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With expense payments ending soon, Iowa lawmakers don't appear close to ending session

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DES MOINES, Iowa — The time is approaching when Iowa lawmakers typically start wrapping up their work for the year, but with budget negotiations moving slowly, it doesn't look like the Legislature will adjourn any time soon.

May 1 is the final day of expense payments for the part-time lawmakers, as well as the last day for much of the temporary staff and student pages who work in the Legislature. With just three weeks to go, lawmakers in the Republican-majority House and Democratic-controlled Senate are still far apart on how much additional funding to provide for K-12 education and remain at odds over basic budget issues.

"The simplest way to put it is, we can't agree on how much money we'll have, let alone what to spend it on," said Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone.

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad proposed a roughly $7.3 billion budget in January. Lawmakers have been stuck for weeks on the education funding portion of the budget, with Democrats seeking to provide more new dollars than Republicans. The two sides also haven't determined overall spending levels.

Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, of Hiawatha, declined to weigh in on when the session may end.

"I wouldn't even make a prediction," he said.

Sometimes what happens as the session winds down is that legislative leaders remain to negotiate a budget deal while the rank-and-file members head home until it is time for the final votes. But Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he did not favor such a course.

"I think that's unwise," said Gronstal. "I think everybody's voice needs to be heard. I think everybody should stay and work. I think it's time to knuckle down and get to work."

The true last ditch deadline for reaching compromise and a budget plan is June 30, before the new fiscal year starts July 1. In 2011, the session stretched up until the last day of June, due to bickering over social issues and how to handle a budget gap, making it the one of the longest sessions in Iowa history.

"I hope that will not be repeated because tough decisions don't get any easier by putting them off," said Branstad. "I think people kind of know what the lay of the land is. It's now time to get serious about trying to work out the differences."

Sessions tend to move more quickly in election years, when legislators want to hit the campaign trail, and in years when there is single party control of the Legislature and the governor's office.

As May 1 grows closer and the sun shines and vacation season beckons, many lawmakers may start getting antsy about concluding work in the Capitol. Most have jobs and family commitments they must return to, like Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, who said she has a family vacation planned for mid-May.

"Nothing is moving very fast in the House. It's frustrating because citizens expect us to get things done in time," Steckman said.

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