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Iowa Legislative Leaders Kevin McCarthy and Christopher Rants

posted on April 18, 2008

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Borg: Gaining an edge. Iowa legislators are winding down the legislative session and launching re-election campaigns. We're discussing political control of the Iowa Statehouse with legislative leaders Republican Christopher Rants and Democrat Kevin McCarthy 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 18th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: As Iowa legislators are debating and voting during this legislative session they're looking down the political road and they are seeing November's general election and how what they are doing now will play in Grundy Center. Forest City, Council Bluffs and Dubuque. And that is because the entire House of Representatives is up for election and half the Senate. Democrats are controlling both chambers right now holding a 10 seat majority in the State Senate and a 6 vote margin in the House. Well, today we're discussing strategy with two legislative leaders directing the re-election campaigns. Sioux City Representative Christopher Rants leads the House Minority Republicans and Des Moines Representative Kevin McCarthy leads the Democratic Majority. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Both: Thanks for having us.

Borg: You're both familiar with the set here and with the people across the table. And they are Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Representative McCarthy, let's start with you. One of the things that legislation did this year was you passed an expansion of the rights that workers have in the state's collective bargaining law. What is the future of that legislation? It's currently hung up right now in negotiations with the Governor.

McCarthy: That's right. We set in motion this year what would be referred to as expanded scope or open scope bargaining for public sector collective bargaining workers which would change the dynamics of what would be required to be negotiated in good faith at the bargaining table by either the employer or the employee and then if there is an impasse, about 1% of negotiations reach an impasse, that would go to then an arbitrator who would be a neutral arbitrator selected by both to decide that difference. That bill passed the House, it passed the Senate and there has been a motion to reconsider placed on that bill preventing it from being messaged to the Governor as we work through potential differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch on that issue. We don't know what the fate of that bill will be at this time. It's still uncertain. The legislature has largely done its work on that issue.

Glover: But are you negotiating with the Governor?

McCarthy: We're waiting to hear what their concerns are in regards to that issue. We have not yet received specific concerns from the executive branch but we're looking forward to working with them in good faith to try to resolve any potential differences.

Glover: So, they haven’t told you this is my problem?

McCarthy: Not yet but we're looking forward to working with them. We're looking to be meeting with them throughout this weekend and hopefully we can resolve any potential differences.

Glover: Representative Rants, the legislature, as I mentioned, has passed this collective bargaining bill. Is there political fallout from that? And what political fallout would it be?

Rants: There is huge political fallout and let's be honest about it. The Democrats passed it, party line vote all the way, around the clock. It was the holy week holdout. The Governor has a right to be concerned. When you have every city council, school board, county board of supervisors, community college presidents, taxpayers by the thousands contacting the Governor's office asking them to veto the bill Democrats in the legislature chose not to listen to the taxpayers. I'm hopeful that Governor Culver will. But make no mistake, this big payoff to the public employee unions, it's a massive power grab that is at the cost of the taxpayers, you bet. That is a campaign issue this fall.

Glover: And what's going to happen?

Rants: Well, the majority leader knows better than I do. I'm not involved in any of those negotiations. We haven't been invited down to the Governor's office to negotiate. I did meet with the Governor after the bill passed to express our concern, to express frankly the fact that I was grateful that the Governor was taking a go slow approach to it.

Glover: But you've been around the statehouse for a while, put your prognosticators hat on and tell me what you think is going to happen.

Rants: Well, here's what I'm afraid of is that this bill is a trade off on negotiations on the budget, that the Governor gets what he wants on the budget, he's going to sign that bill. That's a bad deal for the property tax payers. If the Governor doesn't get what he wants in the budget maybe he vetoes that bill. Either way I think the taxpayers are a loser in this situation but I'm hopeful that the Governor will veto the bill in the final analysis. Is that right, Mr. McCarthy?

McCarthy: No, we received no indications that there will be trade off on it. We think it's a good bill, it's good for Iowa, it's good to have workers have a greater voice at the bargaining table. The bill doesn't mandate a thing, just that some things should be negotiated in good faith at the bargaining table. So, we are hopeful that it will be passed.

Rants: With all due respect, Representative McCarthy, that's not true. That's not correct. The bill specifically mandates mandatory items of collective bargaining. That is the first line in the amendment that you dropped on us after we adjourned. It's mandatory items of collective bargaining. Unelected arbitrators will now be able to dictate tax policy to school boards, city councils, county boards of supervisors. It's no coincidence that every elected local official in this state is opposed to that bill because they see it a massive erosion of local elected official's power and specifically the ability to levy property taxes.

Henderson: Representative McCarthy, will you pay at the ballot box?

McCarthy: I think we'll benefit at the ballot box. To have some improvement for working men and women in their standing at the bargaining table after 42 years of being out of power I think that’s a good thing for Iowa. And the first contract under this piece of legislation I don't think is even negotiated until a year from June. So, I think Iowans who may be concerned about this issue -- by the way, it's just for public sector, cops, firefighters, corrections workers -- I think they're going to see that the sky did not fall, that things like 27 other states have in their bargaining agreements are a good thing for Iowa and I think we'll benefit.

Borg: But how can you say you'd benefit at the ballot box if it only affects public employees, they're the ones who benefit and Mr. Rants says all the taxpayers in Iowa are going to pay more?

McCarthy: That is my point is that most people aren't affected by it so I don't see them seeking retribution from us for the bill. And those folks that will, working men and women, are going to be happy with what we did.

Glover: Representative Rants?

Rants: I think that democrats will benefit in terms of campaign contributions. Obviously it's a big payoff back to the public employee unions so I'm sure the campaign coffers will be full. I think republicans benefit at the ballot box when the taxpayers find out what happened to them.

Henderson: On Thursday Senator Gronstal, who leads democrats in the Iowa Senate, said that a bill which alters the method for distributing the one percent sales tax for school infrastructure projects, right now it's collected locally and sent back to each county, that would be altered. And he says the bill is dead in the Senate. Is that a disappointment, Representative McCarthy?

McCarthy: I think what he's referring to -- I'm still hopeful that the bill will pass. I think it will. That is my prediction. I really want to give thanks to House Republicans, 17 of them helped us pass this bill in the Iowa House. It was an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort in the Iowa House of Representatives and I think what Senator Gronstal was expressing in that press conference was frustration that as of Thursday there was only three republicans in the Senate that had stepped forward even though disproportionately republican senatorial districts are to benefit from that provision. The Iowa Farm Bureau I think has taken notice of that and has started to advocate for more senators, those 17 republicans in the House that voted for it are advocating to their republican senatorial colleagues. So, I think it's going to pick up momentum in the Senate.

Henderson: Representative Rants, you did not vote for that but the 17 people who did were mostly rural legislators who argue it benefits them. Why are there only 3 republicans in the Senate?

Rants: I think the republicans in the Senate who are opposed to the bill probably share some of my same concerns. The fact that this money can be shifted and scooped in part to pay for this massive collective bargaining bill that was passed and that that money actually won't end up in terms of property tax relief or in terms of going into building new school buildings. We tried in the House to pass an amendment to constitutionally protect those dollars so that they couldn't be scooped or shifted for other purposes. That amendment went down to defeat. It doesn't really provide property tax relief. Property taxes this year under the legislation that was passed back in January will go up by more than any small amount of property tax relief that this bill proposes to give. But there is a compromise that's out there. It's part of the bill that would get 100 votes if they were to bring it up for a vote today. We have suggested a couple of times as republicans and that is to take our school districts that currently collect this money, lift the cap on what can go back to every school district and move to a rolling average. That will ensure that smaller districts get money, even some larger districts like Sioux City that are below the state average right now can receive some additional money. It's something that I think all 150 legislators can agree to if we decide that there is an impasse. There is a compromise that can still move forward.

Henderson: Representative McCarthy, can you accept that?

McCarthy: One of the things I want to address specifically with regard to the scooping comment just made we are deadly opposed to scooping this money in the future for anything other than school infrastructure purposes. Only one other place in the Iowa code is there a statement of legislative intent, a preamble, that is in the sexually violent predators act. We added one to the silo bill that we passed so it's not just not withstanding the code provision. You'd have to have a pretty hefty debate to overturn what is a statement of legislative intent that exists only in one other place in the entire Iowa code.

Glover: Representative McCarthy, step back for a second and look at an issue that Governor Culver suggested back in January and that is the expansion of the state's bottle deposit law. It doesn't seem to have gone anywhere. What happened? And what is the future?

McCarthy: It's mainly a policy disagreement. The Governor in good faith and in requirements with the Constitution have put forward a budget and one of the policy provisions that had some environmental revenue effects was the bottle bill. And so I applaud him for that effort. That proposal has not generated any consensus in our caucus. There are some individuals in our caucus that support the bottle bill, there are some people that oppose it, there's some people that want to move to an entirely new system which would be a movement towards statewide curbside recycling. And it's not a division of issue, just an intense difference in policy. And so it just failed to generate any sort of consensus in our caucus and the likelihood of us doing something in this area this year is I don't think good.

Glover: So, in the last week nothing is going to happen with that bill?

McCarthy: I don't think so.

Glover: Representative Rants, you saw the bottle bill proposal. Is it a good idea? And why won't the legislature act on it?

Rants: The Governor's initial proposal basically is another tax on Iowans at the grocery store. I think frankly that's what caused the issue to stumble. I mean, this general assembly has already raised taxes by $930 million, or at least we have in the House. This would have been on top of that. I think that's what initially caused it to have some difficulty. I have some members in rural Iowa who keep looking at the issue of the handling fee and want to be supportive of their local recycling centers but raising another tax on Iowans at the grocery store, I don't think it's going to go very far.

Glover: Representative McCarthy, just this past week the House decided to approve $23 million for yet another study of what to do about big livestock confinement facilities. Why do we need another study? And at what point will the legislature actually do something about this issue?

McCarthy: We did not approve a cent that relates to that study. There will be no funding in this year's budget for that study. We did that largely because it came out of a bipartisan interim committee. One of the things that we're proud of as legislative democrats is when we place items for study in interim committees we take them seriously and that was a bipartisan recommendation that came both from Director Leopold from the DNR and from the Farm Bureau to try to implement a really scientifically based study of these issues that all new confinements would have to participate in them. But it is controversial, we had disagreement in our caucus and in part that is why we are not putting any funding into it. The funding that was allocated in the Governor's budget for the study which was $1 million we have taken that money in our legislative budget and improved the budget for the REAP program.

Glover: Representative Rants, what exactly is it that you need to know about livestock manure that you don't know now?

Rants: I'm not sure that there's a lot that we need to know but perhaps looking at the issues of how do we help mitigate the odor. That's really what it's about. It's not is there a problem, it's what are the right techniques and practices that we need to put into place to make sure that we're being good neighbors if you have a livestock operation. But the problem is with this bill, like the immigration bill, it's a sham. We're not really doing anything. We're passing a document that says we're interested in this issue but we're not putting any money in it. Like illegal immigration, we want to get tough on illegal immigration but we're passing a bill that the Senate is not going to pass and the Senate is passing a bill that we're not going to pass. So, we're making a lot of political statements but we're not actually accomplishing anything and that's the real problem.

Borg: Is that right Representative McCarthy, is this going to be just a study in name only with no money to back it up?

McCarthy: I just think we want to do what we've been doing, trying to work in a bipartisan fashion. We've had great success with members of the House Republican Caucus, notwithstanding rhetoric from the republican leadership. These so-called chain bills are being passed with overwhelming support with the republican members.

Rants: You said there’s no money, you're not going to appropriate any money, you said that a minute ago.

McCarthy: It's contingent on funding. One of the options that I believe Senators Grassley and Harkin are looking into is any federal grants that may be used for it which then could be used to fund this study. The immigration proposal, the biggest single portion of the immigration bill is workman's classification and it's virtually identical to the provision that passed in the Senate. So, as a base there's some possibilities for consensus in that issue.

Glover: Representative McCarthy, this issue of confinement livestock operations causes great emotional outbursts in many parts of this state. It's a big issue for a lot of people. This legislature seems unable to act. Why?

McCarthy: Well, it's difficult to find consensus on that issue. When we as a majority party, I should say as a minority party, put forth our 16 agenda items that we would do this specific area was not one of those because we could not find consensus as a caucus. We did talk about moving Iowa towards a greener place, more focus on renewable energy. We're doing some things for the environment. But this issue is very difficult because depending on where you're at in the state and what type of business you're involved in -- remember we are a citizen's legislature. You're going to view this world differently and it's not just on this issue. It's a cultural dynamic, rural Iowa is changing, the demographics of rural Iowa are changing so it's very emotional.

Glover: And Representative Rants, this is an issue that democrats have seized upon, at least democratic interest groups. Can republicans use this issue?

Rants: I don't know that it's an issue that we really ought to use, in political terms. You're right, Mike, it is very emotional because the majority leader is right, rural Iowa is changing and it sort of makes a difference as to who owns that livestock building. You know, the person you go to church with on Sunday, their pigs don't always seem to stink as much as maybe somebody who is three counties away who put that building up. But we need to continue to work to find a way to make livestock operations successful and profitable in this state and still be good neighbors and responsibly stewards of the environment in their local communities. And so that is why I wish we were actually putting money into this study so that we could help those livestock operators who are oftentimes, now, family farmers, not the big corporate giants, it's the family farmers who are building new buildings right now that we want to see them be good neighbors and help them with the most up-to-date and technologically advanced techniques to be good stewards of the environment.

Henderson: Representative McCarthy, it appears you're going to be building a new building in Fort Madison, a new state prison, a quarter of a billion dollars. Why hasn't there been greater legislative debate and why are you waiting until the last moment to appropriate this money?

McCarthy: Merely because the funds that would be related to the construction of this facility occur in the so-called RIF or infrastructure budget and that is something that is always done towards the end of session. It's a big issue and we've been working -- that's been one area that we've had some pretty good negotiations between the House and the Senate and the executive branch. Our funding scheme would be slightly different than originally proposed. We're likely not to do a so-called bridge gap funding as it relates to prison bonds. That was part of the funding scheme originally. And this is not a done deal. This is something that is going to be debated. I expect there could be bipartisan support for it. But this is a debate we'll have to have this week and it's not a done deal by any means.

Henderson: Representative Rants, in January there were a bunch of republicans who argued that the prison should not be built in Fort Madison. Will you press that case?

Rants: We will have a conversation about that. Thus far we haven’t seen a bill. It's going to be in a hundred page bill that the legislature, that the House Republicans at least, it hasn't been made available to us to look at or to the public. The fact is I think the majority leader hit the nail on the head. It's a funding scheme. We have money in our infrastructure account, we should be paying for this prison on a pay as you go basis whether it be paying cash for it, that's why we have an infrastructure fund. The notion that we're going to bond whether it be bonding without paying principal payments and that is what was proposed in January, that's why we call it the subprime prison, or whether or not they decide to make full payments. The fact of the matter is we have an infrastructure fund. That's what we are to be using to pay for this rather than putting Iowans on the hook for another 20 years when there's money in that account.

Borg: Go back to what you were saying, Representative McCarthy, you said you're banning the bridge gap. I don't know what that means. How are you going to pay for it now?

McCarthy: The funding mechanism for this would be very similar to the funding mechanism that republicans used when they were in control. The original proposal had a combination of prison bonds and tobacco securitization bonds which could be converted to capital, tax exempt bonds for infrastructure and then a no interest loan up until the current bonds that were set in motion by the republicans for Fort Dodge and Mitchellville, they expire in 2015 and then we would then convert the payments that we're using for those which are taken off the top of court fines that are collected and convert those to new prison bonds. I think we're going to just do bonds and securitization for it and not the no interest loan.

Glover: Representative McCarthy, there was a pressure coming into this legislative session to spend $200 million a year to fix the state's highway system. That is what the Department of Transportation says the state is short. The legislature didn't spend the $200 million and they did raise fees on almost every vehicle in the state. Why didn't you lose on both counts?

McCarthy: I'm pretty proud of the work that we did on this bill. It is not perfect, okay, it's not perfect and we had to deal with the cards that we were dealt on this issue given the concerns in the Senate and in the executive branch. But here's what we did -- there is a looming $200 million annual shortfall on our roads but it's not immediate, it's looming. So, we wanted to set it in motion and we worked with those folks that are involved in road infrastructure to come up with a scheme that they would sign off on and support and they did. And we also did it in a way that limits the effect on Iowans pocketbooks. Not a single Iowan that owns a vehicle or a truck is going to be hit now. Retroactively, okay? There is a gradual ramping down of the floor which will be extended more so in the future than it is now. And that was the pickup truck inequity issue. But we think it's a way to be responsible with Iowans' pocketbooks and develop a structure to get more funding into our roads over time. By 2012 we'll have well over $100 million pumping into this but this is not a done deal, we don't have to tackle this issue entirely this year and we'll have to come back and roll up our sleeves next year and the year after to pay attention to our roads.

Glover: Representative Rants?

Rants: It's going to be a good May for the auto dealers in this state. Let's face it, if you've been thinking about buying a car or truck you better get it before July 1st and that's fine. And I am supportive of the fact that they chose not to hit people immediately. I think that makes sense, they did sort of a buyer beware, you know what you're getting into. I think they did that correctly in that bill.

Glover: Would you agree that there's not much urgency to this, that we can wait several years to start dealing with it?

Rants: No, I don't agree with that fact and that is one of the concerns that people have. Look at the winter we just went through. If you go out and drive some of Iowa's roads right now or the gravel roads you know that we've got real problems. And we're going to basically give counties enough money for four truckloads of gravel per county so we're not going to make a lot of progress. But something needs to happen and so I don't fault the majority party for moving the bill forward. I understand why they did and I understand the way in which they did it. I think that they create some new inequities. I don't know how I would go home and explain to my next door neighbor who uses his car for business purposes that he's still going to pay full weight and value, $365 or something like that, for his car and this pickup truck, the person that lives across the street, is only going to pay $150. We created a new inequity in the system but no piece of legislation is ever perfect.

Henderson: Representative Rants, you have suggested that democrats will pay for enacting a smoking ban. Why do you say that?

Rants: Well, I think they overplayed their hand. I think most Iowans, in fact, if you were to put up a bill that said we're going to ban smoking from restaurants, going to your Applebee's or TGI Friday's or whatever, that bill probably would have gotten 90 votes in the House, maybe 95 votes in the House but they overplayed their hand. I get an e-mail every week from a Vietnam veteran who, as he says, he paid for his membership at the VFW in blood and he can't go in there and smoke any more. We have gone too far. We tell private business owners you can't smoke in your own office in your building even if you are the only employee. I've got a UAW worker, lifelong democrat who has now become a republican over this issue, wants to run for the general assembly. I think it's symptomatic of where the democrats have lost touch with frankly middle class Iowans and blue collar Iowans, not just in terms of sort of their tax and spending issues but this is part of their larger social agenda, they just got carried away. And I think frankly that's going to cause them some problems at the ballot box.

Henderson: Representative McCarthy?

McCarthy: Every single survey that I've seen both our internals and those public surveys that have been put in the news show that it is overwhelmingly popular movement to smoke free places. I have a right as a citizen of this state not to have smoke and cancer causing chemicals including arsenic put in my body. And this has been a cultural shift. And I've said this before but I remember visiting the Capitol for a tour as a child and it was culturally acceptable that everyone could smoke in the House, in the Senate, in the Capitol rotunda and I couldn't see the dome when I looked up there. And I remember that. I remember visiting my mother at a hospital where she worked and everyone in the waiting area smoked, the nurses smoked, the doctors smoked and it was acceptable. That has changed. And we have moved to where the majority of states are moving, to smoke free places, not a perfect bill but it was designed to get the votes for passage but we used various conferences we attend with our colleagues from other states. Those states have enacted legislation similar to this, it becomes more and more popular and then people wonder why did we ever wait to do this.

Rants: Why is it okay to smoke in a casino? And why is it okay to smoke in a casino? That is the hypocritical nature of this bill in that we have decided to protect people, that you can't smoke in a bar but we're going to let you smoke in a casino. Nobody can explain that one to me.

Borg: We'll hear in November how that plays out. Mike?

Glover: Representative McCarthy, it wouldn’t be an official Iowa Press if we didn't talk a little bit of politics. You've got 53 members in the Iowa House right now. How many will you have after November?

McCarthy: I don't know if I'll give you specifics -- realistically I think we'll be between 60 and 62 seats is what our belief is given everything that has occurred. We have the best recruitment class we've ever had. We've got high quality candidates that match their district locally coupled with the fact we've had a massive uptake in democratic registrations in the state of Iowa, many of our key districts have picked up over 1000 new democrats since January. That coupled with the fact that we outraised the republicans last year in fundraising and we hope to continue that trend moving into this year coupled with the fact that the republican trademark has diminished with the voters and the fact that we'll still be neck deep in the Iraq War nationally this coming November. It looks to be a very good year for democrats but we're not going to take anything for granted, we're going to run as if we're 20 points behind but we look to pick up seats this November.

Glover: Representative Rants, the same question to you. You have 47 seats in the House right now. How many will you have after November?

Rants: We're pretty confident we're going to pick up the majority. We're optimistic about what happens this fall. The majority leader predicted that we were going to have 15 retirements and that didn't happen either so I'm not sure that he is counting accurately what is going on in republican districts. But there's no doubt that the democrats had an uptake given the caucuses. That's what happens when you have six different presidential candidates running around the state spending millions of dollars in Iowa and republicans only had two. We also had an uptake in our caucus turnout. But I look around at the things you can't measure right now in a poll and you can't measure in registration and that is democrats switching to become republican candidates for the legislature because they think their party has left them behind. You walk into a place like Oskaloosa and you've got 100 people packed into a small room, standing room only because they want to volunteer on Danny Carroll's campaign because they think Eric Palmer has betrayed the voters in that district. There's a lot of instances where you see enthusiasm at the grassroots level for republicans. Yeah, I know there's going to be a lot of union money as payoff for that collective bargaining bill going into democratic campaigns but frankly I think that actually hurts them at the ballot box. We lost seats in this state -- we lost the majority as republicans by 1400 votes. We've got to flip 700 people in places like Waterloo where we lost by 100. We're going to get those seats back.

Borg: About the only thing that is absolute on this program is time and we're out of it. Thanks so much for being with us. That's it for this week's edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week usual times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg and thanks for joining us today.

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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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