Michael Gronstal mug 2015

Gronstal

DES MOINES | Majority Senate Democrats approved a half-dozen fiscal 2016 budget bills Wednesday that would commit more than $1.8 billion in state general fund spending.

But the bills are moving targets as they work toward negotiations with the GOP-led House to resolve significant differences.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the hope is to have competing budget versions approved through both chambers by next week to enable negotiations to move forward in earnest as the 2015 legislative session overshoots its May 1 adjournment target and heads into overtime work.

On the House side, representatives took up an infrastructure measure that uses gambling profits and other resources to finance projects that are outside the state’s general fund where Republicans and Democrats are at least $166 million apart on their spending targets.

House Republicans are at $7.176 billion while Senate Democrats and Gov. Terry Branstad are at $7.341 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The biggest budget piece that saw action Wednesday was a $1.026 billion higher education budget bill that would increase funding by nearly $40 million to state universities, community colleges, workforce development and other programs but did not include money for a performance-based redistribution formula at regent institutions.

“This is a common-sense bill,” said Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, who was floor manager of Senate File 493, which passed on a 26-24 party-line vote.

“It has modest increases across the board for our priorities. I wish we could do more,” he told his Senate colleagues. “This freezes tuition again at our three regent universities. It does not pick favorites. It is equal. We have listened to their needs.”

Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee passed a version of the higher education funding measure that would commit $977.6 million in general fund appropriations to Iowa’s regent universities and special schools, community colleges, workforce training efforts, private college tuition grants and other programs. The overall funding level would be $8.5 million below current levels.

After the Senate vote, members of the state Board of Regents issued a statement expressing their appreciation for a minimum 1.75 percent increase for state university operations and an extra $2 million for Iowa State University to cover rising enrollments and $5.4 million for the University of Northern Iowa, which educates a higher percentage of in-state students.

"The board appreciates the Senate's willingness to provide a 1.75 percent inflationary increase to each university's operating budget, which guarantees a third consecutive tuition freeze, while also holding the University of Iowa harmless,” Regents President Bruce Rastetter said in a statement.

“In addition, the board further appreciates the Senate's recognition of the unique budget circumstances facing the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University. Based on that reality, we look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly and the governor to realize the board's legislative priorities including a modest 1.75 percent inflationary increase, full implementation of the Performance Based Funding model and holding the University of Iowa harmless,” added Rastetter.

The Senate also passed budget bills to fund the state’s justice and court systems, economic development efforts and the administration of state government, as well as the framework of a federal block grant program that directs more than $7 billion that channels from Washington, D.C., to help finance a myriad of state programs.

The full House could take up the higher education and other state budget measures as early as Thursday – the 2015 session’s 109th calendar day.

The House approved by a 97-1 vote a $119.1 million infrastructure budget.

The bill also appropriates $71.9 million in fiscal 2017.

The infrastructure funding includes $20.6 million for maintenance to state facilities, $9.6 million to the DNR for water quality and lake restoration projects, and $7 million to state parks.

It also includes $13.3 million toward maintenance and renovations at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown.

Republicans and Democrats debated the wisdom of $1 million appropriated over two years to the Department of Human Services for a grant toward a new patient therapy center at On with Life, a nonprofit brain injury rehabilitation center in Ankeny.

Democrats said the appropriation represents state government picking winners and losers, and instead proposed using the money to create a grant for which all brain injury centers could apply. Republicans rejected the proposal.

Comments: 515-243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com. Erin Murphy of the Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report. 

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