DES MOINES - There are just four weeks to go before the scheduled last day for this session of the Iowa General Assembly, but when lawmakers will actually pack up and leave the state Capitol is anyone's guess.
Major issues like new education spending, property tax reductions, Gov. Terry Branstad's Healthy Iowa health care plan and the state budget remain unresolved. The fact that the state has a projected budget surplus of as much as $800 million is driving lawmakers from both political parties to hold out for priorities like new spending or tax cuts. And there's no election cycle this year that might motivate members to finish up and start campaigning.
Many think the negotiations will stretch past May 3, the last day for lawmakers to receive expense payments- $135 a day for lawmakers outside Polk County and $101.25 for those inside the county.
"I definitely think we're going to go past the May 3 deadline," said Rep. Walt Rogers, a Republican from Cedar Falls. "I think we're far enough apart, there's no real strong incentive to bring people together. The contentiousness of the three big issues - property tax reform, education reform and Healthy Iowa - will take us potentially into June."
The drop-dead date for resolution is June 30, because a budget must be in place before a new fiscal year begins on July 1. In 2011, the session stretched up until the last day of June, due to bickering over social issues and how to handle a budget gap, making it the third-longest session in Iowa history
Legislative leaders this week were vague when asked if they thought the session would conclude in the first week of May.
"We're going to get out of here when we get our work done," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, of Council Bluffs.
One key development over the past week was progress on education policy. Branstad has proposed a $187 million plan to improve Iowa schools through raising minimum teacher salaries and providing other incentives to educators. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the bill, but this week it moved into a joint conference committee that will try to negotiate a compromise.
But on the other big issues of commercial property tax reductions and Medicaid expansion, the two chambers have made less progress and are philosophically much further apart.
Senate Democrats are backing a Medicaid expansion, while House Republicans favor Branstad's Healthy Iowa proposal, which would expand an existing health program for low-income residents. On property taxes, Republicans in the House have supported Branstad's proposal to gradually reduce taxable assessments for commercial property owners by 20 percent. But Senate Democrats favor a tax credit plan geared at small business owners.
"It's time for people to sit down and start making these decisions or we're going to be here past May 3," said Democratic Rep. Tyler Olson, of Cedar Rapids.
Branstad's Chief of Staff Jeff Boeyink said the fact that negotiations were starting on education was a good sign. He said they were hopeful to get agreement on the other issues soon, though he doubted by May 3.
"My hope is that education reform will be the catalyst for getting these other issues resolved," Boeyink said. "I'd be surprised if we were done before mid-May...some of these issues are really significant."
Boeyink said reaching a deal in a year with projected surplus budget dollars is much harder than negotiating when there's a financial shortfall.
"I think it's much more difficult to do a budget when you have a perception of a large surplus I think it's more difficult because in a period of austerity people know to limit their asks on their front end and they know 'no' is probably going to be the answer," Boeyink said. "It's awfully hard for some folks to walk away from the table when you have that kind of resources."
Republican lobbyist Craig Schoenfeld said he hasn't seen anything to indicate a speedy resolution this session. He noted that some outside factors might speed the process.
"Last year we were in 80 degree weather in March, that's when people start looking at their watches at the Capitol," Schoenfeld said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.