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State Sen. Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs)

posted on May 15, 2009

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Borg: Assessing the session. We're getting a postscript on the 2009 legislative session 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. 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 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.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, May 15th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: On April 26th, after 104 days, the Iowa legislature adjourned the first session of the 82nd Iowa General Assembly. Democrats are holding significant house and senate majorities but didn't always convert them to passing their priorities. Much time and attention was also diverted to aligning appropriations with declining tax revenues. Senator Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs leads the senate's democratic majority. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Gronstal: Thanks for having me.

Borg: And across the table two people who are up at the legislative session every day and that's Kay Henderson, News Director of Radio Iowa and Mike Glover of the Associated Press.

Glover: Senator, let's look at a couple of things that happened in the legislature this year that weren't approved. There were a series of labor backed and tax measures that weren't approved by this year's legislature. Isn't that in fact rendering a judgment on them for this general assembly?

Gronstal: Do you mean does that foreclose the possibility of moving those things forward next year -- I don't think it necessarily does. I think it makes sense to have a middle class tax cut, I think middle class Iowans are hurting.

Glover: You're arguing merits here, I'm talking politics and reality. The reality is you couldn't do it this year ...

Gronstal: What would be wrong with coming into the next session of the legislature and passing a tax cut for middle class Iowans? I don't see how that's a negative. I think that would be a positive in an election year to cut taxes for middle class Iowans.

Glover: You couldn't do it this year.

Gronstal: So, I'm certainly open to seeing that possibility taken up again next year. Same plan on any other sets of issues that are about building the middle class. I think that's the biggest challenge for the state of Iowa. When you compare us to the states around us we have a weaker -- other states around us have a stronger middle class. We have a weaker middle class in this state. We have lower family incomes. Anything we can do that's going to build up the middle class and improve the opportunities for our kids to choose to stay in our state to pursue their future I think makes sense. So, I'm open to considering some of those pieces of legislation that would strengthen the middle class.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, you're talking merits here and I'm talking politics. What is going to happen to make the next legislature made up of exactly the same people that were in this legislature different?

Gronstal: First of all, I think the times will be a little different next year and we're all hoping that the economy is going to start to turn in this state. We look forward to that possibility. I don't know if those things are possible next year but like I said I think our priorities, our efforts have been focused on building the middle class in Iowa and we're going to keep focusing on that and we can get the votes to do things that my measure is that they will improve the lot of the middle class in the state of Iowa, I'm going to pursue those things.

Henderson: You mentioned the economy. In the closing days of the just concluded session you announced a task force has been assembled to look at state government reorganization. Will you have to make deep and really deep cuts in the state budget next year because of the economy?

Gronstal: I do think there are challenges to next year's budget and I do think there will be additional cuts next year. We made cuts this year, real cuts, some of those people will begin to see over the coming months as we go into the next budget year so there will be real challenges to next year's budget. Like I said, we're hopeful that the economy will turn around, this national recession that we had little to do with in the state of Iowa continues to challenge state revenues but we've done some things to try to improve our economy in the state of Iowa and I think in a lot of ways we have a pretty bright future in our state. We've been through tough times before in Iowa whether it's economic times or the disasters of last summer, we've been through tough times before and we're Iowans, we tighten our belt, we deal with the challenges in front of us.

Henderson: You mentioned you did some things this year, one of the things you did was grant the governor his signature request which was an I-Jobs package which he maintains will stimulate the economy. This time next year will Iowans look at that package and see that hundreds of thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs or a few thousand jobs were created?

Gronstal: I don't think people ever thought there were hundreds of thousands of jobs connected with this, I don't think anybody ever alleged that. I think it will be multiple thousands of jobs. I think it could be somewhere between ten and thirty thousand jobs, it depends on how you calculate the rollover money in the economy and that kind of stuff. I'm not going to dwell on those kinds of numbers and try and figure out who is exaggerating the numbers, the fact is $750 million, a lot of projects around this state, all projects that are about rebuilding Iowa or growing jobs by investing in our infrastructure, making us a greener state, doing things to clean up the waterways in the state of Iowa, I think those are all very positive things and I think it was a logical time for the state to say, we came into last session with three goals -- a balanced budget without raising taxes, we accomplished that, expanding access to healthcare, at the end of this year 50,000 Iowa kids will have access to healthcare that didn't two years ago and finally to put together a significant disaster recovery effort in the state of Iowa. That is what that bonding bill does. In addition, because of the deepening national recession part of that stimulus effort of the bonding bill will create jobs all across this state and it will be thousands of jobs in this state.

Henderson: Conservative Iowans that are worried about the state borrowing that money and the total bill being $1.7 billion dollars.

Gronstal: The republicans are trying to make hay with that issue. What a difference less than a decade makes. It was a few short years ago that republicans were touting a bonding effort in the state of Iowa and deciding that it was time to invest in our future the last time our economy was weak. So, republicans have been through that exact same -- I know it's their job, the job of the minority party to criticize the majority party, but the fact is republicans engaged in bonding as well. I've got to tell you, I believe in Iowa's future, Iowa's future is brighter than it's ever been in my lifetime or any of your lifetimes.

Borg: Education is one thing that you've always said makes that future brighter. Generally education, even in a tough economic year, came off pretty well in this last session with the exception of 20 schools on Phase I which is a component of state aid to enhance teacher salaries, 20 schools got that Phase I cut. Governor Culver says I'm going to try to find the money some place, I can't restore it myself but I'm going to try to find the money some place. Do you still feel comfortable that you sent the governor legislation that reduced the funding for those schools?

Gronstal: We came to the end of this session and we had incredible difficult challenges at the very end. We were approaching our spending limitation under the spending limitation law, we were approaching that level and we had some tough decisions to make at the end of the session. We were talking with the house, the senate and the governor's office about this and we were down to about $13 million that we could afford to continue to spend and we chose to spend that $13 million on education. The area we chose to spend it on was on instructional support, a different component of school funding in the state of Iowa. We took that last $13 million we had and we did plug it into K-12 education. I wish there was another choice and we'd be happy to work with the governor if we can come up with another choice. We'd be open to figuring out a way to restore that. It wasn't an ideal situation but we're not in an ideal economy and we're in a very challenging time and we are just plain out of money at the end, we had two different ways to spend $13 million, we chose one way, I wouldn't say it was the best way, it was just the way that got consensus in the legislature.

Glover: One of the things you were unable to deal with this year, you were unable to deal with in the last session, was commercial property taxes. Everybody agrees commercial property taxes in Iowa are out of line with other states, they're higher than other states. You didn't do anything about it last year, you didn’t do anything about it this year, what is the answer to that?

Gronstal: The difficult challenge on commercial property taxes is, first of all, it takes some money to do something about it. The senate a couple of years ago did pass legislation that began the process of taking a piece of this problem, commercial property taxes on apartments, taking a piece of this problem and phasing that down with some replacement of the dollars that were lost to local governments. That didn't pass in the house but I've long believed you have to take this problem -- if you try and solve the global problem it's $1.5 billion, $2 billion, if you take it a piece at a time in bites small enough you can swallow you can deal with it. I'd also say over the next three to four years as farmland values rise this is going to change a bit. For instance, if you froze it right now you'd freeze it at a level that leaves commercial property hit harder.

Glover: So, what is the next bite? What's the next step?

Gronstal: I think over the next two or three years we've got to start to take another bite at that and we've got to work to find consensus. We didn't find consensus on that last year. This year's challenging times for the state budget wasn't a very good time to say we're going to set aside in the neighborhood of $100 million to take some bite of this problem and deal with it. When the times that tough I don't think it will be very easy to deal with that next year.

Glover: So, it's off the table next year?

Gronstal: I'd say it's likely off the table next year.

Henderson: Speaking of tables, you represent an area which has casino gambling in Council Bluffs. The Racing and Gaming Commission this week was presented with a couple of reports on the state of gambling in Iowa and whether the market could hold another casino. Do you anticipate that gambling regulators will, in the next year or eighteen months, grant a casino to an area of the state that is 'underserved?'

Gronstal: I'd say the legislature has been wise in not directly engaging in the discussion about when and where new licenses should be issued. We have deliberately left that somewhat insulated from the political process with the Racing and Gaming Commission. I'm going to respect that process and continue to respect that process. I think it has worked well for Iowa and I don't think the legislature should get into figuring out where the next license should go or whether there should be a next license.

Glover: Governor Culver just this past week signed into law a number of spending measures designed to help the state recover from last summer's record flooding. Is there more that needs to be done? Has the legislature done what it needs to do to respond to flooding?

Gronstal: I anticipate that we will continue to pass legislation over the next three to five years and maybe longer that relate to dealing with disaster recovery. This was a monumental disaster for the state of Iowa, just gigantic in terms of its impact on this state. I don't think we're going to get it all fixed in one legislative session. As you know last fall the governor set aside certain powers through his authority to create a jump start program. As you know, early in the session we dipped into the economic emergency fund for some emergency or rainy day fund, why not use some of those because it was a rainy day and then our bonding bill has significant resources set aside for disaster recovery. I don't think that finishes the problem, I think we're going to continue to explore how much we get from the federal government, we're going to continue to look for those ways we can help rebuild those communities.

Glover: Is it mainly a mitigation effort from here forward? How do we avoid flooding problems? How do we move people out of the flood plains?

Gronstal: I think that will continue to, that's the part that will continue more so in the future. At the moment we have tried to focus on getting people back in their homes and getting businesses back on solid footing in the communities that were the most severely impacted. So, that has kind of been our focus this year but long-term I think we have to look at other things we can do to avoid future flooding and future damages from floods.

Glover: Is there a political problem here for you? You look at this and people have been flooded out of their homes for over a year now and they're still waiting to get back in. Is there some impatience growing out there?

Gronstal: Of course there's impatience and we're impatient ... what I'd say right now is help is on the way, that's why we decided to pass legislation to put $750 million out there in the state of Iowa for rebuilding things. I think help is on the way, we're doing the best we can. I'm sure they're frustrated with us and I'm sure we're frustrated, we continue to have some frustrations with the federal government.

Borg: That's probably the worst phrase you could use because I heard that phrase last July, help is on the way.

Gronstal: And it was and $100 million in housing and business assistance went out last fall and another $56 million went out in January and $750 million plan is out there now. The Rebuild Iowa Commission headed by General Dardis, he just announced last week that we passed every single recommendation that they made so we have worked closely with them, we've taken the work of last summer of the Rebuild Iowa Commission, we've taken every recommendation they have put in front of us and we passed legislation to deal with those recommendations. So, I think we've been exceedingly responsive but I don't want anybody to think we're done. We're going to continue to do this. I've said this over and over, we had the best disaster response in the country and I think that's because we're Iowans and we know how to get the job done. I think the test now is to make sure the disaster recovery is the best in the country and I'm confident we're going to get there.

Henderson: Another neighboring state, Wisconsin, is poised to enact a ban on smoking in public places. Iowa's ban, which took effect last July, has been controversial in some circles because it excludes the casino floors. Do you anticipate legislators in 2010 revisiting the issue of smoking in the state's casinos?

Gronstal: I certainly think that's possible that they'll deal with that. This last session I think there were tensions on both sides. There were people that wanted to close that loophole and there were people that wanted to open it up in bars and restaurants or of a certain size and so I think there were tensions on both sides of this issue. As the side that wants to increase the number of places where you can smoke publicly in the state of Iowa as that energy subsides the energy on the other side to close down the few places left where you can smoke, that will increase. So, if that energy goes away it is likely the legislature will look at that subject.

Glover: The Supreme Court tossed you an issue during this past legislative session when it legalized gay marriage, it struck down a ban on same sex marriages. You didn't deal with that this year and you gave a very passionate floor speech in opposition to tinkering with that. Is there any chance that's going to come up again this session?

Gronstal: Not on my watch. As far as I'm concerned it's off the table and I'll do what I can ... I've got to tell you, as I read the constitution and as I read that decision, it was a long decision that had a lot of -- I'd encourage people to go read the decision -- but as I read that and as I look at our state constitution I'm hard pressed to find a place in our constitution that denies people rights. Our constitutions were built to guarantee people rights, not to deny them rights and I'm not going to go along with putting discrimination into the constitution.

Glover: Is there political vulnerability -- most polls that I've seen show that most people don’t support same sex marriage, most people oppose gay marriages. Is there political vulnerability for you going there?

Gronstal: I don't measure things based on political vulnerability, I measure things on what my judgment is as to what is right and wrong and my judgment is it's wrong to put discrimination in the state constitution.

Glover: Put on your practical hat here. Are you running a risk here?

Gronstal: I don't care. It's not a matter of spending all my time looking over my shoulder trying to figure out what's going to happen in the next election, it's about doing what you think is right and I know it's not necessarily popular with everybody but I think people's attitudes are changing on this.

Borg: You've already said that you expect next budget year to be tough also. This year you were assisted, in fact I think the phrase was we dodged a bullet because of the federal stimulus money that was poured in and helped to bail out -- particularly education fared pretty well because of federal stimulus money. What is your advice right now to the state universities, to K-12 educators, particularly the state universities? The most recent regents meeting there was a lot of talk there about we dodged the bullet, we've got to get ready for next year. What would you say? Look to raising tuitions?

Gronstal: Everybody is going to have to make the judgments that they have to make. Next year is going to be incredible challenging. I think folks understand that. I will tell you that's one of the reasons why we did not dip as far into the reserve funds as we could have this year. So, we still have $441 million sitting in our economic reserve funds. We think that makes sense and some of that can be used next year. I can't predict what the future is going to do next year. It's going to be a very tough year. Like I said, we're hoping the economy will turn around. Next year is next year and we will start to make our judgments when we get the revenue estimate in December which sets the projected amount of money we're going to receive and that's when we'll start to make judgments about what it is we have to do. That's one of the reasons we put together a state government reorg commission idea of bringing some people together. Let me give you one example. Iowa has 22 data centers inside state government. Do you know how many data centers Google has worldwide? One. Does Iowa really need to have 22 data centers for computer services? We think we can probably find some ways to do things differently. It will take a little bit of work to break down the natural resistance of some institutions but we think you can save tens of millions of dollars with things like that. That's why we put together the reorganization commission to take a look at those kinds of ideas, to talk with folks in the private sector and see what we can do in terms of saving the state money.

Glover: But I've been around the statehouse for a long time and I've heard government reorganization, streamlining for all those years and I have yet to see a government reorganization or streamlining effort that saved any money. Why will this be different?

Gronstal: I think we've got a group of people that really want to see things operate differently in the state of Iowa and I think necessity, when you have tough economic times, you can see what's happening in the auto industry right now, they're talking about significant cuts in the number of dealerships, I was just listening to that on the radio on the way in this morning. We've got to look at what it is we do, figure out those things that we should continue to do and ways to do them more efficiently and figure out those things we're going to walk away from. I think data centers is a good example. We have a system of technology that has grown up over the last 25 years and there's 22 different entities dealing with that, get one entity to deal with that if you can save $20 million I think that's a great opportunity for the state of Iowa.

Glover: What is example two?

Gronstal: That's why we're having this commission go to work this summer, to come up with those ideas.

Henderson: But last January you said that legislators were sort of penciling out ideas. So, what are those ideas?

Gronstal: No, they were looking through the sets of funds in their budget and dealing with primarily with, as you said, dodged a bullet with the federal funds, figuring out what we could use so we cobbled together a budget this year, it's not a perfect budget and it leaves some challenges for next year. We have more time now to go to work and come up with a set of recommendations for the next legislature to deal with and I think that will be an ongoing process.

Borg: Let me give you another one, Chief Justice Marcia Turnis' study on possibly doing away with court reporters and going to technology, think about that.

Gronstal: I'm very open to considering all of those kinds of ideas that would make some sense. The Chief Justice is also talking about a process that moves court employees to places that have the workload, shifting the employees from across the state to different places. I think that makes sense as well. I think we're going to see a significant restructuring come up in the Department of Human Services. I think we have mental health institutes across the state, I think we have two hospital schools across the state, I think there are a set of funds we're going to take a good hard look at and figure out if there's a more efficient way to provide those kinds of services.

Glover: Senator, we only have a couple of minutes left here and it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press program if we didn't talk a little just politics here so let's go to politics. Governor Culver is up next year, does he have trouble?

Gronstal: I think Governor Culver, look, he came into this session and said he wanted to put together an effort that would have us invest in the future of Iowa, invest in disaster recovery, we passed that effort, I think you're going to see those kinds of things happening over the next two years where his efforts and partnerships with the legislature work through with him -- I think he's going to look pretty good come next spring.

Glover: I know this is not your job but sometimes I look at a politician and I gauge the trouble he has by the opponents lining up to run against him. I don't see a lot of opponents lining up to run against Governor Culver. I see Bob Vander Plaats and a couple of other people.

Gronstal: Right now as far as I Can tell the Republican Party, both nationally and at the state level, is the party of no. I just read a newsletter from Brad Zahn where he said we did nothing for unemployed Iowans this year.

Henderson: Brad Zahn represents Urbandale.

Gronstal: He's a republican from here in Des Moines, his newsletter said we did nothing for unemployed Iowans this year. He even forgets his own vote for a change to the unemployment, a historic change to the unemployment system that allows people to continue to be paid benefits while they're in a retraining program, a partnership with the federal government that got us $71 million from the federal government, it's a great effort to help Iowans to retrain for new jobs when they've lost old jobs and Brad Zahn said we did nothing. I've got to tell you, I think we did a lot of things to help unemployed Iowans but the Republican Party has chosen as a strategy to be the party of no and their hope is that all of this will fail.

Borg: We're running out of time.

Henderson: So, you said earlier this spring that Steve King was too chicken to run for governor against Chet Culver, Steve King being the republican congressman from western Iowa. Are you softening him up? Do you plan to challenge him?

Gronstal: I am having more fun, listen, I've got 32 democrats in the Iowa senate, the most ever in the history of the state of Iowa, the biggest majority democrats have ever had in the history of the state of Iowa and I think we'll make a real difference in Iowans' lives. I'm happy with the work I'm doing in the Iowa senate.

Glover: So, you have no aspirations to run for anything else?

Gronstal: No.

Glover: That's going to be the way it is?

Gronstal: Yes.

Glover: Who do you see running against Governor Culver? Give me a name.

Gronstal: I've got to tell you, Mike, I don't really care. I think Governor Culver is going to do just fine in the next election -- unless they get past the message of no and I hope the economy dies ...

Borg: I have to say no because we're out of time, Senator. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're talking with two party insiders, democrat Jerry Crawford and republican Doug Gross focusing on the politics of the 2010 general election and the evolving issues there too. We'll see Jerry Crawford and Doug Gross at the usual 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 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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