After nearly six months of wrangling, the members of the Iowa House and Senate put the finishing touches on a more than $7 billion state budget plan and concluded the 2015 legislative session this afternoon, shortly before four o’clock.
Republicans have spent the past months preaching fiscal restraint and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen — a Republican from Hiawatha — admits it was “a difficult year.”
“We walked into a difficult financial situation, made tough decisions,” Paulsen told reporters after the House adjourned. “But we once again balanced the budget…and we met the priority of Iowans.”
Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, argued for more money for schools and he said they leave the statehouse with “mixed emotions.”
“It’s always good to finish up this process. We’re a part-time legislature. Many people want to get back to their homes, but we certainly have some disappointments in this,” Gronstal told reporters after the Senate adjourned. “We don’t think the resources for K-12 education are adequate.”
In the end, legislators settled on a 1.25 percent increase in general state aid to schools, plus a one-time spending boost of $55 million on top of that. Governor Branstad now has 30 days to review the legislature’s budget proposals — and he has the authority to use his “item veto” power to erase parts of the bills lawmakers passed. One potential item veto could skuttle the bipartisan proposal to keep the Mental Health Institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda open past July 1st. Branstad has started closing the facilities.
Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, had pushed for more legislative oversight of the governor’s move to hire private companies to manage the state’s Medicaid program.
“Really, overall it was kind of just a mediocre session,” Jochum told reporters late this afternoon. “We did our best with divided government.”
Democrats controlled the debate agenda in the Senate, while Republicans controlled the House and the governor’s office. In late February legislators voted to increase the state gas tax. Gronstal said that decision — which was bipartisan but not unanimous — made the rest of the session “more difficult…at times” because of lingering anger from opponents of the move. Paulsen said “it depends on your perspective” whether that was a good decision or a bad decision.
“It’ll probably be remembered both ways,” Paulsen said this afternoon.
For the third year in a row, legislators failed to pass the governor’s anti-bullying proposals. Lawmakers did pass a bill that sets a new school start date in late August. That came after the governor put schools on notice they wouldn’t get waivers anymore to start in early August and would have to start during the week in which September 1 falls. Among the issues that stalled: raising the minimum wage and legalizing fireworks.