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Ending Deadlock, Iowa Lawmakers Approve School-Spending Plan

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Nearly two months beyond its self-imposed deadline, the Iowa legislature has settled on school-spending plans for fiscal years 1996 and 1997.

While Republican and Democratic legislators called the resolution an unsatisfying compromise, local school officials were happy to finally have the numbers needed for their budgets, which must be completed by April 15.

"It was not what I'd hoped for. It's an adequate outcome," said Rep. Steve Grubbs, a Republican. Voting for the bill, he added, was "like kissing your sister."

The spending plan, passed unanimously by both chambers of the legislature March 23 and signed by Gov. Terry Branstad last week, will increase basic school spending by 3.5 percent, to $90 million, in 1996. That is more than the 3 percent that Mr. Branstad and his fellow Republicans who control the House wanted, but less than the 4.5 percent increase that the Democratic-controlled Senate proposed.

"I think that we went into negotiations with a little more ambitious figures than we knew we could achieve," said Sen. Mike Connolly, a Democrat. "But the additional money was worth fighting for."

Absent from the budget bills is a proposal by Mr. Branstad to begin a four-year, $150 million school-improvement project that would have emphasized technology.

Christina Martin, a spokeswoman for Mr. Branstad, said the Governor was "disappointed a more responsible budget agreement could not be reached."

Mr. Branstad feels that budget talks were reduced to a focus on basic education expenditures--mostly teachers' salaries--at the expense of "more things that impact children," she added.

Mr. Connolly predicted, however, that this year's legislature will approve a scaled-down technology bill worth $10 million.

Final agreement on the spending plans was not without drama.

Mr. Branstad threatened to veto the initial 1996 spending bill unless legislators set school-funding levels for at least two years, guaranteeing that there would not be a repeat of this year's budget stalemate. The legislature has missed its deadline in two of the last three years. (See Education Week, 3/8/95.)

Veto Threat

That gubernatorial pressure worked, and lawmakers also approved a 1997 education budget, which would increase spending 3.3 percent over 1996.

Perhaps more importantly, they agreed to stay a year ahead. For example, the 1996 legislature will set the school budget for the 1998 fiscal year.

"You have a year to do it, but what happens if you don't meet the 30-day time line and nothing has happened? That hasn't changed," said Bob Gilchrist, the president of the Iowa State Education Association, referring to a state law that requires the legislature to enact a budget within 30 days of the time the Governor presents a spending plan.

Mr. Gilchrist said this year's delay "cast a shadow" over local budgeting and delayed some negotiations. But he added: "I think we can move ahead now and schools can meet their deadlines."

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