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Lawmakers Split Over Tiny Fraction of State's Education Budget in Iowa

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The Iowa House and Senate last week remained deadlocked over an education-budget fight that has taken on political significance far beyond the relatively tiny amount in dispute.

The funding difference between the Republican-majority House and the Democrat-controlled Senate is currently only $1.7 million out of a $1.2 billion school budget. Nevertheless, the battle has dragged on more than a week past lawmakers' self-imposed deadline for action, dominated debate in the Capitol, and left school districts uncertain about their allocations for next year.

"We are so close, but right now we just have to have a couple days to let everybody's emotions cool off,'' said Rep. Stephen E. Grubbs, a Republican who recently forestalled an attempt to seek agreement through a conference committee.

"Then we will get back down to the work of settling this thing,'' Mr. Grubbs pledged.

The debate being waged in Des Moines marks the first test of strength for House Republicans, who won control of the chamber in last fall's elections. G.O.P. leaders contend that, while small, the funding difference represents a major point of principle.

The 0.1 percent difference dividing the two chambers is "not a whole lot,'' Speaker of the House Harold G. Van Maanen conceded last week, adding, "that, in itself, is probably not the issue.''

"The issue is allowable growth'' in the budget, Mr. Van Maanen said, arguing that a concession by House Republicans now could open the door to larger increases in school spending at the expense of other areas of the budget.

"At some place,'' Mr. Van Maanen asserted, "you have to say, 'This is the line. We just can't go any farther.' ''

Deadlock at Deadline

Legislators and lobbyists interviewed last week said the stage for the conflict was set both by the Republican victory in November and by the legislature's action earlier last year to overhaul the state budget process in order to give itself more control over education spending.

Prior to last year, state education spending had been set by a formula that, if left in place this year, would have automatically allowed school funding to increase by up to 3.95 percent, or $90 million.

Faced with a tight fiscal outlook, lawmakers last year agreed to end the automatic spending increases, instead setting a deadline of 30 days after the governor makes his annual budget recommendations for the legislature to agree on the amount to be spent on schools.

Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Republican, last month proposed increasing the state's education budget by 2.3 percent, or $60 million. Although the proposal was viewed favorably in the Senate, House Republicans countered with a proposal to allow school funding to grow by 1.6 percent, or $49 million.

After the Senate voted along party lines to endorse Governor Branstad's proposed 2.3 percent increase, the two sides convened a conference committee to try to resolve their differences before the Feb. 12 deadline.

The House offer rose to 2 percent, or $55.8 million, while the Senate dropped its level to 2.1 percent, or $57 million. Even so, the Feb. 12 deadline came and went, and the conference committee went home.

Hours before the deadline, the Senate voted 40 to 9 to pass a separate bill setting the spending increase at 2.1 percent. The House was expected to debate that measure late last week, although Mr. Van Maanen said he preferred to see the conference committee reconvene and discuss the original bill.

Real Losers: Districts

Mr. Grubbs, a House delegate to the conference committee, said last week that he could not offer a compromise without bringing his fellow Republicans along. "That is harder than it sometimes sounds,'' he observed.

Sen. Jack Rife, a Republican who serves as the Senate minority leader, last week described the two sides as in "a total gridlock.''

Those most harmed by the situation, Mr. Rife suggested, may be local school officials, who are entering into contract negotiations without state budget figures.

Richard M. Vohs, a spokesman for Mr. Branstad, said last week that the Governor would be content with any of the proposals now on the table and simply wants the matter resolved.

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