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Iowa lawmakers adjourn 2015 legislative session, send $7.3 billion spending plan to governor

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa lawmakers adjourned the 2015 legislative session Friday, approving a $7.3 billion spending plan that includes modest increases for education, funding to maintain mental health institutions and a tax break for broadband Internet infrastructure.

The Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House officially concluded their work Friday afternoon. Their budget bills will go to Gov. Terry Branstad, who gets thirty days to decide whether he will sign off. He hasn't indicated his plans.

Under the compromise spending deal, the state will spend about $7.3 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The deal represents only a slight increase over the current spending and includes $7.17 billion in ongoing spending, plus $135 million in one-time payments for items like schools, universities and Medicaid. Those payments will be made from surplus fund dollars left at the end of the current fiscal year.

The session was light on policy achievement. A defining accomplishment was a bipartisan deal for a 10-cent-a-gallon hike to the state fuel tax to pay for road improvements, which took effect March 1.

In the final days of the session, lawmakers agreed on a plan to provide incentives for broadband Internet infrastructure investment, a long-held goal of the governor. But several proposals failed to advance, including pushes to legalize more fireworks sales in the state, toughen anti-bullying protections and make sweeping changes to state gun laws.

"Regrettably, this General Assembly could not come together to advance second amendment rights for Iowans and our law enforcement community," said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, in closing remarks.

Both sides had their regrets. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, bemoaned the limited resources provided for education, but said "we chose compromise over gridlock."

Branstad hailed the broadband bill and the fuel tax agreement, but criticized lawmakers for not agreeing on K-12 education funding for the 2016-2017 school year or an anti-bullying plan.

"Every child deserves a safe and respectful learning environment," he said in a statement.

Bickering over the amount of available spending dragged the session well past May 1, when daily expense payments expired.

At the center of the debate was a philosophical difference over the funds available to spend. By separating out some one-time expenditures from the main budget, the compromise plan honors some priorities of both sides. The House maintains a pledge to keep ongoing spending in line with projected revenues, while the Senate gets some more money for key priorities such as education.

The state's fiscal picture is not as rosy as in past years. The latest projection from the Revenue Estimating Conference said the state will take in $7.18 billion in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, about 6 percent more than the current year. But Branstad has noted that farm incomes have slowed and that farmers are suffering under the bird flu outbreak, which has left 29 million birds dead, dying or waiting to be euthanized.

The spending plan includes an increase in ongoing money for K-12 education in the next school year, as well as a one-time payment of $55.7 million.

Higher education institutions will see more money, but not the the entire $8.8 million sought to maintain a third year of tuition freezes. Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter did not commit Thursday to freezing tuition in the spring 2016 term.

Lawmakers agreed to a health budget that would keep open one of two mental health facilities slated for closure and would seek to find a private provider to run the other. Branstad had removed funding for the facilities in his budget, but under the deal, the facility in Mount Pleasant will remain open, and one in Clarinda will stay open through mid-December. The state will seek to turn it over to a private operator.

The health budget creates a committee to oversee the state's plan to privatize Medicaid services. Under a new law, the state will require that doctors give women the opportunity to view an ultrasound prior to an abortion, except in cases of medical emergencies. And it continues a requirement that the governor must sign off on reimbursements for Medicaid-funded abortions.

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