Iowa Public Television


Reporter's Roundtable: Looking Ahead

posted on December 24, 2008

Borg: Looking ahead in the rearview mirror. Iowa political reporters are analyzing 2008 news that will be shaping 2009. We're previewing the New Year with a political reporters' roundtable on this edition of Iowa Press.

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

Borg: Without question 2008's top story is Iowa's role in Barack Obama's election as the nation's 44th president. Follow that with a collapsing financial infrastructure and there's immediately a picture of closely linked events that will be dominating this New Year. And with Iowa having a huge role in major news nationally last year the men and women around the Iowa Press table today covered the big news and they're here to put it in perspective for us. Des Moines Register Political Columnist David Yepsen, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Lee Newspaper's Charlotte Eby. Kay, I'm going to start with you. So much, as I've said, of what occurred in 2008 was positive and negative but what will happen in 2009 in my judgment will be influenced by what's the mood. What do you think the mood is right now?

Henderson: I don't think it's at the bah-humbug level but I do definitely think that this is a blue Christmas season for a lot of people. Luckily, all the people seated around this table have a job but each of us knows someone who has lost their job in the past year. I think that Iowans are becoming more miserly, you're seeing that in terms of sales in retail establishments. You're also seeing in Iowa a bit of a trend against what's happening nationally whereby housing sales have declined nationwide, in the Des Moines market, for instance, there was a just ever so slight uptick or maybe Des Moines is holding its own in terms of home sales compared with the rest of the country.

Borg: Charlotte, do political leaders get it?

Eby: It's taken them a while to figure out that people are watching their pocketbooks at this point. It took the Governor a long time to cut the state budget in the way that families already had. So, I think they're finally coming to the realization that it's time for a tight state budget as well.

Glover: Dean, I think there's a nervousness amongst the state or around the state in almost every corner and nervousness because I think there's a sense that I get from a lot of people that were at a point of change, that things aren't going to be like they were. The economy is fundamentally changing, our politics are fundamentally changing, everything that we know in life is fundamentally changing and people are naturally nervous about change, change scares people. Change is something that is very difficult to accept. Bill Clinton when he ran in 1992, he offered change but he warned people time and time again about how hard change was.

Borg: Nervousness can be paralyzing. Do you see that?

Glover: I think there is some of that. Nervousness can be paralyzing in that people need to be forced into doing some of the things they're going to have to do. Circumstances are going to make them make these kind of budget decisions and it's going to have it around the hill.

Yepsen: Dean, I you had an interesting piece a while back on Iowa Public Radio about Seasonal Affective Disorders and how people particularly in Iowa and northern states get depressed from lack of sunlight. I think we're going to enter into a period here like that. We're that way politically, our economy this is not a garden variety recession. So, I think we're going to be in a pretty funky mood for several months here in Iowa until the actions of the new president and administration start to really take in and start getting people some hope. There's not a lot of optimism out there right now.

Borg: I want to get to that hope in a minute because as we move into the Obama election, of course, that was key in his theme.

Yepsen: The secret, though, is everybody needs to get lots of sunlight.

Borg: Thank you. Charlotte touched on it and that is she said that the Governor may have been a bit tardy in taking action. We heard David Vaudt on this program last week say just about the same thing. Do you think that is pervasive in state government, Mike?

Glover: I think it is and the state has been struggling with a budget problem for a number of years. The economy has been a little bit slow, spending has gone up pretty heftily and so they have been struggling with budget deficits for several years. Up until now they have always had easy way outs. They got a big settlement with the tobacco industry and they took all that and securitized it, got all the money up front. Well, they just decided they had a budget crisis let's dip into there and use that. And then you had another budget crisis, let's dip into the Senior Living Trust Fund and use that. So, they have had tough budgets, they've been forced to make tough decisions but they've had an easy way out. Auditor Vaudt, one of the points he will make, is that they have used all those easy outs, there are no more easy solutions, it's all going to have to be, from now on, tough decisions and those decisions are something that the government will make reluctantly. Remember, he's up next so cutting programs that people like is not something that he's going to do in a hurry.

Yepsen: But he's got to manage the state's finances. The Achilles heel for a democrat is the public view that they can't handle public finances and this budget deficit will eat Chet Culver if he doesn't get on top of it. It was caused by democrats doing what democrats do, they won the election in 2006, got a trifecta the first time they had the house, the senate and the governorship, revenues were cooking, there's a lot of needs out there. This money wasn't just thrown away, it was spent for schools and healthcare and all of the things democrats run for office on. They didn't want to believe the early warning signals that it might be coming to an end and now it's starting to crash around them.

Henderson: One of the other things the auditor said on the program last week was that if Iowans want to pay less taxes they should expect less services. The idea of government consolidation -- will Chet Culver in an election year tackle that issue? Will someone try to force the issue? Will economic times be so bad in Iowa and elsewhere that governments at the state, local and county level will have to start consolidating more services? That question remains unanswered.

Glover: I think the current leadership of this state could take a lesson from somebody that was a leader a while back, Terry Branstad was Governor of this state for longer than any other person has held that office, 16 years. Arguably he was governor of this state during even tougher economic times, during the farm depression of the 1980s, when he really did serious whacks to the state budget and he was rewarded with four terms in office. Iowans tend to like governors of either party -- Tom Vilsack, a democrat had some tough budget decisions and made them and won easily an election to a second term and probably would have won a third term if he wanted it.

Borg: Charlotte?

Eby: We haven't seen that Chet Culver is willing to do that. He hasn't talked about cuts in services or any of these tough decisions like Mike is talking about. What he is banking on is that the federal government will come in with money for infrastructure improvements. He thinks that could help with the flood damage this spring and essentially bail the state out of that responsibility.

Yepsen: One example of bailouts is this goofy idea of selling the lottery. The state is desperate for money so now they have cooked up this idea that they would turn the lottery over to the private sector, get a big lump sum, $200 million to bail themselves out of the immediate problem. That idea is not very popular with a lot of people and I don't know how it's going to fly but they may get desperate enough that they'll do it.

Borg: Why do you say goofy in your perspective? And you also quoted a lot of people. What constituency is that?

Yepsen: Legislators, AFSCME union don't like the idea of privatizing this thing, it may create more gambling in the state. These are all concerns. I say it's goofy because it's short-term, Dean. You're going to give up -- for 49 years you're going to give up the annual revenues that the lottery brings in, $50 million a year profit and in return you're just going to take one lump sum up front and some lease payments on out. It's goofy in the sense that it doesn't make good sense. It's a very short-term fix.

Glover: You did the math and David's got the numbers right. They're talking about getting about $200 million to lease the lottery. The lottery makes about $50 million a year. How quickly can you burn through $200 million with those kinds of numbers? But the problem they're going to face is it's an easy way out. They have gotten used to easy way outs. Okay, you dump the lottery, it doesn't make any long-term financial sense but it's easier than cutting state aid to schools.

Borg: Charlotte, it's been mentioned that Governor Culver is up for election the next go around now here. But this is not a major election year. We have just come through one. Is it going to be easier do you think for legislators, maybe even Governor Culver, because the election is a ways off yet to fend off the constituencies that are going to be lobbying hard against what we around the state will think are going to be necessary cuts?

Eby: No, not really. He's got a huge deficit in the next budget year. Like David said, he's opened himself up to these kind of charges in the election year, tax and spend democrat, he's already raised taxes and we're still in this situation. I think it's going to be a tough road ahead before 2010 when he's up again.

Yepsen: Kay had a good point a minute ago talking about is he going to want to layoff people. No. Here's what will happen. Iowans love government, we just don't like to pay for it. So, we'll have to cut spending. Once we start actually doing that, cutting healthcare for poor people, laying off teachers, the pain of that is going to get so great that people are going to say, well, maybe we should raise taxes. Terry Branstad raised the sales tax during his tenure. It didn’t' kill him and so it's when the pain of the cuts gets to be greater than the pain of raising taxes and you'll see another sales tax increase.

Glover: Don Avenson, former speaker of the house, used to say when democrats were running the legislature and Terry Branstad was the governor, it's politically always easier to raise taxes than cut services. You can always make that sale a lot easier. And I think that's going to be something that's going to be on the agenda. And, Dean, do not assume that the governor's election isn't already up and running. Believe me, Governor Culver is running for re-election, republicans have talked about who's going to be running against him, he's already beginning to put together campaign staff, he's already beginning to put together the kind of messages he wants to put, the governor's election is up and running.

Borg: He's thinking differently than I am. I think 2010 is two years away but it isn't.

Glover: In his mind, Dean, it's tomorrow.

Borg: Kay, a major weather thing that happened to Iowa this year. We had some tornadoes in Waterloo and that general area, Parkersburg was hard hit. But then the water started rising on the Cedar and the Iowa rivers and we had Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, you can just go down river, Pelo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Iowa River, Oakville, I'm trying to give credit to all those that are stinging right now and not just say Cedar Rapids is hurting. But Cedar Rapids was the major one. Given all that background now how is that going to play into 2009 politics?

Henderson: Well, the Governor earlier this month went to Cedar Rapids to St. Wenceslaus Church, which was hard hit by flooding and held a sort of pseudo-religious ceremony which was attended by flood victims in the area. I think those people are upset at the pace with which rebuilding has occurred, the pace with which the state and federal government have been addressing these properties that were flooded and can I rebuild my house or do I fix it up or are you going to bulldoze it. And not all those decisions have been made and the flooding was six months ago. So, it's just going to fester on until 2010 until I think Chet Culver could have some re-election problems particularly in pockets of the state where there was flooding and where people just saw the government response sort of lagging behind because they didn't know whether they could move on with their life.

Borg: There have been pockets of criticism for state government and their response but I don't see a pervasive negativism such as we saw in New Orleans ...

Glover: No, and in part because I think there's general agreement that the original response to the flooding, the emergency response, was pretty good. Nobody died, people got out of their houses, the initial emergency disaster response was pretty good, a lot of things got taken care of. I think what we're going to have to live with on a longer term is there are people who are just going to have to accept that they got flooded out, they lost their home, that's going to be it. You're not going to be able to back your truck up to the statehouse and load up with money and go build a new house. Somebody is not going to come and make things whole for you. That's just not going to happen and it's going to take a while. That is a political reality that people are going to have to deal with and I think politicians are going to be facing some voters who are going to be angry as that starts to settle in. But I don't think it's a pervasive statewide anger, I think it's a very localized thing.

Yepsen: One political ramification of it is some long-term things, it's taking a while because there's some playing -- there's a sense that officials have that we don't want this to happen again, we want to prepare ourselves for the future. It would be very easy to rebuild people's homes but maybe those homes shouldn't be built where they are. So, I think one of the effects of that flood is to prove Iowa's disaster response. There are efforts underway to try to make them better the next time. There's more of an awareness of disaster to not just the floods but to tornadoes. And what can we do to prevent these things from happening again? That will be a focus of a lot of the discussion in politics for the next couple of years.

Borg: Governor Culver came over to Cedar Rapids just before Christmas. He said he's going to the legislature and ask for a disaster relief package. But the people of Cedar Rapids who had that service at St. Wenceslaus Church openly admitted -- and there were political leaders there that happened to be meeting in the church that had been flooded out and then rebuilt -- but they admitted the reason for holding this remembrance service was to remind the people of Iowa that we are still hurting here and they said northeast Cedar Rapids seems to be forgetting what's going on in the downtown. Do you see that, Charlotte?

Eby: Yeah, I talked to people about a month ago that were still living in a drafty FEMA trailer near Waterloo. They're suffering. They have a lot of neighbors that are suffering while the rest of other people's lives in the community have moved on, they're past the floods but they're still dealing with it. They're fighting with federal agencies, state agencies and now these local agencies that are distributing the money trying to rebuild their homes. They have to deal with furnaces and all kinds of major repairs to their house before they can get in.

Yepsen: I do think there is a bit of compassion fatigue going on just in general, Dean. There's a lot of disasters, a lot of people are asked to help out, to pitch in and Iowans do, the response to the immediate disasters is pretty good. But all Iowans are hurting now, Dean. People are hunkered down as Kay was saying, they're cutting back their own spending. People can have a lot of compassion for people in eastern Iowa but the fact is everybody's own personal life is pretty tough right now.

Glover: And I think that's the bottom line. I think the bottom line is that yeah, you can say there's somebody's house that's been flooded out, that's too bad, I feel bad for them but if you're losing your job, if you're having trouble paying for your kids' education, if you're having trouble paying for healthcare or don't have healthcare or have a health issue that you can't pay for then that's what's going to occupy your mind, that's what you're going to worry about top of head. And then if you see a news report about a flood, oh that's too bad, but what about the job.

Borg: Let's turn, Kay, to Postville and what happened there. That certainly is going to carry over into 2009 because that plant as we speak is pretty much closed and people have either left town or they're without work.

Henderson: According to documents filed with the bankruptcy court, of course we all know that plant is in bankruptcy proceedings, there are potential buyers for the plant. It's going to carry on into 2009 because in addition to that bankruptcy proceeding there are criminal proceedings against people who were involved at the upper levels of management in the company and the impact on the city of Postville itself has been sizeable in that you have people who were living there, working at the plant, don't know what to do, sort of in limbo. You have this huge social service need that people at the Catholic Church there and at some other agencies in Postville are trying to serve. It's a town in limbo and I don't see anything happening in the next few months to sort of remove that limbo status.

Borg: I want to pick up on that don't see anything happening because I think the religious community of Postville held a little gathering and tried to call attention to the fact that they hadn't seen either Senator Harkin or Senator Grassley there. Patty Judge, the Lieutenant Governor, made a trip up there after that but I don't think Governor Culver had paid much attention to it. We're talking about ignoring the flood and forgetting about that ...

Yepsen: The whole thing in Postville is no politician is willingly going to want to walk in the middle of an immigration fight. There's just no way -- you saw in the presidential campaign McCain and Obama, neither one of them wanted to talk about it. The senators and congressmen, they'll send a staffer up there before they'll go.

Glover: And I think one of the things I can be almost certain about is you're not going to see the legislature wade into that mess. They've already been saying that's a federal issue ... there are two large issues for this state to deal with so I don't think you're going to see any action on the state level there.

Eby: You've seen the political rhetoric cool significantly. That had been a big issue last session, we've got to stop illegal immigration in the state. Well, they saw a community devastated and they're not going to be quick to jump into that fight.

Borg: That's a good comment. I'm going to pick up and shift gears on something else you've watched in the legislature and that was the smoking ban which has had some challenges. Are we going to see that carry over into 2009?

Eby: I don't think it's likely. They had a tough enough time trying to come together to pass what was ultimately the law that allowed smoking still within casinos but I don't think they'll be willing to take that up again.

Yepsen: Leaders have ruled it out, Dean. They've said they're not going to take this up. Typically once the legislature passes a landmark piece of legislation they give it a few years to digest before they come tinker with it again.

Borg: We assumed -- there are some people here I think who maybe spent the holiday that didn't know that Iowa enacted a statewide ban on smoking, exempted the casinos. Mike, go ahead.

Glover: Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader of the house, has already said that any effort to tamper with that law in terms of weakening it is off the table, he won't allow debate on it so that's dead for this year. We have a smoking ban, there is an exemption that makes absolutely no sense rationally, the casinos and not other establishments but that's what is going to stay.

Henderson: It makes sense when you look at the influence casino lobbyists have in the statehouse.

Glover: Yeah, it makes political sense, I understand that but it makes no rational sense.

Yepsen: Eventually there will be enough room made to get rid of it in the casinos. When Iowa got into liquor by the drink they had to compromise out the temperature of the hot water coming out of the taps in bars that served liquor by the drink. There's many things you have to give on.

Borg: Kay, the gay marriage issue came up with a national focus again on Iowa. All over the nation they're sending television crews here to see if the Iowa Supreme Court was listening too.

Henderson: It was a fascinating exchange and the Supreme Court Justices questioned attorneys for both sides. It lasted longer than most cases do, it lasted ninety minutes. This is a case which was not filed last year, it was filed in 2005 on the part of six gay couples in Iowa who argue they should be able to marry legally in Iowa the way that men and women are able to marry. It's not clear when the decision may come down. It could be 2010 before the Supreme Court issues that decision. And this heretofore in Iowa has been the focus of the gay marriage debate because we don't, as in other states, have a referendum where voters are able to petition to put that issue on the ballot.

Borg: So, it's going to be a while before we know?

Henderson: It's going to be a while before we know the ruling and it will be even longer than that before legislators might move to put it on the general election ballot.

Glover: There are about 151 people who desperately hope that decision doesn't come up in 2010, 150 legislators and Chet Culver. They don't want that issue to jump in the middle of the campaign because at this point they can say it's in the courts, let's let the courts deal with it.

Borg: The republican leadership change in the legislature as it convenes.

Glover: You lose elections and bad things happen to you. The republicans lost seats in both the house and the senate. The republican leader in the senate was replaced, the republican leader in the house was replaced because they lost seats. The first duty of a legislative leader is to re-elect members of his or her own party. In the house, Christopher Rants didn't do that. In the senate, Ron Weick didn't do that. And now we have a lopsided democratic majority, 32-18 in the senate, 56-44 in the house.

Borg: Republicans stuck with that leadership over a couple of bad elections, though.

Glover: Well, it comes to the point when you say, okay, what we've been doing hasn't worked, it didn't work in the last election, it didn't work in the election before that and what you didn't see in the new elections in both the house and the senate was somebody who said, the party is going in the wrong direction, we're saying the wrong things, we've got the wrong message. What you're seeing is a mechanical thing. We're not recruiting good enough candidates, we're not running a good enough campaign in things like early voting where democrats have really broken the edge, mechanical things.

Borg: Is it a matter of changing the deck chairs? Are you going to see change, David?

Yepsen: You'll see some of that but it's larger than that, Dean. One of the things we saw in this election year was a huge democratic turnout. The effects of the Barack Obama victory in Iowa goes back to the caucuses, democrats had more energy, over 100,000 registration edge over the republicans, that isn't corrected very quickly. And so we've entered a period of democratic control in this state and so it's going to take more than just rearranging deck chairs for republicans to make a comeback.

Glover: The biggest story of the year, you said in your opening, was Barack Obama winning the Iowa caucuses and resulting in the nomination in the White House. I think the biggest story of 2008 was Iowa became a democratic state and we'll see how long it stays there. David is right, right now this is a democratic state.

Borg: But let's follow up what you're just saying because that was what I wanted to do. The stage has shifted nationally and in Iowa. What are we likely to see and what payback do you think from the Obama administration to the boost that Iowa gave him?

Glover: I think you'll see that Iowa's caucuses will remain first. Think about the history. Running up to the caucuses on January 3rd, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the presumptive nominee. Barack Obama surprised the world by winning the caucuses and winning them fair handedly and that gave him momentum that he never lost and he won the nomination and then the White House. I think Barack Obama will have a soft spot in his heart for Iowa's caucuses and I think they're pretty safe.

Yepsen: He said Iowa should be first and he'll decide how the democrats nominate their candidates. And one of the biggest criticisms of Iowa's caucuses in Iowa, it's a little white state. Yeah, well, it just went a long way to electing the first black president.

Borg: Do you think Tom Vilsack's appointment as Secretary of Agriculture -- was that sort of an acknowledgment of what David just said? Vilsack and his wife were both Hillary Clinton supporters.

Henderson: Correct. I don't think it had anything to do with that. I think it had more to do with the relationship that Tom Harkin has with Barack Obama. There was a phone call, there was a lot of lobbying on the part of Tom Harkin to get Tom Vilsack into a position in the administration. And if you look at the influence that Iowa may carry because we have someone in the USDA, it's a wash in terms of the influence Iowa will have at the national level because we already had influence in the agriculture community.

Yepsen: In modern times, Dean, this is historic, in modern times Iowa has never had this kind of clout in Washington, Senior Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley and now the Secretary of Agriculture. That is a potent combination.

Glover: I think the message you had from Barack Obama was I want to reward Iowa and if you start looking around a lot of Iowans are going to be making their way to Washington. Jackie Norris, who ran his campaign here in the state, is going to be Michelle Obama's chief of staff. I think you're going to see a lot of Iowa political activists going to find their services heavily in demand over the next year or two.

Borg: And just in the last 30 seconds that we have here, we're already seeing candidates move into Iowa for the caucuses in four years.

Yepsen: Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindahl, it never ends in Iowa. It's a full employment deal, Dean, for all of us around the table here.

Glover: I think what you're seeing is the campaign is up and running and Iowa is going to play the same role it's played in past elections this time.

Borg: Thanks so much for your views today. Of all we had to talk about I know we're going to be gathering at this table very soon to hear what you have to say on what's happening. On our next edition of Iowa Press just before the beginning of the legislative session of 2009 we'll be talking with two leaders in the democratic majority. That's Council Bluffs Senator Mike Gronstal who leads the senate democrats and Dubuque Representative Pat Murphy is the speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives. You'll see our conversation with them at the usual Iowa Press airtimes, that's 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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