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Reporter's Roundtable: Assessing Legacy

posted on May 1, 2009

Borg: Assessing legacy. Legislation from Iowa's General Assembly still on its way to the Governor's Office. But legislators have closed the 2009 session. Perspective from political journalists who covered that session on this edition of Iowa Press.

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On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, May 1st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: The first session of Iowa's 82nd General Assembly is now adjourned but the effects of what happened and what didn't are still uncertain. Even though democrats flexed significant majorities in both the house and the senate they weren't always able to focus those majorities on passing their high priorities and at times communication lines seemed snarled between democratic Governor Chet Culver and the democratic legislative leaders. A shaky economy and falling state revenues added tension to the inherently politically tense atmosphere. We're seeking perspective today from statehouse journalists who daily sidestepped that tension -- Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, Gazette Political Writer James Lynch and Iowa Public Radio Statehouse Correspondent Jeneane Beck. Jeneane, what's the legacy?

Beck: I think if you talk to republicans or democrats they'll say the legacy is the $800 million they agreed to borrow for a range of projects. Now, democrats will tell you it's a positive legacy, republicans will tell you it's a negative one, one we'll be paying off more than 20 years from now. But clearly the decision to go into debt at that sort of what for Iowa is extreme, it is not extreme at all when you look at the rest of the nation, we're like 48th in the nation in borrowing or bonding but for Iowa standards borrowing $800 million for infrastructure repair, flood damaged buildings, things like that is significant.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: I think it was Dickensian, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times for both parties. Democrats have solid majorities in both the house and the senate and yet they weren't able to accomplish their major priorities. We'll probably talk about many of them later. And for republicans it was the worst of times because they were out of power and way out of power. There are only 18 republicans in the senate and very few republicans in the house were able to accomplish anything through the legislative process. However, republicans will claim that because of the issues that were discussed during the 2009 legislature they have sort of coalesced on fiscal issues and social issues.

Glover: Dean, I think what we saw was the fallout from the democratic strategy in the last election. Democrats had a conscious decision to go out and recruit a bunch of rural, moderate democratic candidates and they were successful in recruiting them and got a lot of them elected. The result was they had a knot of rural, moderate, conservative democrats who are not willing to go along with the democratic traditional agenda.

Borg: Is it because they're a freshman, Mike?

Glover: No, it's not because they're a freshman because many of them ...

Borg: Philosophically?

Glover: Dolores Mertz from Ottosen, she's not a freshman, she's been around for a good long time but she's a mainstream, moderate democrat and there are about half a dozen like her in the house and an equal number in the senate and they are not going to go along with the traditional sort of democratic agenda and as a result that agenda didn't pass. So, the democrats were successful on this hand, they got control, they were unsuccessful on this hand, they couldn't accomplish many of the things they wanted to.

Borg: Jim, how did that affect legacy?

Lynch: Well, I think the bonding issue is the big prize here in the legacy. But on the other hand you have moments like clearing the chamber during a public hearing when things sort of got out of hand, a lot of booing and hissing. You also have keeping the voting machine open for 67 hours or whatever it was hoping to get that 51st vote on a labor bill. So, it wasn't a thing of beauty in terms of a session.

Borg: Let's go back to what you just pointed out there and that is clearing the chamber because it got a little raucous. You think that's part of the legacy?

Lynch: I think it's something people will remember about this session, certainly the people who were there and were thrown out, in their words, will remember that. I think the Iowans for Tax Relief will bring it up when they talk about democrats and how they ran this session. So, I think it's part of the legacy.

Borg: Kay, the session went longer than Mike Gronstal, back in mid-March was saying I think we can be out of there by April 2nd, far from it.

Henderson: Correct and part of what Gronstal was doing, he at one point even suggested that they might get out on March 17th, he was trying to prod people to make decisions. One of the things that we've all observed as we're up at the statehouse is that people like to make decisions at the last possible moment and one of the things that democrats use as a tool to get people to make decisions is to just wear them down physically by making them stay at the statehouse and make final decisions.

Glover: Dean, there were not good choices this year. The state was short of money, the recession has dried up state tax collections, there was a big budget shortfall but what legislators had to do this session was something they don't like to do which is say no, they had to tell all kinds of interest groups that are active in election campaigns no we can't do that for you, yes we're going to have to cut your budget. And Gronstal and other democrats made the point, why not just get this pain over with and leave sooner rather than later because it's not going to get any better if we go long.

Borg: But it didn't work. That is, I know on this program he said that very thing, as long as we're going to have to say no I don't want to say no ten times. But they didn't get out of there anyway.

Glover: He didn't get out on the schedule that he wanted. What we forget is that they did end before their scheduled end. Their scheduled end was May 1st so they got adjourned before that. They didn't meet the ambitious schedule they set up in advance in part because it's just a very complicated thing to make those kind of decisions, execute them and go through the process.

Beck: Two points to be made on that -- one, the same sex marriage debate slowed the rush to adjournment. Suddenly they had votes that they had to squelch in the house and they had to deal with public protests and people coming to the statehouse and so that slowed things. But the fact that they went a little longer did allow them to adopt two what I think will be legislation that people will later on feel the ramifications of, one, for the first time ever in this state people will be able to sue for consumer fraud and the attorney general has been working on that for nine years and if the session hadn't run long they probably would have run out of time and not gotten that adopted. So, I think that's significant. Also, the changes to the state sex offender laws, if we had adjourned when they wanted they wouldn't have worked out a compromise on that and if it does at all make the job easier for law enforcement or make people safer there will be a side benefit to have gone longer.

Borg: Jim, tell us, she brought up the same sex marriage decision by the Iowa Supreme Court as lengthening the legislative session. The legislature really had nothing to do there and the democrats have a majority, they can beat down the republicans who wanted a constitutional amendment started through the legislature. Democrats have the majority, they could have ended the session. It didn't have to be an issue.

Lynch: Republicans tried to force a vote a couple of different ways and consumed probably the better part of a day or more just with the parliamentary, maneuvering trying to get a vote on that issue, trying to get that issue on the ballot. But I think overall it had more impact than that. People had to step back and sort of reassess where they were in the session, give people a chance to sort of cool down, passions ran high on that issue so it probably took about a week I would say right there to readjust to come back from that decision. And I think that was part of Gronstal's plan was to get out of there before that decision was handed down so that they didn't have to go through that debate, that it wasn't to the rhetoric, that really slowed the session down.

Glover: And that issue, again, raises that sort of partisan divide that we witnessed all throughout this session. If I am a conservative republican gay marriage is not a particular problem with me, I don't like it, I oppose it and so on. If I'm a liberal democrat gay marriage is not a particular problem for me, I like it and so on. But in the middle, moderate republicans, moderate democrats, that's a much more touching issue, that's an issue that you worry about the political ramifications down the road, you worry about the effect on your own future, it's an issue that is troublesome for those in the middle who see it as a very grey area so that caused some concern and consternation.

Borg: What are the effects, Kay, of the democrats not being able to hold for the reasons that Mike Glover annunciated here just a moment ago? What are the effects of not being able to hold that majority together, passing some of their high priority, that is federal deductibility and the labor legislation they wanted?

Henderson: Democrats in the house disappointed labor, union folks had helped elect democrats in many districts and labor is very disappointed in the outcome. I think one of the outcomes in months and perhaps the year to come is that there may be a leadership battle among the top two democrats who are leading house democrats because there are people that are very upset with the fact that they weren't able to get the 51st vote to pass prevailing wage legislation which they thought was the easiest of the four labor related bills to pass.

Borg: Be specific here on names. What happened there in the leadership?

Henderson: They brought a bill up and they didn't have 51 votes for it. People are tasked with counting votes and if you can't count to 51 people hold you to account. So, I think Kevin McCarthy who is the house majority leader and house speaker Pat Murphy really having some meetings with certain people who are uncomfortable with their leadership but unless there is a majority of the 56 members of the house of representatives who want to jettison one of those folks it may not happen until after the next election.

Glover: I think at the end of the day the same calculation that Governor Culver made on these kinds of issues will come into play which is they'll concede, okay, labor didn't really like what you did this year, we were unable to pass their measure or top priorities but how would they have fared with republicans if you fold the legislature? The issues wouldn't even have been on the agenda. So, I think what will happen is labor will just have to kind of swallow the slumps and go back out ...

Beck: We've seen an about face from the governor on at least one of these labor issues, on the collective bargaining rights for public employees. He vetoed that last year and then this year said I'd sign it and any of the other three labor bills. He was suddenly remembering who brought him to the dance and inviting them out onto the floor. So, I'm wondering what we'll see next session. Will some of these democrats who face re-election suddenly look to labor and think I've got to change my mind or will they hold firm?

Glover: Of course, he said that when he didn't have the choice.

Beck: Yes, there was no bill on his desk to sign.

Glover: He said I'll be happy to sign that knowing that there was not going to be a bill on his desk.

Lynch: The other thing here is that while labor really doesn't have any place to go other than the Democratic Party do they have to go to the Democratic Party? Do they have to turn out? Do they have to work the elections or the campaigns? Do they have to contribute as heavily if they're not getting results?

Henderson: Ken Sagar who is head of the Iowa Federation of Labor was on this very program and issued a warning to perhaps those six democrats who did not support the labor bill that he was comfortable with taking them out in a democratic primary and having a republican win in November just to get rid of the democrat who didn't support labor legislation.

Glover: The path will be interesting from here because I don't see real high win-win options for labor in this situation. Yes, they can take out a rural democrat, replace them with a republican and have the same outcome they have now. They can't go to these rural districts and say I'm going to campaign against you and beat you because there's not a heavy labor presence in those districts so it's problematic for them.

Henderson: It's the same debate that conservative republicans are having, let's get rid of the RINOs, republicans in name only. It's interesting that at both ends of the political spectrum right now you're having that debate.

Borg: Jeneane, you said earlier the legacy is going to be the bonding legislation that was passed. But now we're saying the legislature also did not pass labor legislation and that puts the governor, who is up for election very soon now, at odds with labor because he could have pushed harder on this perhaps.

Beck: He's out though completely saying I pushed, I think he said like a tiger, in the final days of this session making phone calls and trying to drum up support for those labor bills and he has one more year to continue to play that role. I think the real thing is whether this bonding proposal works in the next year and a half. Next year's budget I think is going to be more stark than this one, they have used up most of the federal economic stimulus money in one year when they were going to spread it out over two. Next year is going to be really, really difficult and so the only thing he can hang his hat on when he goes out to campaign is whether this bonding proposal is turning things around, whether people are seeing jobs and I think we're going to see a lot of hat hair out of the governor in the next year because he's going to be in every small town in this state wearing a hard hat and carrying a shovel and trying to get his picture in the paper and his name on the radio and on TV cutting ribbons saying, look at that bridge I just got you.

Glover: Dean, one of my favorite sayings in politics is it's always better to be lucky than good and I think this governor so far has been very lucky and here's why -- I think the governor has been governor during very tough economic times, he's made some very controversial decisions, tell me the big name republican out there running against him. There isn't one. And you can't beat somebody with nobody. And until the republicans can come up with a high profile big name to run against him you have to consider his odds in favor to get re-elected.

Borg: Notwithstanding, Jim, what Mike has just said, did the legislature, in your judgment, enhance or blemish Governor Culver's chances for re-election? And you can't beat somebody with nobody, no.

Lynch: I think it enhanced the governor in the fact that the legislature passed his bonding plan and they negotiated on this, he wanted more in some areas, they wanted less but I think overall he prevailed his plan was approved and now it's up to him to make it work. So, I think in that sense it probably did enhance him. I really can't think of any place where he really lost. A couple of his nominees for various boards and commissions were blocked but he turned around and appointed those very same people to different commissions. So, I think he came out a winner in this area.

Borg: Kay, communication between the legislative leaders and the governor, I alluded to that as we opened the program here, am I correct that it seemed a little bit staticky on those lines of communication?

Henderson: Indeed but in the closing days of the legislative session Chet Culver was climbing the stairs and meeting with legislators on their turf, going up to the second floor and meeting with them to fight about how much stimulus money should be used.

Borg: So, what are you saying, better late than never?

Henderson: I think that relationships have been repaired to a point. There's always going to be tension because he is the head of the executive branch and they are head of the legislative branch so there's always going to be a level of tension there.

Glover: I think that one of the things that we find is that this governor, I mentioned better lucky than good, one of the things that this governor is inheriting is an economy that was bad but I think by most accounts the economy has at least stabilized and may be starting to improve a little bit. So, I think in the milieu of next year what you're going to have is an economy that looks to be on the mend and a governor who can say I passed a bonding bill, that bonding bill has helped turn this economy around. It would be nonsense, of course, it will have nothing to do with it but he'll be able to say I'm governor, the economy is getting better, re-elect me.

Henderson: It's kind of a Tom Vilsack model. Tom Vilsack dreamed up this Iowa Values Fund and it was state money being plowed into local projects all around the state, it changed the landscape of downtown Des Moines significantly and I think Culver is banking on a similar happenstance with he's named it the I-Jobs program, a similar happenstance with 'I-Jobs.'

Borg: Jim, you come from Cedar Rapids and I direct this question to you for that reason, it goes back to what Mike was saying about Governor Culver having governed during very tough times. Part of those tough times are the floods in Cedar Rapids. How do you rate the governor -- what do you think the poll would be there if you took one on the governor's response to flood relief?

Lynch: I think he'd fare pretty well especially in the initial response during the emergency phase. People are still waiting for help and they're getting tired of waiting but the legislature approved about $500 million in assistance for disaster recovery. Not all of that is direct, some of it is in property tax abatement, some of it is in historic tax credits so it's in a lot of different pots. But there's about $500 million there which is a significant amount of assistance and I think the governor will probably spend a lot of time in Cedar Rapids and other communities that were affected by those floods showing off the results of that assistance.

Borg: With Jeneane's hard hat on.

Lynch: Exactly.

Borg: Jeneane, back to you. Mike has said you can't beat somebody with nobody. Republicans don't have or they have one candidate out there right now, Bob Vander Plaats.

Beck: Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats but he's run twice before and yet to be seen if the third time is the charm. But I think there is some concern and dissatisfaction within the party, they're not sure if he's the right person to run and you do have this issue of same sex marriage clouding things. There are republicans who feel like, well, we've won this issue, the majority of Iowans side with us and are not going to be happy when they see same sex couples marrying or even flying into the state to marry. On the other hand, you have other republicans who are more, I don't want to say liberal, but are more in the middle who are saying it's not going to work if you have a one trick pony. If Bob Vander Plaats spends all of his time talking about same sex marriage and it's really bread and butter issues there's going to be trouble. So, I think republicans are still looking for someone and we just don't know yet who is going to rise to the service.

Glover: It's an interesting debate, Dean. There are republicans, Jeneane is right, there are republicans who think same sex marriage is game, set, match, it's over, we run the 2010 election on gay marriage, polls will show people don't like gay marriage, we win. There are other republicans who say there's got to be something more. How do you tell somebody who is out of work, who's home is being foreclosed you ought to care about who your neighbor is married to? People aren't going to buy that argument and so you've got to move into that middle somehow.

Borg: I want to go back to the federal stimulus money, Kay. The legislature seemed to have maybe dodged a bullet this year because the revenues weren't there but the federal stimulus money did come in and allowed them to patch some budget holes.

Henderson: As senate president Jack Kibbie, a democrat from Emmetsburg put it, we'd still be here gnashing our teeth if we didn't have that federal money because there would have been very deep cuts in the state budget. They used it this year, as Jeneane said, to plug some holes but next year they may be gnashing their teeth.

Borg: Yes, because that is one time money.

Henderson: And I'll just sort of drill down to an example, many Iowans are familiar with the Iowa State University Extension Service who announced a major restructuring plan this week but they are using federal stimulus money to sort of delay the process of firing people, getting rid of staff in all of those 99 county offices because they are still in the process of restructuring. So, in that specific instance that shows you that the federal stimulus money is sort of delaying the pain. There is going to be pain there, there's going to be layoffs.

Glover: It's not just one year, it's about 20 months, it stretches a little bit beyond a year but the issue will have to be dealt with during the next legislative session and what they're banking on is they are banking on the economy doing something of a recovery which is going to drive up their revenues and give them a little bit more state money to spend.

Beck: I felt like the roles were a bit reversed this year. A year ago the governor was upset that they had spent so much and was saying, no, this budget is too big, pushing it back in the final days of the session and then this session democrats said early on before even the final revenue numbers came out we're not going to spend all that economic stimulus money in one year because next year is going to be worse yet near the end the governor was pushing them to spend that money to soften the blow to state public employees, to avoid layoffs and democrats gave in so the roles were completely reversed this year.

Borg: There are ways of saying that, you can say kicking the can down the road, delaying the decision or it's a ticking time bomb that's going to go off sooner or later. How would you phrase that, Jim?

Lynch: Take your choice but all of those apply. It's a ticking time bomb that is going to go off in the next session.

Borg: And are they prepared?

Lynch: I'm not sure because it's like Mike said, it depends on the economy. If the economy turns around, if people go back to work, start paying taxes, buying cars and furniture and building new homes yes, then they can probably get by next year but if the stimulus money runs out and people aren't going back to work it's going to be ugly.

Glover: I think leaders of this legislature and I think President Barack Obama to some extent have made the same bet, we can do this this year because the economy is going to turn around and we can deal with that next year. If the economy doesn't turn around it will probably get a lot worse.

Borg: Kay, winners and losers in this legislative session, can you name some people or some agencies that came out very, very well and some who were penalized?

Henderson: Well, the consensus of the panel already is that Governor Chet Culver is a winner because he got his signature issue, the Iowa Jobs package. In terms of losers I would say the public in Iowa. An open meetings proposal faltered at the end. A couple of years ago legislators had a committee to study the issue of open meetings and open records in government and guess what, the house passed a bill that would have another study of the issue. So, they are not ready to make any decisions about access to public meetings and public records.

Beck: I think another winner might be Iowans for Tax Relief, the anti-tax group that helped scuttle the federal deductibility issue. I had one democrat tell me who is not in the legislature who watched this process that he was shocked and amazed that democrats in the majority could not say I have a tax cut for nearly 70% of Iowans and win with this and they couldn't because they didn't have a strong message and they didn't roll it out well and they sort of just stumbled along and Iowans for tax relief were able to convince people that this was a bad thing.

Glover: Iowans for Tax Relief was the biggest winner in this legislative session. I talked to some leaders of that group during the midst of the tax debate and they said their phone is ringing off the hook, their membership was up and you think of it this way, they got a signature issue, federal deductibility, opposing eliminating federal deductibility is their signature issue. That was up, it was never really seriously threatened and yet they got to debate it all year long so they had the big bad wolf out there to fight.

Borg: And wouldn't that say though that bodes well for republicans?

Glover: It would say it bodes well for republicans if republicans can get off of their hang-up on social issues like same sex marriage and try to deal with some of these financial issues that impact middle class and independent voters.

Borg: Just a few seconds left, Jim, but what's left for next year?

Lynch: Next year the budget is going to be the big, big problem. I think the leadership changes could alter that if there are leadership changes and it's an election year so that really will bring the pot to a boil.

Borg: And pick up on that election year just in the final seconds, Jeneane. Will it mean that there won't be a lot of important legislation?

Beck: It means gridlock. It means though that republicans will spend the session saying they're trying to sneak up those labor bills because they want to keep that issue alive for them in the election. It will be gridlock and it will be labor.

Glover: Short, nasty and brutish.

Borg: You got the last word, Mike. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're talking with Iowa democratic Senator Tom Harkin. You'll recall that in mid-April we had republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley here and a week later republican Congressman Steve King here at the Iowa Press table. Next week Tom Harkin's perspective on the challenges facing the nation and the Obama administration responses. You'll see our conversation with Senator Harkin at the usual weekend times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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 ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at www.thinindependently.com. The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.


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