Private negotiations will continue on key issues of disagreement, but the Iowa legislature for the most part ended its work week Wednesday. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, sent most House members home Wednesday.

Only those involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations on budget and tax issues will be at the capitol today. “People that need to be here will be here and everyone else is ready to be here at a moment’s notice and we’ll move forward,” Paulsen says. “But there’s no reason to have people sitting in the (House) chamber, holding chairs down.”

House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines says it appears to him that the two parties are farther apart today than they were two weeks ago. “We stand ready, as we were two weeks ago, to help compromise and shut down the session,” McCarthy says. “But the train is off the tracks, so to speak, and that’s unfortunate.”

But Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs puts a different spin on the situation. Gronstal says his private talks with top Republican leaders in the legislature and with staff in the governor’s office are productive. “Every time (we) meet, we get closer. We’re working together with people of good faith,” Gronstal says. “We’re making progress.”

Paulsen, the top Republican in the legislature, echoes that. “Senate Democrats are working in good faith. I know we are working in good faith. The governor’s office is as well,” Paulsen says. “We’re moving closer, but the progress is not what any of us would want.” There’s been no public progress on the budget this week, nor has a property tax relief plan emerged beyond the discussion stage.

Senator Bill Dix of Shell Rock is the top-ranking Republican on the Senate and he suggests budget talks have proven to be quite tough.

“It is a battle to try to protect the taxpayer versus those interests who want to see more of the taxpayers’ money,” Dix says.

Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, says beyond the budget outline, there are “a lot of big issues” that remain undecided.

“I think the members are becoming increasingly frustrated and antsy,” Dotzler says. “They know it’s an election year and they want to get home and they’re having a hard time understanding why we can’t come to an agreement and why we’re still so far apart.”

Last year legislators struggled for six months to bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats. The start of the new state fiscal year on July 1st forced lawmakers to reach a resolution — on June 30th. The House Democratic leader uses a movie reference to describe what he sees as another “standstill.”

“This is really feeling like Groundhog Day all over again,” McCarthy says. Gronstal, the Democratic leader in the Senate, rejects notion the two parties have reached a standstill. “Yes, there’s still some outstanding issues,” Gronstal says. “We’re going to continue to work through those issues.”

A plan to reform the state’s mental health delivery system has stalled, due to a disagreement over money. Negotiations over the highly-touted education reform plan aren’t going well.

 Legislators appear to have agreed state spending will be nearly six-and-a-quarter billion dollars next year, but the two parties haven’t agreed on all the details, such as using some higher-than-expected tax revenue on a few pet projects — spending that would be over and above that six-and-a-quarter billion level.