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Reporter's Roundtable: Awaiting Decisions

posted on May 2, 2008

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Borg: Awaiting decisions. Legislation passing Iowa's 2008 general assembly awaits Governor Culver's signature. We're analyzing the issues with political journalists 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.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, May 2nd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Well, Iowa's 150 elected Senators and Representatives went three days into overtime putting the wrap on this year's scheduled 100-day legislative session. The House and the Senate put the final touches on the new budget for fiscal 2009. That actually goes into effect this year on July 1st and it's now on Governor Culver's desk. The legislature will be picking up, though, where it left off nine months from now but first the general election of 2008 in November will be determining the make-up next January of the new general assembly. We're going to be reviewing the accomplishments and what's left on the legislative agenda and what is now up to Governor Culver with our team of Iowa Statehouse reporters. Joining us, Kay Henderson, News Director with Radio Iowa ... Mike Glover, the Senior Legislative and Political Reporter for the Associated Press ... Jeneane Beck, Iowa Statehouse Reporter for Iowa Public Radio ... and Charlotte Eby, the Capitol Bureau Chief for the Lee Newspapers. Kay, start out with you. Talk about legacy for the Iowa legislature. Is that legacy sort of in doubt right now because Governor Culver has a pile on his desk and he's really determining what the legacy is going to be won't he?

Henderson: He's already determined what the legacy will be of the 2008 legislature. He signed into law a bill which enacts some changes in vehicle registration fees but most importantly the smoking ban. Iowans will be able to go out to eat effective July 1st and be in a totally smoke-free restaurant. They'll be going to bars that are smoke-free. It will make a major change in Iowa life and Iowans will really notice it.

Borg: Charlotte, do you agree with that? That's the legacy of this legislative session is the smoking ban?

Eby: It's something that affects everyone. I can't think of an issue that I've gotten more comments from our readers. In ten years I've gotten more comments on this than anything else. A lot of people were actually against this. The smokers and bar owners were very much opposed to this legislation. So, it was highly controversial at the Statehouse and it will be remembered as the hallmark of this session.

Glover: And it will have some political fallout I think particularly in rural Iowa. It wasn't a partisan bill but there were more Democrats for it than Republicans and there were some Democrats from rural sections of the state who said that smoking ban is very unpopular in small town Iowa where you may have only one choice of where you're going to go to have dinner and it's now going to be smoke-free so if you're a smoking you're just out of luck. So, that could be harmful in some rural parts of the state. It's why you saw a lot of rural Democrats vote against it.

Borg: Who gets blamed for it, Jeneane? Wasn't it bipartisan?

Beck: It was bipartisan but as Mike said more Democrats voted for it than Republicans. But I think that those in the districts where it was really going to come to haunt them they did vote against it and the majority party said, yeah, we'll let you do that because we know you need to be re-elected next fall for us to retain the majority in the House. So, it'll be interesting to see. I think some Democrats that voted for it could face consequences. On the flip side, 80% of Iowans don't smoke and so there are some Republicans who voted against it who may pay a price for it. It just really comes down to the Iowans in their district. Do they believe that this is the right way to go for the state? Or do they feel it's heavy handed and the government should stay out of it?

Glover: And the Republicans have given some indication that they're going to try to use this on the campaign trail next November. That strikes me as somewhat puzzling and Jeneane mentioned the number that strikes me, 80% of the people in this state don't smoke. And if I'm weighing in on an issue that has got 80% on one side and 20% on the other side it doesn't take me a long time to figure out which side I'm going to come down on if I'm a politician.

Henderson: And usually Republicans hit Democrats on pocketbook issues so this will be interesting to see them try to effectively make this argument, again, as Mike said, with 80% of people being non-smokers.

Beck: The one impact, though, that hurts Democrats on this is the allowance for smoking on gambling floors and casinos. Republicans are going to hit them on that because frankly they said to ma and pa that owned this restaurant or small bar in a local community, you can't have it but the big cats that own the casino, they can and that will hurt them.

Glover: And I spent some time in Illinois recently and Illinois just enacted a smoking ban and I was in various restaurants and so forth and chatted with some of the bartenders and the wait staff and so forth and asked them about the transition. And they found no rough transition. It was a very smooth transition. Frankly, most smokers understand that the trends and the times are running against them and so it was a fairly easy transition. Same in Minnesota which has an even more stringent law.

Beck: But their ban includes casinos. Iowa is the one that exempted them.

Glover: I think casinos -- it's an argument they'll use but it won't ...

Borg: Charlotte, I'm surprised that we haven't said one of the major things coming out of this legislative session, still undetermined, and that is whether or not Iowa's collective bargaining law affecting public employees is going to be greatly modified.

Eby: That is still on Governor Culver's desk. He'll have 30 days to decide whether he is going to sign that or not. I would guess that he would sign it. He has to remember that unions helped get him elected and I just don't know when the stars will align so that another legislature will pass something similar in the future. He's only got one shot at this.

Glover: If you look at what the bill does, under the state's current collective bargaining law there are certain topics for which you can bargain.

Borg: Let's say that law enacted back in the 1970s was unchanged in all those years.

Glover: Hasn't been touched since it was enacted in the 1970s. It says you can bargain, you can bargain over these types of items, wages, working conditions, things like that, and if you don't reach agreement then an impartial arbitrator will step in and impose a settlement. It's called final offer arbitration, they pick whichever offer they like. Under this bill it would greatly expand the areas for which you can negotiate. For instance, teachers could go in and negotiate about class size. Police could go in and negotiate about how many cops there are in a car. And if they couldn't reach resolution they'd have to go to arbitration. An arbitrator could tell a school district you have to have classes with 20 students. So, it greatly enhances the clout of public sector unions, one of Chet Culver's biggest supporters. So, he's got a tough decision right there.

Beck: I was just struck by -- Kay Henderson and I asked Jack Kibbie about this, the president of the Senate, a Democrat, when Culver first started making these, oh hold on, I don't know if this bill is good, let me take a look at it. And Jack Kibbie looked at us and said, well I assume he's running for re-election and he is a Democrat. In other words, he's got to sign it. That is how Democrats look at it.

Glover: He's getting advice from some very prominent Democrats including the former Governor telling him to veto it because the argument goes like this ...

Borg: Tom Vilsack is saying veto it?

Glover: Tom Vilsack, Jerry Crawford, a very prominent lawyer in Des Moines is urging the Governor to veto this bill. These are both prominent Democrats and their argument is this -- where are the public sector unions going to go? They're going to end up with Chet Culver because he's going to be better than whoever his opponent is and this is an opportunity to veto a union backed bill to make some gains with middle of the road voters and independents and take the unions for granted. At some point Republicans have to take a right wing for granted and at some point Democrats have to take the left wing for granted and fight over the middle. That is their political argument.

Borg: I see the logic. Kay, is it also an issue where the general public may not see the significance to them yet because Republicans, I think, are arguing this is a pocketbook issue for you, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, you eventually will pay the cost of this bill?

Henderson: Eventually and that is the key sticking point for Republicans who are making this argument. It's really easy to make the argument about, let's say, pickup fees because if you own a pickup you know that next time you get your plates and it's a brand new model in the 2010 model year you're going to pay significantly more, perhaps three times as much. This is so far removed from someone actually taking money out of their pocketbook and putting it on the table that it's a bit harder for them to make their argument. And back to the whole discussion that we've been having here, I think for us to say what Chet Culver will do at this point, I don't think even Chet Culver knows what he's doing. I mean, he is completely torn on this issue and I think we see it when we ask him questions. He says things like, I'll tell you when I make a decision. It's obvious he hasn't made one yet.

Borg: Charlotte, budget windfall, that is in the final days there was a good economic report about tax revenue coming into the Iowa coffers and Democrats had a little bit more money to work with.

Eby: It allowed them to strike a budget deal with Governor Culver to finish out the session and head home. There have been several sticking points with the Governor although it was only over a few ten million dollars or so but they were able to infuse some more cash into the budget and pay for some of his priorities.

Borg: Mike, winners and losers. You've covered a lot of sessions.

Glover: That used to be a compliment.

Borg: Well, it still is, Mike. Let me call you a veteran reporter then.

Glover: Oh, that'd be okay.

Borg: But always there are people, pressure groups who win and those that didn't get some of their legislation through. Did you see some this year?

Glover: Sure. I think first of all your health advocates, the American Cancer Society, folks like FA1 with the smoking ban, that's something they got a dollar a pack increase in cigarette taxes last year, a smoking ban this year so they won. I think teachers won, school districts won. They continue their process of putting more money into local schools. One of the groups that did okay but didn't get everything it wanted was environmental groups. They got some additional funding for REAP, the centerpiece environmental program in the state, they funded that a little bit stronger than they have in the past. But they didn't pass the bottle bill expansion. That was something environmental groups had been pushing for very hard as had Governor Culver.

Borg: Did that hurt Governor Culver that he wasn't able to get that through the legislature?

Glover: It always hurts a Governor when he can't get one of his priorities because there is a power game at the Statehouse and this matters less about whether there is a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, a Democratic Governor -- it's just governor and legislature. There is a power thing going. Governors want to be in charge, they want to get something out of their top priorities, maybe not everything they want but at least something. For a Democratic legislature to shut down a Democratic governor on one of his top priorities is a way of asserting their power and saying, look, we're a equal branch.

Borg: Are there some key races now? I mentioned in our open that now these people who have adjourned at Capitol Hill are back in their legislative districts beginning campaigns. Are there some key races, Jeneane, that you're watching?

Beck: I think there are a couple of races, of course, in the House, the Webster City race. McKinley Bailey comes from a rather conservative Democratic district. So, those are the kinds of lawmakers you watch. I'm not saying he'll have any problem with re-election but I'm just saying it's those kinds of areas of the state where it's always a toss up where you wonder, okay, did a vote hurt them? How did they vote? Well, that's why he voted against the smoking ban, because he knew that might hurt him in his district. So, I do think there are areas -- you have to remember also Democrats spent a lot of money this session and there are -- I heard from a couple of rural Democrats who are fiscal conservatives who said, we've got to get out of here, we're spending like crazy, it's time to go home. And so there are those who have to go home and explain it to their constituents.

Glover: The flip side of that spending is every dime that got spent got spent because somebody asked for it and they were filling a constituency every time they spend money. And so that constituency got rewarded. So, I think in the Senate you're going to look at about a half dozen Republican Senators who are retiring, open seats there. And open seats are where the legislature is really fought out. So, if you look at the House, they have about 49 incumbent Democrats running for re-election. You bet on almost all 49 of them. There are about 39 incumbent Republicans running for re-election. So, Democrats have a pretty good edge in incumbents running for re-election in both the House and the Senate. So, I think it's fair to say that most people would say they're starting off with an edge towards holding power, maybe even expanding their power a little bit but that is a long way away.

Henderson: Another edge to talk about -- is there a connection between power and money at the Statehouse? Of course there is. And I would argue that one of the things that Democrats did this year was strengthen their ties to business. They helped contractors out a lot in the state. People who build schools are going to be building a lot more schools, improving schools in rural areas. That will benefit Democrats in fundraising and benefit their profile in local communities where contractors are going to get jobs rebuilding small schools. They also did not enact the business tax change that Governor Culver had advocated which was strenuous, it's called combined reporting, it's too difficult to explain but it was opposed by key business groups and key businesses in Iowa like John Deere, like Principal and so I think in some respects Democrats aided themselves in that perhaps they'll dampen the edge that Republicans have always had in raising campaign cash from business groups because they took those after.

Glover: Right and there is an important statistic that we need to worry about, Kay, and you've touched on it right there. Democrats have over the past few months significantly out raised Republicans in money. What that tells me is a lot of interest groups out there who don't care who is in control but just want to buy into the winning side have concluded that Democrats are likely to be in control after the next election so they're going to weigh in on their side at this point. People who play the game have made the same conclusion that we're making here.

Eby: One thing we've seen, though, is Republicans set the stage to try to knock off some incumbents making them take votes on things such as gay marriage, immigration, some of those hot button issues that could play in swing districts. So, they're not rolling over in giving this race to all the incumbents there.

Beck: And one of the things they'll say on the campaign trail is Governor Chet Culver campaigned on property tax relief, property tax reform especially for businesses and the legislature did not do anything on that topic. They didn't pony up. And so the Republicans will use that in the election.

Borg: Primary election coming up and there is a Democratic primary in the congressional district that serves Central Iowa. Congressman Boswell being challenged by Ed Fallon. How is that going?

Henderson: It doesn't appear to be going as well as perhaps Ed Fallon thought heading in. He has been fighting a head wind coming from people who are leaders in his party. I think one of the interesting things that came out of the legislature was that legislators themselves weighed in on this issue. A bill was advanced which would prohibit candidates in the future from using campaign cash for salaries. As many of our viewers may know that has been an issue in this race. In addition, a state Senator was involved in filing an FEC complaint against candidate Fallon. So, it's been fascinating to see how this race has played out at the Statehouse level.

Glover: I think Fallon made a fundamental miscalculation in his decision to challenge Congressman Boswell. I think he figured when Democrats have a primary in a congressional seat the party establishment will kind of take hands off and let the two fight it out and then get behind whoever wins. That's not what happened. What happened is the party establishment circled the wagons around Leonard Boswell and fought back with a vengeance. So, Ed Fallon is not running against Leonard Boswell, Ed Fallon is running against Leonard Boswell and the heft of the Democratic establishment.

Borg: Does that strengthen Boswell's argument too that Fallon is an outlier in the party?

Glover: Yes, and that is his fundamental argument is that Ed Fallon is an outsider, he's not a loyal Democrat. In fact, he backed Ralph Nader's bid for the presidential nomination over Al Gore. He's reminding people of that a lot in mailings. So, he's suggesting that Ed Fallon is not a real Democrat.

Borg: Jeneane, John McCain was back in Iowa this past week. What is the significance of that as you judge it?

Beck: Well, in his speech he came to talk about healthcare, at the end of his speech he said, you know, I'm going to be back, I'm going to be here at the State Fair having myself another pork chop on a stick and mentioned and described Iowa as a battleground state once again. George W. Bush took Iowa in the last two elections. However, Democrats gained a larger percentage of new voters in the recent caucuses than Republicans did. So, I think that while Republicans want it to be a battleground state it isn't clear yet whether it truly will be.

Glover: It would be very surprising to me if John McCain actually makes this a battleground state. He's running against a big head wind here. He didn't have a big presence here during the caucuses. Either Clinton or Obama did have a big presence here which started off with an edge in the polls in the state. So, it would be a bit surprising if he chooses to make it a fight here.

Borg: He didn't say very popular things to be campaigning in Iowa.

Glover: He said he's going to veto the farm bill with a whole bunch of subsidies in it. And that played well across the country.

Borg: But why does he come to Iowa to say it?

Glover: You come to farm country and you say I'm going to cut farm subsidies and you can go to other parts of the country and say, see I'm a straight talker. It may hurt you in Iowa.

Henderson: You know, Obama brags about going to Detroit and talking negatively about the auto industry and so it's the same principle.

Borg: Mike, you arrived back in the state late Thursday night this week after having traveled with the Obama campaign. As you have seen the campaign close up, traveling with the candidates and you were with Mrs. Clinton's campaign earlier, do you see the handwriting of Iowa's effect on where the campaign is now, what Iowa did for this campaign and launching it? Do you see some effects there yet?

Glover: Yeah, and you see some effects there yet and you see something that the Obama campaign is using as an argument. He will say that he started off in Iowa not very well known, behind Senator Clinton by a mile in the polls and that as people in Iowa got to know him they got to like him better and he ended up winning Iowa which I think that win and the size of that win, it was pretty significant, legitimized him as a candidate. He's using that same argument going into every round of primaries that as people get to know me they like me. I wear better than she goes. That's an argument that he is starting to make. But we've yet to see how that plays out.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: Conversely, it labeled Clinton a loser. She has been the inevitable candidate. And even though polling in Iowa had shown that Obama was leading among likely Democratic caucus goers heading into the caucuses I don't think it had really set into the national consciousness that he could actually pull it off. When he pulled it off and she was a third place finisher I think that damaged her candidacy in a way that she's never been able to recover from.

Glover: Primary voters, like voters, one of the main driving forces behind most voter's decisions is they want to be with the winner and I think until Iowa people didn't look at Barack Obama and say, here's a guy who can win. After Iowa they looked at him and said, maybe this guy could be our nominee.

Borg: Charlotte, refresh my memory. We didn't see Chelsea Clinton at all in Iowa did we?

Eby: We did in the final days. She didn't speak to the media. She was more of a photo op. They'd let all the cameras in, the TV crews but she wasn't out there ...

Borg: On the college campuses answering questions.

Henderson: And here's when it happened, Dean, it happened that Chelsea Clinton and Dorothy Rodham came out to Iowa coincidentally on the same weekend that Oprah Winfrey came to Iowa to endorse Barack Obama. So, it was a calculated effect on the part of the Clinton campaign introducing new faces on the trail to try to somehow insert themselves in an incredible story that was happening on the Obama side of the equation.

Borg: Jeneane, Senator Clinton's campaign has changed dramatically, been re-tooled several times, but changed dramatically from the way that she campaigned in Iowa. There were plenty of retail campaign opportunities in Iowa but she really didn't have that sort of a campaign here but she is certainly employing it now in Indiana.

Beck: She is one of the people, Dean. She's been turning that on, you know, starting in Pennsylvania with doing a shot of whiskey and she really is trying -- she's realized her strength is working women and has decided, you know what, I'm going to appeal to them all the way. The Democratic elite, as she likes to describe them, or the polls show the college educated Democrats tend to go for Obama so she has figured out I'm going to play to the group that appreciates me. And she didn't do that as much in Iowa as she has now.

Glover: And she's coming perilously close to something I think could cost Democrats this election. She is coming perilously close because if you look at the demographics Barack Obama is doing extraordinarily well among young voters, among upper income voters and among black voters. Hillary Clinton does very well among working class, middle-aged, white voters. She could play the race card on him and go straight to middle-class, middle-aged, white voters with an appeal that they don't want to vote for a black man, divide the party along racial lines and cost themselves the election in November. I'm not saying she's going to do that but I'm saying that potential is out there.

Borg: I'm going to throw this out not to any specific person, but where do you see the future of Iowa's caucuses as you judge where we are right now in this campaign and what has happened? Can you at all see that we're strengthening the case for Iowa's caucuses or are they somewhat in jeopardy?

Glover: Tell me who wins. If Hillary Rodham Clinton is the next President of the United States Iowa won't be first.

Borg: Is that right?

Glover: If John McCain is President of the United States it'll be up in the air.

Borg: Simply because Mrs. Clinton didn't win here?

Glover: Right. Since Iowa she's trashed every caucus state. They're undemocratic, shut voters out. And if Barack Obama wins I'm pretty sure that Iowa's going to be first next time around because if Barack Obama is President Iowa started him off on that path.

Borg: What about the super delegates, Jeneane, there are super delegates making decisions now I guess hoping that this won't go all the way to convention for the Democratic nomination. Is there any indication how Iowa's so-called uncommitted or super delegates are breaking?

Beck: Two super delegates announced this week that they are for Barack Obama, two Iowa super delegates and we've been seeing this suddenly, super delegates are announcing their support for Senator Obama. Despite Senator Clinton's win in Pennsylvania she said the momentum was now at her back, the wind was at her back and yet, although polls show that Senator Obama has slipped a little bit, polls show that voter's unease or Democratic voter's unease with this lengthy process is growing and super delegates recognize that and they seem to be coming on board day by day for Obama. In fact, Kay mentioned to me, I thought this was interesting, that maybe this has calculated this slow trickle.

Henderson: One of the super delegates who made up their decision this week was Bruce Braley. He was on this program a few months ago and he said he might make up his mind at the convention. I think what happened to Congressman Braley was he went to district conventions this past weekend and boy did he get an earful from Obama people who were making that very point, that this race is getting to divisive. We need to end things.

Glover: And I've heard from a lot of people we kind of all think we know how the primary seat is going to end up on June 3rd. We think the primary seat is going to end up with Barack Obama ahead in delegates, the primary seat is going to end up with Barack Obama ahead in the popular vote but short of what he needs to get the nomination.

Borg: When will it be?

Glover: June 3rd. If that happens there is going to be pressure on her to get out. I know of a couple of super delegates in Iowa that are currently in her camp who have told me that if we end up there where she's behind in delegates, she's behind in the popular vote and the primary season is over they're going to switch and call on her to get out. The game is over they're saying.

Beck: And the slow trickle that I was just talking about, the one thing it does, Dean, is it keeps it in the news daily. If all the super delegates announce one day he gets one day worth of coverage. But if Bruce Braley announces one day and another super delegate announces boy he gets media attention every single day on it.

Glover: And there's a flip side to that divisive primary, we're writing about the Democrats right now. We aren't writing about John McCain. So, the Democrats -- America is watching these two people and coming to judge them, they're in the news.

Eby: We aren't writing a lot of great things about the Democrats. We're writing about Jeremiah Wright, some of the problems in the Democratic campaigns and it's underscored when we have John McCain coming back here already ready to fight the general election that Democrats need to settle this fight within their own party.

Borg: There is another one, Mike, too and they are called add-on delegates in addition to the super delegates. What is that?

Glover: Because of the performance in the last election each state gets to add on another super delegate or more than one super delegate. Iowa gets one more delegate, Scott Brennan, the State Democratic Chairman, will name that delegate at the state convention and we're guessing by the state convention the Democrats will know who their nominee is so he'll pick somebody who is in that camp.

Henderson: The Iowa super delegate to watch, Tom Harkin, uncommitted at this point.

Borg: Thanks for your insights. Well, on our next edition of Iowa Press we're turning to higher education with the University of Iowa's new president, Sally Mason. She'll be providing us with her vision and assessment of the challenges ahead for the University of Iowa. Back at our regular Iowa Press airtimes next week, that's Friday at 7:30 and Sunday morning at 11:30. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks so much for being with 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.

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