DES MOINES -- Members of the split-control Legislature return to the Statehouse today facing a jumble of unresolved priorities and spending differences that has eluded agreement for 13 weeks and counting.
The 2012 election-year session, which began Jan. 9, enters its 14th week with majorities of Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate close to compromise on a redesign of the county-based mental health system and making progress on education reforms. Bu they are still stalled on a perpetually vexing divide over how best to deliver property tax relief -- particularly to businesses and industries.
Partisans also remain between $200 million and $300 million apart on how best to appropriate more than $6 billion in state general funds to government agencies and programs for the 2013 fiscal year that begins July 1.
"We've got some significant differences that we're going to have to resolve," said Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "We're still a ways apart."
Raecker and Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, hope to have all the remaining budget issues moved to House-Senate conference committees by week's end or early next week but believe it likely will take two or three weeks to complete this year's legislative work. Top leaders, however, projected a slightly shorter time frame for adjournment.
"Starting Monday I think is the beginning of what we hope is the last 10 days or two weeks of the session. We think we can get that done," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.
April 17 marks the session's 100th day and the cut off for legislators' daily expense, a target date for adjournment that House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said lawmakers could still hit if there is movement in key negotiations.
Foremost on that list is resolving the property tax impasse - an issue Paulsen called the 2012 session's "must do" before adjournment following a disappointing end to last year's 173-day assemblage when lawmakers worked until June 30 before walking away from the Capitol without providing equity to commercial property owners currently taxed differently than residential and agricultural classes.
"Now is the time for real reform," Paulsen said in a statement. "Not only does property tax reform affect Iowa homeowners, it also affects Iowa's economy and is an impediment to putting people back to work. Our uncompetitive property tax system is a burden on job creators and deters businesses of all sizes from expanding, hiring or even settling on Iowa."
Gronstal said he believes all sides are willing to make a $250 million, multi-year commitment to property tax relief, and he has been having discussions with Gov. Terry Branstad in hopes of finding agreement on a starting point that "can make a real dent in commercial property taxes."
Paulsen said House Republicans are not interested in delivering relief via a state tax credit as the Senate has proposed or pitting one group of taxpayers against another. Likewise, Senate Democrats reject any approach that would shift property tax burdens to homeowners or would negatively impact local governments that rely on property tax levies as a key source of revenue.
"We're not going to fix this problem overnight. We think we should get started, and a $250 million, get-started plan is a lot of money," said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "There certainly are opportunities to make for compromise on these issues. We need to see some movement on the property tax plan and coming together on the money."
The same is true on the state budget, where House Republicans have offered an overall spending target of $6.06 billion, while Branstad proposed $6.244 billion and Senate Democrats are $60 million to $80 million above the governor. Leaders say a key obstacle to adjournment is agreeing to what the overall budget size should be and then giving House-Senate conference committees targets for their individual areas.
Raecker said major hang-ups include a $61 million difference between the House and Senate on funding for regent universities and higher education and House Republicans goal to fully funds property tax credits - like the homestead credit - to local governments, something that the Legislature has not done since 2000 and would require an extra $55 million to accomplish. Other disagreements involve funding for health and human services, the court system, justice and corrections programs, and other education areas.
Dvorsky said the spending gap between Democrats and Republicans was "fairly deep," and he hoped all sides would settle in the range of the governor's budget numbers.
"I think (Branstad) has made it fairly clear that he supports his budget and doesn't want movement from there," Dvorsky said.