and the Senate 40-10.

The bill included a "2+2+4" plan that is the equivalent of a 4 percent increase for K-12 school districts next fiscal year but removes half the money from the base funding as one-time money before calculating the 4 percent increase the following year.

"It's not 4 percent, but at least we're getting that," said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, noting that Iowa spends $1,000 less than the average national per pupil spending. "You have to invest in education. That's our economic tool in this state."

The compromise plan will provide between $306 and $310 per pupil funding for the education reform program, said House Education Committee Chairman Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City.

Also Wednesday, Branstad and legislative negotiators hammered out an agreement to use federal money to expand health-care coverage to 150,000 needy Iowans by financing insurance premiums for participants who help manage their costs with healthy choices.

The newly named Iowa Health and Wellness Plan contained elements sought by legislative Democrats to cover Iowans who have yearly incomes of up to $15,300 by providing a premium subsidy paid for with federal funds and the Branstad-led GOP approach for Iowans earning less than $11,000 annually who will be eligible for the same benefits currently provided to state employees.

The provision was included in a health & human services bill that provided supplemental money to carry the state's Medicaid program through the current fiscal year that ends June 30. The measure included language addressing publicly funded abortions but no policy changes that would affect women's access to reproductive services, Gronstal said.

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