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Education plan introduced as Iowa Legislature begins

DES MOINES (AP) — Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday he wants to boost starting salaries for teachers as part of his newly released education plan, but his stance on school funding may run into resistance.

Just before the 85th session of the Iowa Legislature was sworn in, Branstad unveiled his plan to invest $187 million over five years in K-12 education. The proposal calls for, among other things, increasing minimum pay for entry-level teachers from $28,000 to $35,000 annually and offering tuition assistance to aspiring teachers.

Branstad said the plan would be funded with Iowa’s nearly $1 billion budget surplus.

“This administration is ready to invest significant new resources in transformational reform,” said Branstad, who is expected to announce plans to cut commercial property taxes when he releases his full budget Tuesday.

In past years, the Republican governor has had difficulty in winning legislative support for an education plan, but has signaled that he plans to collaborate more with lawmakers this time around.

“This is refined and more focused. We have now got a much greater consensus from education leaders, but also from the business community,” Branstad said.

His administration also hopes that an influx of new House and Senate members and the proposed use of surplus funds will improve the chances that his initiatives will succeed.

But Branstad wants to win legislative approval for the education proposal before determining the general level of state financial support for public schools.

That doesn’t sit well with Senate Democrats.

“I think you have to obey the current law as long as it is the current law,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. He said school districts are “operating in a fog because they don’t have any idea what resources they’re going to have.”

The head of the state’s largest teacher union, the Iowa State Education Association, did not take a position on the plan immediately. Tammy Wawro released a statement saying the organization will study the proposal.

Debate over school funding will likely dominate much of the 2013 session. Last year, lawmakers never approved a new education funding plan because the Democrats controlling the Senate and the Republicans running the House could not reach agreement.

Branstad also said he wants to change school funding rules so that local districts can no longer raise their property taxes to match state funding increases for schools.

The education proposal also calls for increased leadership opportunities and incentive pay for teachers, as well as developing an assessment program to gauge if high school seniors are ready for college or the workforce.

Some Democrats are pushing educational priorities not included in Branstad’s plan. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, wants more resources for adult learning.

“Iowa is one of just three states that provide almost no support to adult basic education,” Gronstal said during his opening remarks Monday.

Other major issues likely to be debated this session are commercial property tax reduction and whether Medicaid should be expanded in Iowa as the federal health care law requires.

Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said Medicaid expansion will be a priority.

“Last month, I listened to Iowa’s health care leaders from across the state. The people who know Iowa health care issue best are speaking with one voice. They are urging us to expand Medicaid,” Jochum said.

Branstad has questioned the cost of an expansion, and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, last week said Republicans would be “slow to warm up” to that idea.

Earlier Monday, Paulsen told Republicans at a party breakfast that he wants much of the surplus to be spent on tax cuts.

“House Republicans, Republicans in general, we believe it’s your money. We believe it’s Iowans’ money,” Paulsen said.

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