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Iowa lawmakers set overall budget number

Catherine Lucey, Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Iowa lawmakers said Tuesday that they have an agreement on an overall budget figure, a signal that the end of the legislative session may not be far behind.

Legislative leaders said they have a deal to set the state general fund budget at $6.48 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Votes could start on individual budget bills as early as Wednesday, top lawmakers said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said they were getting closer to reaching deals on two key issues of the session — education policy and property tax reductions. But they said there has been less progress on whether to expand Medicaid or approve an alternate low-income health plan proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad.

"Obviously we want to work toward a solution. It's more important that we arrive at a right answer than we arrive at a quick answer," said Paulsen.

Rep. Walt Rogers, a Republican from Cedar Falls who is leading the House effort to pass the governor's health proposal, said both sides were still far apart. He said lawmakers may have to adjourn without resolution on that issue and return in a special session to vote on a health care plan.

"My confidence in resolving this this week is waning," said Rogers, who stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of House leaders.

Gronstal said speculation on whether lawmakers could find resolution on health care was "premature."

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor would consider dealing with health care in a special session.

"The governor is open to the idea of a special session on this topic if it will help bring the budget and other issues to resolution while we commit to a continuing discussion — and ultimate agreement — on how best to replace the current Iowa Care program," Albrecht wrote in an email statement.

The overall budget figure is an increase over the current fiscal year's estimated spending, but it comes in at slightly less than Branstad's $6.54 billion budget proposal. It represents a compromise between House Republicans, who wanted to spend $6.4 billion, and Senate Democrats who proposed spending $6.9 billion. Full details on how the money would be spent were not available.

Albrecht said the budget number was under review by the governor's office.

"It is a positive sign regarding ultimate adjournment and resolution of the budget differences between the House, Senate, and governor," Albrecht wrote in the email.

Education policy, property tax reductions and Medicaid expansion have been the three main policy issues of the 2013 session.

On education, Branstad has proposed changes to teacher pay and incentives. Lawmakers have been trying to resolve how to assess teachers and what rules should govern homeschooling. Leaders said they had agreed to increases to general school funding for the next two school years.

For property taxes, lawmakers are looking for middle ground between a House plan to cut commercial property taxes and a Senate proposal to provide property tax credits focused on small businesses.

Paulsen said those issues were close to resolution.

"I am expecting we'll have a bill addressing property taxes and a bill addressing education reform that will both be sitting on the governor's desk and I think he'll be excited to sign them," Paulsen said.

But Medicaid has been a much more complicated debate. The Senate Democrats favor a Medicaid expansion, as permitted under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. But Branstad opposes expansion, as do House Republicans who have backed Branstad's alternate plan, dubbed Healthy Iowa. The system would revamp an existing program for low-income residents.

Daily expense payments for state lawmakers ended May 3, so lawmakers are now working without that pay.