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Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal

posted on April 4, 2008

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Borg: Crafting a legacy. We're discussing the Iowa legislature's closing agenda with Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal 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 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

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, April 4th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: If Iowa legislators adhere to their 100-day schedule only 18 days, a little less than three weeks are remaining in the 82nd general assembly's 2008 session. Whatever day they adjourn state law cuts off their per diem pay on Tuesday, April 22nd. So, these are final days and they are crunch time for legislative leaders. Senator Mike Gronstal leads the Senate's majority democrats and if anyone has a road map for these final, often hectic days in the session it's Senator Gronstal and that's why we've asked him back today. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Gronstal: Thanks for having me.

Borg: And across the table Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, just for the heck of it, just a quick guess -- when are you going to adjourn?

Gronstal: First of all, they usually do a pool. For the leader to indicate would be unfair to all the pool participants. But the reality is, it's the minority that controls the time. It's the majority that controls the agenda and when we're going to take things up. It's the minority that determines how long it's going to take.

Glover: Let's go through some of the things you're going to have to get through before you get there. There was a thing that surprised a lot of people, a collective bargaining bill, the first expansion of the state's collective bargaining law since it was passed. Passed both the House and the Senate, still sitting in the legislature and it has caused a fight with the Governor. Where is that?

Gronstal: I think it has caused a discussion with the Governor about what is entailed in the policy that is in this bill and we're going to continue those discussions and we're going to find a resolution with the Governor.

Glover: There will be a collective bargaining bill?

Gronstal: I think that is highly likely at this point and we are working in good faith with the executive branch. They have some concerns about this and we're happy to go over those concerns and figure out a way to address those concerns.

Glover: What concerns have they raised?

Gronstal: I think they're going through a process where they're gathering information. We're going to let them finish that process and we're going to engage with them in discussions about that. So, that will be forthcoming.

Henderson: There is a 10-member panel of legislators who are supposed to be meeting to come up with a compromise on the issue of smoking in public places. Do you think there will be such a compromise before the legislature adjourns?

Gronstal: I think it's likely but it's actually kind of an interesting equation, one you don't often see in the legislature. On the Senate side the more exceptions you have the fewer votes you get. On the House side the more restrictive it is the fewer votes you get. So, whichever direction the conference committee goes, more exceptions or less exceptions, they lose votes in one chamber or the other. So, it really is an interesting dynamic that I've not seen very often in the legislature. So, I think they will meet early next week. I think they will come to a recommendation. As you know it's a house file so that means the conference committee report is taken up first in the House and if they move it I will make every good faith attempt I can to pass it in the Senate as I've done the last two times.

Henderson: What is your prediction on what compromise may be reached?

Gronstal: I think I'll let the conference committee meet and make those recommendations. I think it's clear that there will be probably some pull back from the original Senate position of essentially no exceptions. So, I think there will be some exceptions but certainly nowhere near what was in the second House version or the first House version.

Glover: And you'll pass that bill?

Gronstal: As I said, Mike, this is one kind of for the record books. I'm not sure because you go one direction and one chamber has difficulty finding the votes, you go the other direction and the other chamber. So, it's a tough issue. I will make every good faith effort to find the votes to pass it.

Henderson: Is a fall back position allowing cities and counties to enact local smoking ordinances or is that completely off the table?

Gronstal: Here is what I believe. I believe this issue has reached a tipping point. I think it has, in fact, passed the tipping point and I think if we don't pass something this year next year we will come back and we will pass something much tougher than anything we're considering this year. I think the public mood on smoking has dramatically changed just in the last year. A year ago oh local control is fine, let's let a few communities figure this out. And then after four or five years and what may be something statewide, between last year and this year it just moved dramatically and it's time to stop smoking.

Borg: Earlier this week you told reporters and other in the legislature that you expect a transportation funding bill in these final days will be approved. Potholes are plaguing Iowans all over the state after a harsh winter so everyone is really receptive, I think, to that. But how much are you going to spend? And where are you going to get the money?

Gronstal: Numbers I think the package of mechanisms they're looking at that includes some registration fees on pickups in particular and some other extension fees, how quick the fees phase down. I think when it's all said and done the bill is $120, $130 million. I think the department recommended about $200 million after we asked them to do a study on this. I remember when I started in the legislature Iowa's roads were the envy of the country. We were so much better than Missouri and so much better than Nebraska and we don't get to say that any more. And so I think there is a real interest in doing something about transportation infrastructure in this state.

Borg: That's generally true but is it going to be too little maybe too late?

Gronstal: If you look back at history back in the 80's three different times we came up with mechanisms over the decade of the 80's to add resources to the road use tax fund, three different kinds of mechanisms, gas tax increases, fee increases, license increases, all of those kinds of plans. I think what you'll see the legislature do is take a look this year, try and come up with a significant chunk of money and then probably continue to revisit this issue over the next three or four years.

Henderson: The Iowa Farm Bureau is running advertisements advocating an increase in the gas tax. Is that just not going to happen?

Gronstal: That's not going to happen. We're not going to proceed with the gas tax. As a matter of fact, I had some Farm Bureau folks in my office. I think the Governor in good faith has reviewed this and has indicated at this time he doesn't think it's appropriate when fuel prices are at all-time highs we're going to see $4 gas before the end of the year and raising the gas tax right now probably isn't going to happen. That said, some people have suggested we go ahead and pass it anyway. I said, that's kind of like playing chicken and usually when you play chicken you both end up in the ditch. I think we're going to try and work in a constructive way with this Governor, come up with some resources that will begin to address some of our transportation infrastructure and keep this on one of the burners on the stove, maybe we'll move it back from the front burner to the middle burner but we're not going to look away from this issue. We continue to look and try and assess what we can do in terms of keeping our -- I look in my community. Council Bluffs is kind of next on the list to rebuild the Interstate around Council Bluffs, the intersection of two interstates are in Council Bluffs. We can either spend 25 years trying to get back on -- I think that is a lousy idea for economic development in this state to let those things lag that long so we're really going to work at trying to get something done on this.

Glover: The Governor opened this legislative session with the call for significant expansion of the bottle deposit law, expanding the containers it covers, expanding the deposit that is put down, he walked away from the deposit. It seems as though the rest of the bill is in real trouble, it hasn't moved. How much trouble is the bottle bill in?

Gronstal: I'd say it's in significant trouble. We are looking at ways, there are areas that probably should be responded to. We have non-profit redemption centers in this state and a number of those have gone out of business over the last couple of years and have a tough time making it. The non-profit ones that are often sheltered workshops, those are the kinds of places that it would really be nice to come up with a response that would find some more resources for those folks. So, we're going to continue to look at that. The bottle bill has been one of those issues in the legislature for 30 years now. We've had, I don't even call it a truce, it's kind of a cease fire. One side wants to repeal the law, the other side wants to expand it, neither side can muster the votes to get that done. So, it's kind of a cease fire right now.

Glover: But to be clear you're not going to expand the deposits?

Gronstal: I would say it's unlikely at this point.

Glover: And you're not going to expand the number of containers that are covered under the law?

Gronstal: I think that's unlikely as well.

Henderson: You have a tax issue in regards to schools whereby Iowa's 99 counties are collecting a local option sales tax and using that money locally for school building infrastructure. There is a move afoot at the statehouse to collect that money at the state level and distribute it back to schools on a per pupil basis. Will that be accomplished?

Gronstal: I've got to add a little to what you said there. The state already collects the money. We are the collecting agency, we already take that money in from local school districts because some have made the argument oh gee, you're going to completely change the administration. We're not. It will be exactly the same.

Henderson: It's how the money is distributed.

Gronstal: It will be exactly the same mechanism and the money will go back exactly the same way it goes back now. It would also be able to buy us some property tax equity between school districts. But let me talk for a minute about school infrastructure. When I was fourteen years old, I know that's a long time ago, when I was fourteen years old they put a couple of portable classrooms at Gunn Elementary School in Council Bluffs, temporary. They're still there from 1964, portable classrooms. That is unacceptable. Our generation, the baby boom generation has done the worst job in the history of the state in terms of providing school buildings for their kids, worst job in the history of the state. I think that's unfortunate. So, I'm very committed to trying to get an ongoing, long-term effort to maintain local school infrastructure.

Borg: This bill is a mechanism to do that?

Gronstal: Counties have it now and you're going to see a mechanism, there is a sharing mechanism built into the law and you're going to see some counties opt away from that and choose to get out of it as theirs expires in ten years, at the end of the ten year period that they imposed it for. So, it's going to disappear eventually and the sharing mechanism won't work because none of the big folks will come into the system. So, I think we need to do something in that area.

Borg: That is the statewide penny?

Gronstal: That is the statewide penny, yes.

Borg: Are you going to do something this session?

Gronstal: I think it's likely that it's going to pass in the House and I think it's got a very good shot in the Senate.

Gronstal: I've got to tell you on both those issues, on both school infrastructure and transportation infrastructure it's got to be a bipartisan effort and if it moves away from a bipartisan effort both those issues will go by the wayside.

Glover: Are there signs it is?

Gronstal: Occasionally.

Glover: Okay, another issue that you have said you're going to tackle as early as next week is spending $25 million over the next three years to expand health coverage to virtually every child in the state. How are you going to do that?

Gronstal: We're going to take up a bill on Monday, we're going to pass it on Monday. It provides three years of funding. I think it's about -- the round numbers $5 million the first year, another $10-$15 million the second year and another $10-$25 million for the third year. We have found the will to do that for a power fund, a four year commitment to a power fund. We found the will to do that for early childhood education, four-year-old pre-school programs. We found the will to do that on teacher quality. I think we can find the will to do what every kid in the state of Iowa -- I've got to tell you a story. It will probably bore you but when I was a kid I ran into a parked car when I was learning to ride a bike. Whacked my knee, went to the doctor's office, went to the hospital, emergency room and got our doctor and he moved my knee and I'm seven or eight years old. Does this hurt? Does that hurt? It all hurt and I will never forget his words. He looked at my father and he said, 'I don't think anything is broken.' That wasn't very reassuring to a kid. 'I don't think anything is broken, do you have health insurance?' Paul, my dad said, 'we've got good insurance at the bank.' And he said, 'We’ll do an x-ray just to make sure.' I remember feeling really good I was a banker's son and no kid in Iowa ought to worry about whose son or daughter they are in terms of getting access to healthcare.

Glover: And will that be the signature of this session? Will that be the biggest new investment?

Gronstal: Yes, and it will be one of my proudest moments in the legislature that we say we're going to make a commitment to make sure every kid, listen to the words carefully, has access to affordable coverage, every kid in the state of Iowa.

Henderson: Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in 2007 were often asked by Iowans about the issue of illegal immigration. Your counterpart in the Iowa House proposed legislation which sought to crack down on CEO's in companies which knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Do you anticipate that the Senate will follow through on any similar legislation or what do you think the work product of the 2008 session will be?

Gronstal: I do think the Senate will follow up on that and I do think there is real interest in the legislature in dealing with this issue. Unfortunately the federal government has botched several attempts to deal with this issue. There are not a lot of ways we can step in. There's a lot of federal things that prevent us from even acting. So, we're going to take a look at trying to deal with the cause. And the cause, in a lot of cases, is low wage, low skill jobs and corporations that cynically use immigrants to drive the wage rates down and break unions or whatever, those kinds of mechanisms. So, we're going to go after the corporations that attract folks with these kinds of jobs and try and connect them to them. I think we also have an opportunity to do some good things on wage enforcement. In California they went through a fairly aggressive effort to make sure companies are held accountable. You would be surprised 1000 cases in the state of Iowa where workers are shorted their wages and probably 95% of them no longer have the jobs. We want a better enforcement mechanism. If it wasn't for the low wages and efforts to drive wages down this problem wouldn't be so big, it wouldn't be so attractive to bring immigrants here if it wasn't about driving wage rates down.

Henderson: Immigrants who are here legally and become citizens are eligible to vote. In the last election voting documents were given to them in their native language so that they could cast their vote. A judge has said that was wrong. Do you anticipate that the legislature will in any way address this or allow this issue to work its way through?

Gronstal: I anticipate that people will wait and see what the courts say but I think it is likely this provision will be appealed.

Glover: Just this past week, going back to the last big thing you've got to do before you adjourn which is write a new $6.4 billion state budget, just this past week a panel of budget experts gave you an additional $78 million to work with this year. How are you going to spend it? And what does that do towards the process of ending this session?

Gronstal: First of all, obviously that helps and it's a sign that our economy has remained fairly healthy. That's a pretty significant number, $78 million more than projected for this year. So, we're kind of bucking the national trends in Iowa. But that said we have a tight budget this year. We have deliberately constructed a tight budget. We've tightened our belts and we're going to continue to do that. This does give us the opportunity to take some of those resources and feel a little more comfortable making that commitment to healthcare, making that commitment to several other things. So, we're going to work with the Governor on this number. I think it is likely we will take some, we will not take all of the new revenue identified. We're going to have the most money in the history of the state in our reserve funds this year. We're filling those, we're not touching them and we've said that from the start. So, this helps us get out of the session but we're not going to go on a spending spree with this. We're going to make careful, reasoned commitments to the things we talked about at the start of this session.

Glover: But you'll spend some of it?

Gronstal: Yes.

Glover: And part of that budget that hasn't gotten a lot of discussion in past weeks is you're going to borrow a couple of hundred million dollars and build a new prison in Fort Madison. Criticism has come from Republicans about borrowing the money to build a prison and criticism has come about putting it in Fort Madison. How do you respond?

Gronstal: Well, I respond I suppose most of the republicans have enough money that when they were first starting out they could just go out and pay cash for a house. That wasn't my experience, I don't really think it's many of their experiences. The reality is borrowing at times makes sense and if it's an investment in infrastructure like prisons are it's important. And we still believe there are dangerous people out there that need to be locked up for a very long period of time. We think it's time to replace the Fort Madison prison, we think in the end replacing it is actually more fiscally responsible than leaving an old, expensive to operate facility, replace that with a new, more efficient facility and we'll be able to, in the long run, save money.

Glover: And if you're going to get attacked by republicans for locking up bad guys you're willing to take that heat?

Gronstal: I'll take that.

Borg: I introduced you as leading the Senate's majority democrats. Part of that job is recruiting or at least leading the campaign to control the legislature, again, by democrats. So, I take you now to the presidential campaign and the top of the democratic ticket whether it's Obama or Clinton, there is a very contentious fight right now. How much is that hurting democratic changes, particularly your chances?

Gronstal: I think everybody wants to speculate now that the party is going to be badly divided because the campaign is going on a long time. I'm confident the party is going to come back together at the end. But all of that said our success doesn't hinge on the top of the ticket. While we were doing well nationally in the 90's at the top of the ticket we were losing in the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate. And in this decade in 2004 when George Bush was winning Iowa, the first republican to win Iowa in a long time, we got to a tie in the Iowa Senate. 2006 we got to the majority. So, our stuff doesn't really depend on what happens at the national level. The key is finding good, quality candidates. We have found great people over the last several cycles to run for office, people that are natural leaders in their community already and they have stepped forward and said I want to run. And those are the kinds of folks we've recruited. So, we have a great set of candidates out there. We are very excited about the race. Iowa democrats have never held more than 60% of the Iowa Senate. I will make the prediction that we exceed that percent this fall.

Henderson: You are a super delegate to the democratic national convention and you have indicated that you support Senator Clinton. Do you anticipate when you cast your vote at the national convention that you will be voting for her?

Gronstal: I anticipate that by the time we get to the national convention that it will be over, that the decision will be made, that it won't be a brokered convention, that the result will be obvious to folks and I've got to tell you, this has been an exciting presidential year. We have gotten more people involved than ever in the history of this country in the nomination process. The fact that it's going on may frustrate some. It excites me. These are the people that are going to work on the campaigns in the fall from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket and I'm very excited about what that does for us.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, help me with that. How is this going to get resolved before the convention? Every projection I've seen has them going through the nominating process, Obama ending that process with more delegates than Senator Clinton but her getting relatively close to him. How does this end?

Gronstal: I think you've got to wait and let it end. Some people want to say it doesn't matter, we don't need a Pennsylvania primary and we've got to make the decision today. I think you wait for the states that are left. You let them go through the process. Some of these states have never had candidates campaign for a primary. Let the process work and let's see what the result is when that process is done. Once you're past that people will start to talk about what they're going to do.

Glover: If we end the primary season with Senator Obama ahead in delegates, ahead in the popular vote, Senator Clinton trailing in the popular vote, trailing in the delegates before the convention will you urge her to step down?

Gronstal: I'll make that decision when I see what the result is. But you've already prejudged perhaps what the result is going to be. I don't know yet. Ain't it grand that the public still has a voice in this and it isn't just us guys around this table, the super delegate and the super press.

Glover: We never have a voice in this. Let's take a little bit closer look if we could at the race for the Iowa legislature. You control the Senate 30 to 20 and a lot more republicans are retiring than democrats. Is there any way you can lose the Senate?

Gronstal: Sure, a month is a lifetime in politics. Who knows what the mood is going to be in November. I have no idea what the mood is going to be. I'm going to assume that we're going to lose three or four seats and we're right on the edge and we're going to go out there and we're going to figure out a way to run the best campaigns we can with the best candidates we've got and we're going to train those candidates well. We're going to do the best job we can.

Glover: I guess the question is the House is 53-47, it's a much closer race over there. Is the real competition in the House?

Gronstal: I tell you something, I think the House has done a phenomenal job. They have a closer and a little more difficult to manage majority. So, it's been a little rougher for them. But they have done a phenomenal job on a host of issues and moving those issues forward. I'm confident that -- remember last time everybody kind of knew the Senate was going democratic, right? You guys kind of knew the Senate was going democratic and everybody kind of thought the House might just stay republican. So, the folks that wanted a republican backdrop to things kind of invested and tried to make that happen in the House. Well, it didn't happen and so I don't think the deck is going to be stacked against Murphy the way it was in 2006. I actually think he's going to pick up four, five, six seats this next time.

Henderson: You mentioned that you are perhaps predicting a 60% majority...

Gronstal: Better than 60%, we're at 60% now.

Henderson: What would be your agenda were you do have that majority?

Gronstal: To try and govern well, to try and move this state forward, to try and expand our economy as we've been doing over the last several years.

Henderson: Any specific things you haven't been able to do here that you would do?

Gronstal: I would say the challenge for the next congress and the next general assembly is we're dealing with kids this year on healthcare. The challenge at both the national and the state level, I assume there will be a national and a state partnership, the challenge is how do we deal with healthcare for adults? How do we come up with a system that works better than what we've got?

Glover: We've got less than a minute left. Let's talk about the fight you're having with Governor Culver. If you have a democratic legislature fighting with the democratic governor, you've got labor unions who are angry with this governor over a bill that you sent him. Has that hurt you or helped you in the election coming?

Gronstal: Look, we have some minor disagreements and we're going to sit down and we're going to ...

Glover: Didn't sound very minor to me, Senator.

Gronstal: We're going to sit down and work those disagreements out. You know, I only agree with my wife 90% of the time. The other 10% I just assume I'm wrong. So, we're going to work with this governor and we're going to figure out what concerns he'd like us to address and we're going to figure out a way to address those concerns.

Borg: Sounds like you and Mike have a difference in opinion in the degree of the difference between you and the governor.

Gronstal: I think, yeah, we do. We've got a lot of things we work well together on.

Borg: Thank you for being here. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're looking at Iowa's economic health and legislator's spending plans. We'll be questioning legislators chairing the appropriations committees, Des Moines Representative Jo Oldson and Coralville Senator Bob Dvorsky. Iowa Press, usual airtimes next week, 7:30 Friday night, 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 transcript at

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 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

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