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Governor Chet Culver

posted on January 18, 2008

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Full speed ahead, but hold the line. Governor Chet Culver providing state legislators with aggressive priorities and fiscal restraint. A conversation with Governor Chet Culver on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation; the Iowa Bankers Association for personal, business and commercial needs. Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals; and by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure; by PolicyWorks, a public and government affairs team offering lobbying, grassroots and advocacy services to help you meet your strategic public policy needs. Information is available on the Web at www.policyworksllc.com; by Iowa's private colleges and universities, where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at www.thinkindependently.com.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, January 18th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Governor Chet Culver's Condition of the State Address to state legislators earlier this week generated a lot of cheering. The Governor was reminding the newly convened legislators of what last year's session passed for his signature and providing a vision of where he thinks the democratically controlled legislature and executive branch should be taking the state. There's a big difference between last year and the current session though. It's money. Last year's commitments are restricting this year's available revenue. But the projected budget still has spending growing by about three percent of new spending. That's a bit of an overview now and we'll ask Governor Chet Culver to elaborate. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Culver: Thank you, Dean, it's great to be with you.

Borg: And across the table two journalists who spend just about every weekday at the statehouse, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Governor, in your new budget that you sent to the legislature you asked for a couple of new revenue sources. The first is a what you call closing a loophole in corporate tax laws called combined reporting, forcing companies to report earnings here. You're probably not going to get that, legislators say, what do you do about that?

Culver: Well, I believe we can get that. What I'm trying to do is restore tax fairness to the tax code. I think most Iowans are in favor of that. What we're trying to do is precisely what 20 other states have done, they have closed this out of date corporate loophole that allows large multi-billion dollar corporations that have a headquarters out of state they avoid paying significant tax on items that are sold to Iowans. Seven of the top ten most business friendly states in America, according to Forbes Magazine, have already closed this loophole, not to be punitive but I think it's about fairness.

Glover: But you didn't get it last year, what makes you think you can get it this year?

Culver: Well, I think I'm taking this argument to the people. I want to be the people's Governor. There are a lot of special interests in Des Moines, a lot of lobbyists, I think most Iowans expect us to have a tax code that is fair and it's time to get rid of this outdated loophole.

Glover: And the second revenue source you're asking for is you're asking for an expansion of the bottle bill which would bring us some additional money you would put towards environmental programs. That is running into some trouble upstairs.

Culver: Well, I think I've done my job this week. Any time you have both sides criticizing you maybe that suggests that you're getting the job done for the people because it's not easy. You know, we've got to make tough decisions every day. I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the state and I feel good about the decisions I've made and some of them have been hard. I want to fully fund REAP. REAP, Resource Enhancement Program is one of the most successful environmental programs we've ever had. It was sponsored by former Governor Terry Branstad as a sponsor of the bill in 1978, it was signed by a great Governor, Bob Ray, a Republican Governor in 1978. This is a bipartisan environmental program. We've never sustainably funded it, we've gone up and down year after year. Meanwhile, we have great projects that are being denied because there is inadequate funding.

Glover: Is that another issue you take to the people?

Culver: Absolutely. In fact, everywhere I went this week, I was in Sioux City and Mason City and Davenport and Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and talked to people down in Ottumwa, we had a conference call with a group down there. Not one person is against expanding the bottle bill. It is time to modernize the bottle bill. All I want to do is get cans and bottles out of the ditches and out of landfills. 330 million containers every year in Iowa are currently not covered under the bottle bill. That is how much water people drink, bottled water, that's how much juice they consume. Our habits have changed after 30 years. I think it's time to expand it.

Henderson: Governor, you mentioned just a few moments ago that you were getting criticism from all sides. You recommended a two percent spending increase in the budgets for community colleges which Democrats, your fellow Democrats quickly said would not do. Why did you recommend such a low spending level?

Culver: Well, our growth rate is about two percent. Our projected rate of growth in our economy is about two percent. It's the prudent thing to do. I wish we could go beyond that, certainly, I'm a huge proponent of the community college system. I have a portrait of former Governor Hughes in my office. I admire him in large part because he was a real champion for public education. I'm a former educator. I'm the only Governor in the nation that's been in the classroom in the last 20 years. I've been fighting for kids my whole adult life. And the community college is a great way to give kids some hope and opportunity to allow them to fulfill their God given potential. But we're in a situation with a national recession perhaps looming, some people think we're already in a national recession, we've got a war going on, we've got a lot of debt in Washington, D.C., it's my job to balance the budget. A two percent increase is more for the community colleges than just about any other group is getting. That is as much as we can afford under my budget because I want to protect our cash reserves, we have $592 million in our cash reserves today. That is the highest amount we've ever had in the history of the state. I'm very proud of that. We're going to protect our priorities like teacher pay and early childhood education and we're going to balance the budget and I'm going to support the community colleges at the highest level possible and I think an additional $3 million, they'll have $177 million in my budget which is a record amount.

Henderson: So, will you reject a legislative attempt to boost that level?

Culver: The legislature needs to show me in a bipartisan way preferably how they're going to balance the budget. I've done my part. I presented a balanced budget, I've protected our cash reserves and I have funded our priorities and I've been fiscally prudent. It's now up to them if they have any problem with any part of the budget whether it is combined reporting, bottle bill, the floor is open. Every single day they can go down to the well, they can speak about any issue. If they have other ideas on how we can accomplish the goals of balancing the budget, protecting our cash reserves and funding our priorities I welcome that discussion.

Glover: You said you favor some additional restrictions on indoor smoking. In fact, I think in the past you have favored a statewide ban on indoor smoking. The legislature says that it's going to do a local option ban on indoor smoking. What can you do to convince them otherwise?

Culver: Well, I've actually always been a proponent of local control so I was very pleased to hear that a number of legislators believe that we can get local control done. This session I've been a fan of local control when it comes to education. For example, Iowa has been a local control state so I think that's the best place to start.

Borg: Well, local control also is what you're proposing in large livestock confinement operations. Is there some consistency or inconsistency? You just said that you like local control. But is that going to be able to work?

Culver: Well, in my state of the state address I did encourage the legislature to work on tough issues like hog lots, for example, and siting and zoning. There is no harm in trying to find common ground. I've had great discussions with the Farm Bureau, I've had productive discussions with environmental groups. What we have to do on this tough issue is try to protect our environment, protect the lakes, the rivers and streams that we all love and move forward on taking steps that will allow us to protect the environment and I think discussion and dialogue is critically important. I think the people of Iowa expect us to go to Des Moines and talk about tough issues and to do the people's work.

Borg: Do you have a conversation starter for those discussions? And where might there be an incremental increase in local control?

Culver: Well, we've had all sorts of proposals floated. I think the idea of protecting our lakes makes a lot of sense. We made some progress on that. There is a new proposal that would protect lakes and restrict certain confinement operations within a distance of those lakes. I think that is a good discussion to have. And maybe, it's very possible I think, if it's a civil debate you could bring groups together on this. Maybe the Sierra Club and the Farm Bureau could agree. But that is a good place to start.

Henderson: Gay marriage has been an issue this past week. And at the end of the week the Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case involving child custody rights of a lesbian couple that had parted. Many point to that ruling as evidence that the court is inclined to agree with another opinion in legalizing gay marriage in Iowa. Why do you say that legislators should sit aside and let this percolate through the courts when you also are in favor of 'traditional marriage'?

Culver: Well, I have said that I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. We also passed and I signed one of the most progressive anti-discrimination bills last year, a civil rights protection bill that will protect individuals in the workplace and we made some progress on that issue. So, I think this issue needs to work its way through the court system, both of them, and we have to respect the judicial branch's role in the process and when they're done the legislature, I expect, will respond to their decision one way or the other.

Glover: As you know, a lot of studies have shown the state is about $200 million a year short in money to maintain the transportation infrastructure. You have said you're not interested in a gas tax. Isn't that just kicking the can down the road?

Culver: Well, you know, that's a fair question, Mike. And we do have some real infrastructure challenges. What a lot of Iowans don't know is we are already earmarking roughly $300 million for bridge and road repairs and those bridges and roads that really are in desperate need of some attention. So, our roads are safe. Public safety is critically important to me. This new report did certainly suggest there is a lot more work to do. That is why the Department of Transportation Director Nancy Richardson proposed about 10 or 12 revenue options. I took one of them off the table. Raising the gas tax, I don't think with petroleum $100 a barrel, gas taxes or gas at the pump at record highs is the time to tax Iowans at the pump. You think they had a little concern with expanding the bottle deposit, how about raising the gas tax right now? But there are other options, license fees, for example, registration fees. The legislature can get together any day they choose in a bipartisan way and come up with one of those ten or twelve options.

Glover: Either of those?

Culver: I would be very open to talking about any one of those ten or twelve options.

Henderson: In your budget document that you delivered to legislators you suggested borrowing about a quarter of a million dollars to significantly expand the state's prison system. Why do it all in one year? Why not do it in phases when as you said moments ago the state is entering sort of a lean budget time?

Culver: Well, I have worked closely with the Department of Management, our budget director, the state treasurer and we have a window of opportunity here in terms of some bonding options. In terms of the market right now it's a good time to go ahead and make this $250 million investment in our correctional system. So, the advice has been you kind of use it or lose the option. We can't wait on Fort Madison. That is a Civil War era facility that is one of the oldest west of the Mississippi, it needs to be replaced. So, that is another challenge that we're facing. And we want to do a lot more in terms of mental health and substance abuse treatment. We're going to take a significant amount of that money and put it into those programs so that we can reduce recidivism and we've got important changes and modernizations that are required at places like Mount Pleasant. So, we really can't wait. It's a little bit like the road challenge. The needs are there. The difference here is we've been able to find a funding stream for the prisons without raising Iowans' taxes.

Glover: Some say you can't really deal with the whole prison problem without dealing with sentencing. Are you going to make that part of the whole solution?

Culver: Well, I think we absolutely need to look at sentencing. We need to look at, you know, what is causing us to have eight or nine thousand people incarcerated today. And that number is only going to go up. I think things like mental health and substance abuse treatment are critically important. I frankly think the investments that we're making in education will have an impact. Fewer drop outs, studies show that the more educational opportunities a person has the less likely they're going to end up in prison. That is a long-term challenge. We have to be ever vigilant. We are looking at the issue related to disproportionate sentencing of African Americans and Latinos in our Iowa prisons and we are going to absolutely take steps to correct that.

Borg: You were emphatic in your Condition of the State Address as saying that new prisons should be built in Madison again. But there is some conversation about that is not the most convenient place in the state to be building it. Would you be open to another location?

Culver: I believe it makes a lot of sense just in terms of common sense to keep it in Fort Madison. You've got a skilled and talented workforce that is ready. You don't want to have that challenge if you move it. You need a trained workforce to take these very difficult and challenging jobs. That part of the state needs, I believe, to keep Fort Madison there. It's an important region so for those reasons I support it. Obviously the legislature, we've learned this week, they have a lot of different ideas on a lot of different issues and that is healthy. So, I'm open to whatever they want to discuss about the entire correctional system package but I've made it pretty clear that I'd prefer the prison to stay in Fort Madison.

Borg: Your budget also includes in healthcare bringing about 7500 new children, additional children into the Hawkeye Health Program where the state pays the costs. Is that the only health reform that the state can afford at this point?

Culver: In terms of new money we are pretty limited, Dean, given the economic prediction, a growth rate of around 2.5% versus 6.5% last year. The good news in terms of our economy is the bioeconomy is strong. We're creating thousands of new jobs, new green collar jobs in places like Keokuk and Fort Madison and West Branch where I was yesterday and where they're building turbines. We're now the second state in the nation to manufacture the three major component parts of the windmill. So, our bioeconomy is moving forward. Our biofuels economy is moving forward. Other sectors have slowed so we are limited in terms of new spending. I think to cover 7500 kids is a priority and that's why I've put it in my budget.

Glover: Governor, can we switch over to politics just for a minute here?

Culver: Absolutely.

Glover: You have maintained a neutrality in the Democratic presidential campaign. Are you going to stay there?

Culver: Yes, I'm going to wait until we select a nominee. At this point it looks like it might be a while. I will be in Denver at the convention and who knows, maybe we'll be picking the nominee at the convention the old fashioned way.

Glover: Once we have a nominee for the Democratic Party what will your role be? How do you envision yourself being a player in that campaign?

Culver: Well, as the leader of the Democratic Party in Iowa I will be out there supporting the nominee, supporting candidates for office at every level and I think we'll have a very spirited race. Iowa is always a very competitive state, a battleground state. I think given the national trend it looks like it's going to be a good year for Democrats but you've still got to get out there and do the heavy lifting and the hard work and get the people behind you. And that's what I've been doing this week. I've been traveling the state and the people are behind the bottle bill expansion, the people of Iowa are behind closing this outdated corporate tax loophole and the people need to be behind, more importantly than me, but people of Iowa need to get behind the Democratic nominee.

Borg: Another emerging issue in that presidential campaign is economic stimulus. Do you think on the fly in addition to what you've just proposed that there might be something that Iowa can do to stimulate Iowa's economy?

Culver: Well, we're doing all we can, Dean. I'm trying to use the bully pulpit every day, if you will, to bring jobs to Iowa. And I feel very good about my record in 2007. We helped bring 1800 really good paying green collar jobs from places like Axiona in Spain, we brought a company from Siemens in Denmark and we've brought another company from Germany to build big towers. So, I will continue to fight for economic development and job creation and the biosector whether it's renewable fuels or wind is a really good opportunity, a great opportunity for our state. Within a 600 mile radius of Iowa we're looking at $20 billion of wind projects over the next seven years and no one is better positioned than Iowa for that opportunity.

Henderson: At the Denver National Convention of your party you are going to be one of those super delegates, correct?

Culver: Yes.

Henderson: I understand there is a good bit of lobbying coming your way. Can you give us sort of an insight on how many calls you're fielding from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John Edwards?

Culver: You know, that is part of my job. There is usually a lot of lobbying coming my way. In fact, $9 million was spent lobbying the executive branch of state government in Iowa last year. That is why you're seeing this response from many in the lobby who don't like the idea of expanding the bottle bill and closing the corporate loophole. My job is to do the right thing and represent the people. I'll do the right thing in terms of my responsibilities related to the super delegate process too. But I am open to continuing to talk with whether it's the Clinton camp or the Obama or Edwards camp at this point.

Henderson: You were Iowa's Secretary of State for eight years, talked extensively about voter participation. If you could please critique the Iowa Caucuses that occurred on January 3rd. Did you see any problems that need to be fixed?

Culver: A+, it was unbelievable, both parties deserve a lot of credit. I know how hard the Republican Party and the Democratic Party staff worked around the clock to manage that many people. None of us expected that we would have 240,000 people. It was absolutely unbelievable. I think it was a real tribute to Iowans who care so much, Republican and Democrat, about the future of this state and this country who came out on a cold winter night, could not have been any better. It was absolutely wonderful and I think it really reflected well on the people of Iowa and this great state.

Glover: The convention next summer in Denver, that will be the beginning of the debate over 2012.

Culver: That's right.

Glover: What are you going to do to keep Iowa first?

Culver: I'm going to fight to keep Iowa first. As Secretary of State I successfully fought twice to keep Iowa first. As Governor, as you know very well, I was fighting to make sure we went first in January of 2008 and I will do the same in terms of the 2012 calendar. And I'm hopeful that especially given the great job that we did here that it will be a little bit easier perhaps in 2012.

Glover: What do you think your prospects are?

Culver: You know, I'm an optimist. I really believe that if we present our case and we work within the party process, I really respect the fact that we have a rules and bylaws committee, that we have to work with our friends in other states. We've always done that and I expect we'll do it again. But it's never as easy as I think it should be.

Glover: One set of elections that's going to be important this year is the legislature. Currently in Democratic hands, Democrats think they can keep control. What will your role be?

Culver: Well, I'm going to be out, as I said earlier, as the party leader in the fall taking the case to Iowans that we've gotten the job done, that we can not only win elections but we can govern and I think if you look at our record in terms of teacher pay and early childhood education and increasing the minimum wage for 257,000 hard working Iowans, expanding earned income tax credit for hard working Iowans, the list is long of accomplishments. We made promises in 2006 and we kept them in 2007. I want to make sure as Governor we keep them in 2008 when it comes to the budget and our priorities as well.

Henderson: In your Condition of the State message you called for civility at the statehouse and then you issued a laundry list of what many in the Republican Party see as pro-labor proposals. Was that sort of a little homage to the labor forces in your party? And do you have to pass some pro-labor legislation to have success at the battle blocks in 2008?

Culver: Well, I wish I could pass a lot of things but up in the executive branch I have to wait for it to get to my desk. But as I noted to Dean earlier we shouldn't be afraid to have a healthy debate about any subject. That was my point. Let's have the courage that our predecessors had, you know, Bob Ray, a Republican Governor signed the first ever collective bargaining law that really helped unions and labor and hardworking folks. I want this to be the best place in America to work. I want the workplace to be dignified and I want our hard workers who are out there as we speak getting the job done to be compensated and treated fairly with respect. That's the point that I made. How we get there whether it's prevailing wage, whether it's public sector fair share, I'm not sure. But I think we need to move forward on some of those tough issues and if we try we just might find out that we can find some common ground for the people.

Glover: Republicans think there is an opening for them there. Are they right?

Culver: An opening in terms of what?

Glover: Labor issues.

Culver: I think Iowans support hardworking folks. You know, I got elected in 2006 because I believed we should increase the minimum wage and stand up for hardworking Iowans, that we should expand the earned income tax credit. So, I'm inviting them to join us. Who is against making this the best place to work? Who is against increasing wages for our workers? That's what I'm trying to do. I think those are bipartisan goals and we shouldn't be afraid to find out if we can achieve a few of them.

Borg: Mike talked about an opening, I have to wait for one to say we're out of time. Thank you, Governor Culver, for being our guest today.

Culver: My pleasure, thank you Dean.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we'll get insight from the nation's capitol, Second District Congressman Dave Loebsack will be here. It's been a year since the Mount Vernon Democrat left the Cornell College faculty for a seat in Congress and you'll see our conversation with Congressman Dave Loebsack at the usual times, 7:30 next Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Archive editions of Iowa Press can be accessed on the World Wide Web. Audio and video streaming is available as are transcripts at www.iptv.org.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation; the Iowa Bankers Association for personal, business and commercial needs. Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals; and by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure; by PolicyWorks, a public and government affairs team offering lobbying, grassroots and advocacy services to help you meet your strategic public policy needs. Information is available on the Web at www.policyworksllc.com; by Iowa's private colleges and universities, where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at www.thinkindependently.com.


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