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Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal

posted on June 27, 2008

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Borg: Struggling to recover. Receding flood waters are leaving misery and big costs in repairing basic needs and infrastructure. We'll get assessments from Iowa 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.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, June 27th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: The workload in recovering from the storms and floods is massive. The immediate effects, thousands of Iowans homeless, some jobless, long-term losses still too soon to estimate, farm crop yield projections shifting daily. Whatever side of the ledger is considered it's affecting Iowa's bottom line both in expenses and in potential revenue. Iowa's General Assembly may be called into special session and we'll be talking about that possibility and exploring a possible legislative agenda with the leader of the Senate's Democratic Majority Mike Gronstal. Welcome to Iowa Press.

Gronstal: Happy to be here.

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table Des Moines Register Political Columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, Dean mentioned it in the intro, the biggest issue facing Iowa right now is this record massive flooding that has hit the state. Legislative leaders I know have been meeting to talk about it. What will the legislative response be to this? And is there a need for a legislative response?

Gronstal: Clearly there is a need for a legislative response. First of all, let me commend the executive branch. They have done a phenomenal job in responding to the emergencies and this situation, directing state resources where they needed to be directed. All of that has been done in a phenomenal way and they've also done a wonderful job of keeping the legislative branch informed about what's going on. The Boy Scout camp, the tornado at the Boy Scout camp, it was less than an hour before the National Guard was there clearing the roads so that emergency medical people could get into that facility. So, that is pretty stunning. And it's been a very good job. Now, if we can make the recovery work as smoothly as the response to the disaster that is the trick. That's what we need to do. And I think clearly there is a role for the legislature in a variety of areas. I don't think we have all the answers to that. We don't know how much the feds are going to do, if there is a required local match. Most local governments are going to be unable to respond to that local match, they're already stretched to the breaking point at the local level. I think there is a role for the state legislature to step in and say, we're going to help with whatever match is required by the federal disaster programs.

Glover: And can that response wait until January or will it require you to come back in a special session before then? Is the response that urgent that you have to do a special session?

Gronstal: I think the response is urgent. The question is will we know enough soon enough to respond before the next regular session of the legislature. We are very open to have a special session and coming in and doing some funds. We may not have all the answers. My guess is there's at least a 50/50 shot we'll have a special session. I think two weeks ago people thought it was 90/10 that we'd have a special session. I think right now people are still ...

Glover: What's changed?

Gronstal: I think the message from the federal government a lot of people strongly encouraged us to apply for 100% disaster assistance instead of a 75%/25% match or a 90%/10% match. They have encouraged us to apply for 100%. That alters the equation a bit for us if we don't need a state appropriation to match those federal dollars coming into these local communities. And we may not have the full assessment. Just think, we need to assess almost every bridge and road in the state of Iowa to see what the impacts of this flood are. That's going to take a while to get those assessments done. So, like I say, two weeks ago I think people thought sure, we're going to have a special session probably sometime in August. I think today people are going, well, maybe not so fast. We may not have enough information to act rationally by that point. So, we're going to continue to work on that, work on that with the executive branch, with Republicans in the legislature and this thing is bigger than the executive branch, it's bigger than the legislative branch, we need to make sure that our response makes sense and that we re-grow Iowa and rebuild Iowa in a way that helps prevent these kinds of things from happening.

Yepsen: Typically before an Iowa legislature convenes in a special session there's pretty widespread agreement on what you're going to do. What I hear you saying is you don't even know what's on the table, what your options are. Then you've got the election coming up in the fall and the holidays. Doesn't it get pretty difficult to pull it all together?

Gronstal: I think the difficult part is assessing what it is we're going to do in response. Listen, we can come in and we can make the deal and we can work with Republicans and we can work with the executive branch and we can have a half day session and be in and out of here with a few funds, with a few things done. There are some of those funds that can be done by the Governor himself. Every fall the Governor suspends the weight limits during harvest season. He can suspend the weight limits in this emergency for the hauling of flood related debris.

Yepsen: Which further tears up Iowa's roads.

Gronstal: And, listen, I've got to tell you, if you're in Cedar Rapids and you're seeing that junk on the streets and you're coming home every day from work and getting dinner and then going and trying to clean out your house, if that debris isn't hauled away that's a disaster, that's a huge disaster.

Yepsen: Senator, one idea floating around is the idea of creating a blue ribbon commission to look at all this that we're talking about here, all the problems, the needs and then present something to the Governor and to the legislature. Is the idea of a blue ribbon commission in your mind a good one?

Gronstal: Both legislative leaders have talked about that privately, the executive branch has talked about that and we have talked to each other about it and it is likely that that is a road we will go down.

Yepsen: And what about the use of the state's emergency fund? You've got $620 million. I remember when you passed that bill I heard the line, well, we self-insure, this will take care of it if a tornado ever hits Kinnick Stadium. Well, a flood hit something else in Iowa City. But isn't this a time to start using at least part of that state's emergency fund?

Gronstal: I hesitate, I want to correct you a little bit. We have $155 million economic emergency fund and then we have ...

Yepsen: The cash reserves ...

Gronstal: The remainder is the cash reserve funds. Clearly the economic emergency funds are something that we can take a look at. Clearly that is an option. But understand the whole fund, both of them, all 10% of the state budget taken together, $620 million, and we have the most we have ever had in the history of the state in those funds. But the size of the problem out there is multiple billions. So, even if we took ever dime of that, that would not solve the problem. That's why we have to work in partnership with the local governments and with the federal government to figure out where the sensible place for the state to be helping is.

Yepsen: And one specific thing is conservation programs. Do they need a rather rapid infusion of funds from some place? Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey is finding the need for terraces and in some places down in southern Iowa they actually worked and building culverts instead of bridges seems to be an option. Are soil conservation programs one place where some of these dollars could be spent?

Gronstal: Absolutely, I mean, I think everybody recognizes that whatever we do the rebuilding and the recovery should make Iowa a better place, not just the same, not just get it back to where it was but get it back to a better situation. So, I think there's very strong interest in that. We know terraces have been torn up by these rains, more terraces torn up yesterday in the rains. This is a continuing problem. I noticed in the intro you talked about receding water. Keep your fingers crossed that the water is receding. So, this is an ongoing crisis, ongoing set of disasters for Iowa. And it is border to border, east to west and north to south.

Borg: You're saying it's ongoing and could reoccur, the situation is there. I also said in the open that it affects both sides of the ledger, both state revenues and terrific expenses in rehabilitation as you've said. Without being insensitive do you expect a terrific hit to the state treasury in incoming revenues, reduced incomes, people out of work, farm crop revenues in jeopardy? And what are you projecting there?

Gronstal: Again, it's difficult to project. It depends on if federal government assistance is small and if it requires significant match at the state and local level it's going to be a significant hit to local governments. If the federal response is robust those damages to our economy will be significantly mitigated. So, we continue to, like I say, work as closely as we can with the federal government to have them be aware of the challenge. I mean, I don't think people have a concept that aren't close to this. Typically when you hear a flood you hear, you know, so many inches above the last record. We have places where it's eight feet above the last record, not nine inches. The crest wasn't nine inches higher than the last record flood, it was eight feet above the last record. This is the biggest disaster -- the FEMA official that is here says this is the biggest disaster they have seen and it's so widespread. It's not one town like it was in New Orleans, it's 300 communities in the state of Iowa, 300 out of our 900 communities have been dramatically impacted by this. So, this is giant.

Glover: Whatever response comes from the state, the federal government, wherever it comes from it's going to require money. You're going to have to put some money into this response. There was pressure on the legislature even before this disaster happened to increase the gas tax to help rebuild the state's infrastructure. Where does that stand in the wake of this?

Gronstal: I think it's unlikely we're going to pursue a gas tax at this point in time. I think we're going to focus on taking the resources we have. I would tell you I'm certainly open to a bonding proposal, that's something that I'm willing to look at and work with people on. I've talked some with the executive branch about that. Listen, we're going to be open to whatever it is that works. But I want you to understand the size of this problem. A little bit of gas tax doesn't solve it.

Yepsen: We get, Senator, that it's a big problem. What we're trying to get at is what you as a policy maker are going to do about it.

Glover: And tell me a little bit more about this bonding program. What's that for? How big is it?

Gronstal: All of that remains to be seen. I don't think we have that answer. I think that's one of the reasons why it's likely we will proceed with some sort of citizens commission that will make a set of recommendations to us that will have some evaluation of what the role of state government is in this.

Yepsen: When do you expect that to report to the Governor?

Gronstal: It is to expected to be established soon and I think our timeline would be to at least get us some set of recommendations and those recommendations may be, we probably don't need a special session now. Maybe it can wait. But we expect to hear from them by the end of the summer.

Borg: But what is the state's safety net in the meantime? I was at a Cedar Rapids city council meeting on Wednesday night and people and their work ethic hauled stuff out, got their houses and businesses cleaned out, it's piled in rubble along the streets right now. Now they're asking what's next? And you're saying we'll create a blue ribbon commission and we'll look into what is needed and so on. And that's all well and good. But in the interim Iowa may be losing people who are just plain moving away because there's nothing there in the safety net in the meantime.

Gronstal: And that's why it's critically important that we get in place and are going to be offices for FEMA and those offices are going to co-locate state disaster response officials in them together and I think in the coming week or so you're going to start to see those things established statewide. And I've talked to people about the disaster response, the direct emergency response was very good and I was in Des Moines a number of those days and every afternoon there would be a press conference on TV that every night people would see that on the news and they do rumor control. Oh gee, the Des Moines Water Works is failing. Oh no, it isn't. Okay, and they'd calm those fears. I talked yesterday with the FEMA officials and the state disaster response officials about making sure we'd continue that rumor control. If you're getting assistance you want to know why that assistance doesn't apply to you, you want to have some bright lines as to what you can get and where you can get it.

Glover: Did I just hear you say that you don't think it's going to be likely for a special session?

Gronstal: No, I still think a special session is 50/50. All I'm trying to say is we want to get some sort of citizens commission put together, move forward on recommendations. They may come to us and say here's five things you can do now and here's five funds that may take a little more effort to put the program together and we'll do those later. So, we're very open to working with them and figuring out what it is that's appropriate for us to do.

Yepsen: I understand you've got a lot of options floating around. I'll ask you about one specifically. One idea floating around is that the state sales tax on construction materials should be purchased after the date of the flood should be suspended for a while to give contractors and citizens a little bit of a break.

Gronstal: And there are lots of idea like that. As a matter of fact, local communities are already doing that. They're suspending the fees for building permits. Those are the kinds of funds that a commission could look at. We also have to look at whether that impacts us so much that we can't afford to do match for federal disaster assistance.

Yepsen: Is there anything, Senator, you just ruled out a gas tax. So, are there other things you know of that are options that you don't want to do, that are things that are just off the table, that we're not going to go there?

Gronstal: I think it's really kind of too early to say on that. I think we want to listen to what people -- I don't think at a time when everybody is stressed is the time to be taking more money out of people's pockets. So, I don't think those funds are particularly likely. There may be some that advocate them but like I said when times are tough there are ways to do funds, like I said, potentially with the bonding proposal, there's one way to generate significant real dollars to invest in this.

Yepsen: How would you pay the money? You borrow money, how would you pay it back?

Gronstal: That's why we need a lot of work on this before we make that decision whether we're going to go down that road.

Glover: I guess it comes down at the end of the day, Senator, the response to this is going to be expensive, it's going to cost the state a lot of money and you can sit there and say, we're not going to raise your taxes. Well, where are you going to get the money? Bonding is a nice way of saying we're going to borrow it and make you pay it back over a longer period of time.

Gronstal: And that’s where you set aside some other funds. There are funds we could tell the Department of Transportation to reprioritize their five-year plan for construction and emphasize reconstructing roads in areas that have been dramatically impacted by this disaster.

Yepsen: Isn't it time, though, Senator, for you as a legislative leader and for the Governor to signal to state agencies and anybody who gets money from the state tough times are ahead? I mean, Dean mentioned you've got a real economic hit, nationally the stock market is in a real problem, high oil prices. Even before this there was concern that the legislature was spending too much. Shouldn't the signal be it's time for some belt tightening?

Gronstal: I think it's time to communicate to the folks that are in the middle of this disaster and this recovery that we're going to be partners with their local government, partners with the federal government, we're going to do the best job we can do respond to this and make Iowa better than it was before. I think that's the message we deliver to people, not we're walking away from the problem, that we're interested ...

Yepsen: I don't mean to interrupt but in order to pay for that -- in order to pay for that whether it's general fund expenditures or whether it's borrowed money to help people aren't you in effect going to have to say to others who get money from the state, teachers, other state agencies, you're going to have to tighten your belt? That's what I'm getting at.

Gronstal: And certainly there are going to be those areas that become deemphasized now because of this because the recovery takes precedence. Certainly that's going to happen. I would say we've been pleasantly surprised that our revenues have remained strong and we're probably going to end this fiscal year with significantly more dollars than projected even though the projections were raised way back in April, raised significantly back then, I think you're going to see that we have more than, significantly more than they recommended back then.

Glover: What gets deemphasized?

Gronstal: We have a set of funds that we fund with our infrastructure fund, for instance, and those are annual decisions and every year we make some decisions about where those resources go and what we're going to focus them on. I think it's really clear that next year the focus of those resources is going to be a heck of a lot more on disaster recovery than it is on the other programs that we've been funding out of that. There's about $200 million a year that goes into that infrastructure fund and those are annual decisions that are made and that money has a good deal of flexibility as to what we can do with it.

Glover: We're in the middle of a disaster response and I've seen virtually every politician in this state in front of virtually every television camera in the state. What is the political fallout from this disaster? And don't tell me this is not about politics, it's all about politics, it's an election year.

Gronstal: I disagree. In Cedar Rapids those neighbors helping each other clean out their basements, they don't care which one of them is a Democrat or a Republican, they don't. They're working together to solve the problem. Any politician that plays politics with this issue, any politician that does that, they're in deep trouble. It's political suicide. There are people dragging carpets soaked with mud out of their living rooms in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and somebody is going to play politics with this issue?

Yepsen: How long do you think people in Cedar Rapids are going to give politicians to come up with some solutions? I talked to those people, some of them are pretty angry right now and you're sitting here talking about commissions. How patient should voters be with incumbent politicians?

Gronstal: I hope they should be as insistent as they can be and we're going to be as responsive as we can be. So, we're going to move forward on this and try and do a good job at it. But we're also not going to try and rush into it and do it stupidly. There was the story, I don't know whether it's true or not, of somebody going into Pelo and pumping out their own basement and having the basement cave in because they pumped it out too fast. We don't want our basement to cave in. We want to do this in a sound, sensible way. That's why we're going to -- that's why we're moving in the direction of some sort of citizen's commission to get really good answers to what we're doing. We don't want to cave in our basement.

Borg: What about the focus at the University of Iowa to roads and bridges, expense to the state, there's massive state damage at the University of Iowa. Any special insight there?

Gronstal: I was pleasantly surprised to hear they have a significant amount of flood insurance in Iowa City when we were over there touring the damage over there, I was pleasantly surprised that there seems to be a significant amount of flood insurance. Obviously we're going to need a response there but it's the same thing there, it's people rolling up their sleeves, getting to work, cleaning out those buildings, pumping out those basements and trying to get things ready for the students that are going to be coming in eight weeks.

Yepsen: Shouldn’t the University of Iowa quit building buildings on that flood plain? Instead of rebuilding these buildings shouldn't they be moved to higher ground?

Gronstal: I think we should all, well, it's not so easy to move a $30 million building, but I think we should all think twice about where we rebuild. I think every one of us, I think we should all, every citizen in Iowa should think about do they have adequate insurance and do they need flood insurance. I think two 500 year floods in 15 years demands that we rethink those kinds of things.

Glover: Let's rethink our topics for a second. The flooding is obviously at the top of our minds but there are other issues in this state this year other than just flooding. One is there is a set of legislative elections. You run the Senate 30 to 20, you run the House, your party 53-47. What is the handicap for this fall?

Gronstal: I've got to tell you I haven't focused very much on that in the last couple of weeks. But, look, I think we put together a set of issues that we worked on in this general assembly, I think Iowans are generally pleased with that. So, I'm excited about this fall's election. I think we recruited some really great candidates, some good people that are already leaders in their communities. I still think we're going to pick up seats in the Iowa Senate.

Glover: And are you going to be hurt -- there is some suggestion that the smoking ban the legislature passed during this past session will come back to bite you in this election. Are you worried about that?

Gronstal: Maybe it bites some people when it's all said and done. I don't know the answer to that. We tried to keep the focus of the legislation on protecting workers. It wasn't about changing people's behaviors. Some people think that's what it was about but it wasn't. It was about workers that have little choice in where they work, whether or not they're going to be exposed to secondhand smoke. I think we did the right thing in that respect. I think we protected 99% of the workers in the state of Iowa and I think that's a good thing.

Yepsen: I want to ask you, Senator, about some of the tensions that exist inside the Democratic Party right now. You had a real disagreement with Governor Culver over making changes to state labor laws. The legislature passed a bill, the Governor vetoed it. What is the status of your relationship with the Governor? Has that difference been worked out?

Gronstal: No, I think we still disagree on that.

Yepsen: So, what's going to happen?

Gronstal: Listen, I still have things I can't -- I only agree with my wife 90% of the time, the other 10% I just assume I'm wrong. That's a joke. Same thing with the Governor. I agree with this Governor probably more than 90%. Are there some things we disagree on? Yep. He thinks I'm wrong, I think he's wrong, that's fair, that's politics. That is the nature of two different branches of government. But let me tell you I think they're doing a great job on this flood response. I think we've done a great set of issues together. Healthcare, every kid in the state of Iowa access to healthcare in three years, we worked together on that. Raised the minimum wage, we worked together on that. Raised teacher pay, we worked together on that. I'm going back too far -- a power fund that's not keeping us on the cutting edge of renewable energy, I think we did great work on that together. There are a hundred things we worked together -- the fact that we disagree on one, big deal. We're moving forward and I think he is too.

Yepsen: Many people in the labor movement are angry with Governor Culver. Is this an irreparable wound there? Is he going to wind up with a primary out of this? Is this going to make it difficult?

Gronstal: I think it's highly unlikely he ends up with a primary out of this. I think, like I said, the list of accomplishments and things we all agree on is a heck of a lot longer than the two or three things we disagree on.

Glover: During the primary season you were a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton. She lost. Senator Barack Obama won. How have the Obama people treated you since then and where are you in that whole disagreement?

Gronstal: I don't think there is a disagreement any more. Senator Clinton has asked us all to support Barack Obama, I expect that the Iowa delegation that goes to the National Convention in Denver will in fact vote unanimously for Barack Obama to become the next President of the United States. We are working well together. A whole host of our members supported Barack Obama early on in this process. A whole host of our members supported other people as well. We're a unified party. You see that happening now. All of the predictions of the last six months about what a mess it's going to be and Democrats can't unite are just plain wrong.

Yepsen: Senator, we've got less than 30 seconds. The Supreme Court has handed out a ruling on gun laws. Do you see any need to change Iowa law as a result of what the Supreme Court has said?

Gronstal: No, I don't think anything we had was in conflict with that decision.

Yepsen: When will we know whether or not there's going to be a special session?

Gronstal: Let me say again, I think there's a process here where it's likely we'll go down some sort of blue ribbon panel that comes to us with recommendations. We will probably ask them to come to us with some recommendations before the end of the summer.

Borg: A panel announced in the next few days. Good, thanks so much for being with us today. That's it for this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. I hope you'll watch next weekend. It will be the usual airtimes, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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