Iowa Public Television


Gov. Chet Culver

posted on May 29, 2009

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Borg: Running a tight ship. Iowa's ship of state running behind on tax revenues forcing Governor Chet Culver to repeatedly cut state spending. A conversation with Governor Culver 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 29th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: There's no question that Iowa's state government is in tough times right now, last summer's floods and wind storms leaving major damage and employment losses just as the economic recession was also clamping down on state tax revenues. The state is now a month away from closing the current fiscal year with a budget that Governor Culver has already trimmed at least three times. The new budget going into effect July 1st is sharply reducing state spending amid talk of maybe some impending state employee layoffs and certainly some cuts in state services. Democrats controlling Iowa's legislature gave Governor Culver his priority stimulus -- borrowing more than $500 million -- creating jobs and building roads and other infrastructure. That economic stimulus, though, has yet to kick in. Governor Culver, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Culver: Great to be with you, Dean.

Borg: Looking forward to talking with you. Across the Iowa Press table Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Governor, an issue that has been injected into the state's political climate is gay marriage. The Supreme Court raised that when it struck down a state law banning gay marriage. Give me your take on how that's going to affect the political climate in Iowa in the coming year as we head into next year's mid-term election.

Culver: Well, first of all, I really understand and appreciate the fact that there are very strong emotions on both sides of this issue. But I think the court has spoken loudly and clearly, they had a unanimous decision, 7-0, granting equal rights under our constitution to everyone including those that are gay and lesbian and because of that decision and the fact that it was unanimous I do not believe long-term it will have a real political implication. Certainly it will take some time for Iowans to understand the decision. One of the things I have emphasized is the fact that the court spent a lot of time talking about protecting religious marriage, something that I and so many Iowans believe we should protect, the right for a church to make their own decision in terms of who gets married in that sacred place. So, I think because the court wrote the opinion in a way that was very clear in terms of protecting those religious rights it's less likely it will have a real political implication next fall.

Glover: Social conservatives say that energizes their political base going into next year's election and fires them up and brings them together, a political group that has been kind of dormant lately.

Culver: Well, we'll see exactly what it means next fall. I think that from what I've heard and seen across the state it has not risen to a level where I think it's going to be a major political issue. I think most Iowans believe it's important to protect people's rights under the Iowa constitution and I think we respect the importance of protecting people's rights.

Glover: So, it's not a problem for you?

Culver: I don't believe so. Again, I think the court has spoken loudly and clearly. I think one of the differences -- in a place like California, for example, one reason that's been such a tenuous partisan battle is because the court was split, it was a 4-3 decision so the people of California aren't real sure what the law means, what their constitution protects and doesn't protect. And the constitutions among the respective states are written differently and they have different protections and different amendments and so our court was very clear, a republican appointee, Terry Branstad appointed the judge that wrote the opinion so it was a bipartisan vote 7-0 in favor of protecting everyone's rights under the Iowa constitution.

Henderson: Speaking of 2010, if you choose to seek re-election your name would be on the ballot. It's no secret that you do intend to seek re-election. When do you plan to make that official?

Culver: Well, first of all, it has truly been an honor and privilege to serve as the 40th governor of Iowa. I am so fortunate to have the greatest job in the world. I absolutely love being the governor of the great state of Iowa. We will make it official in the coming months but I'm certainly excited about the opportunity to run for a second term. Right now I've got a lot of work to do but I do appreciate the fact that Iowans have given me this chance to serve this state that I love.

Henderson: Republicans believe that you have a weakness and that is on fiscal issues. They point to I-Jobs and the state borrowing a significant amount of money for various projects and also the state's budget situation. How do you answer the critics who say that you have overspent as governor?

Culver: I think that you have to look at the facts and unfortunately in partisan politics too often individuals and groups are not dealing with the facts. Here's the bottom line. On my watch the state of Iowa moved from a AA bond rating to a AAA bond rating. No republican or democrat governor has ever had a AAA bond rating in Iowa. We now have a $400 million cash reserve. No republican governor has ever had a $400 million cash reserve, it's the highest cash reserve we've ever had. And we just cut $135 million from the budget. We're actually spending two and a half percent less in fiscal year '10 than we spent in fiscal year '08.

Glover: Give me your take on what the political climate will be next year and sit back and look at it from a long-term perspective. It is the first mid-term election of a new democratic president. History would tell us that's a pretty good year for republicans. On the other hand, the economy is pretty bad. That typically helps democrats. What is your take on what the climate is like next year?

Culver: Well, I think ultimately it will come down to a state-by-state decision that the voters of the states have to make. We have 36 governors that are up next year. I do believe that President Obama will be popular, he's extremely popular, he's as popular as any United States president in recent history right now, he is working extremely hard to get things done, to work our country out of this economic downturn, that's what people want to see. Are you effective? Are you out there working hard to try to turn things around? I'm certainly trying to do the same thing here at the state level and I think with his likely popularity the democrats across the country will win in 2010.

Henderson: Back to the other part of my question, if you would, the I-Jobs component, critics say the state has no business borrowing that much money. How do you answer that criticism?

Culver: Well, again, let's look at the facts. It's interesting that the republicans were all in favor of bonding, borrowing money to build the Iowa Communications Network when Terry Branstad, a republican, was the governor. So, they are for things like bonding when a republican is the governor, they're against bonding or borrowing money when a democrat is governor. So, they're not consistent, they're not working with the facts. We are 48th in the nation in debt load. By using the $800 million for the I-Jobs initiative we'll still be 47th in the nation in debt load. So, we've been very responsible, our AAA bond rating will allow us to get a very good interest rate and we're going to leverage billions, with this $800 million we're going to literally leverage billions in federal money. One example quickly, the day I signed the bill giving the University of Iowa $100 million for flood recovery to build a dozen buildings on the campus they qualified for $500 million in FEMA assistance, a match program so we've already paid for the interest on the $800 million that we're going to borrow.

Borg: I want to go back to a comment you made just a moment ago about the popularity of President Obama. You are also going to be running for re-election at a time when republicans are starting to move into Iowa to campaign for the next caucuses and the republican nomination. So, it's not unusual they would have parallel campaigns going but you're going to have a lot of attention and republicans doing that. Would you at all consider, would you like to have President Obama come in and campaign for you to offset some of that attention which also will be going to Senator Grassley who will be up for re-election?

Culver: There's no doubt that President Obama loves Iowa. He will be here. He's already been here. He came to Iowa a couple of months ago, he will be here regularly as president because he likes this state, he enjoys talking to and working with the people of Iowa. So, there's no question, he'll be helping democratic governors including me in our re-election efforts.

Glover: One of the things that led to the president's victory in Iowa was an enormous organization he built here. How can you tap into that?

Culver: Well, it will be pretty easy because we have a registration advantage, we have more than $100,000 new democrats so we are now communicating with those new voters, those new democrats, the Obama campaign is setting up a statewide organization, they're going to be working very hard at the grassroots level to continue to engage those democrats that supported Barack Obama for president and our Iowa Democratic Party will do a very good job coordinating with these new democrats across our state in getting them engaged. So, we've always been a grassroots state, I believe in retail politics so as a part of our campaign next year the democrats everywhere on the ballot will focus on reaching out to Iowans and making sure we engage them.

Glover: You're not worried that those new voters that Barack Obama turned out will stay home the next time around?

Culver: I'm not, I think that, again, with this help the likelihood of the president getting involved in some of these races, including mine next year, I believe they'll support democrats up and down the ticket. We're the party of hope, we're the party of opportunity, we're getting things done, we're trying to move this state and this nation forward. Right now the republicans are the party of nope, they're against about everything that we tried to do this legislative session here in Des Moines. I think Iowans are looking to be more upbeat and optimistic and that's why democrats are getting so much support not only in Iowa but across the nation right now.

Henderson: Governor, your family has a bit of a history with Senator Charles Grassley. Are you in any way actively recruiting a democrat to run against him?

Culver: I'm focusing on getting the job done every day as governor, that is my top priority, I'm also looking at my campaign and getting organized. I think if there is a candidate out there that is ready to take on Senator Grassley we'll hear about their goals and why they want to do that. But I just finished a long legislative session and I'm not doing a whole lot of recruiting right now other than just ...

Glover: You're also a practicing politician and you know what happens in Iowa politics, you've got this 600-pound behemoth named Chuck Grassley running around without a major democratic opponent. Isn't that a problem for you?

Culver: Well, I'm sure we'll have a few candidates emerge. We've got quite a bit of time yet. It's possible there might even be a primary next June on the democratic side. That's really when the race will start is next summer. Twenty-four hours is a long time in politics so no one is ever safe. The only two ways to run for elective office are unopposed and scared. So, whether it's Chuck Grassley or my re-elect we're going to both do what we have to do and the democrats and republican parties will do what they have to do in terms of recruiting candidates and trying to fill off the ballot.

Borg: Last week on this program we got a whole litany of possible republican candidates who might run against you. Any person on there that especially scares you?

Culver: Well, the one thing I like about that long list is pretty soon they'll be talking about each other instead of talking about me all the time so that's good news there. I'm not spending a whole lot of time worrying about that. I'm focusing, again, on getting the job done, getting my own statewide organization revved up, raising money that we'll need to run a first class campaign, a winning campaign and things will have to just kind of shake out on the other side and I'll figure out who my opponent is next June.

Borg: Speaking about money, you've made commitments to the flood damaged areas of Iowa ranging from Mason City on the north down to Oakville in the south and Cedar Rapids and Waterloo and Iowa City and between. You've said and people in your party have also promised help is on the way. Well, there has been help but there's still a lot more to do. My question is, can the state afford to make any more promises to those communities given the state of the state finances?

Culver: Absolutely, that is and will remain my top priority.

Borg: Where is the money going to come from?

Culver: Well, we just appropriated about a half billion dollars last session for flood victims, for business owners, for homeowners, it just needs to be a priority going into the next session just like it was this session. A lot of people didn't think we'd be able to find $11.5 million to expand early childhood education. Well, yesterday I announced that 57 new early childhood centers will be set up across this state because we made it a priority. We're going to protect those priorities, we're going to continue to fight for flood victims and we're going to continue to help communities like Pelo and Oakville and Cedar Rapids and Iowa City and dozens of other communities that were impacted. It has to be a priority and as long as I'm governor it will be.

Glover: Let's go there, you made education a priority when you ran for governor. The first thing you did was improve teacher salaries, you put a lot of money into raising teacher pay to the national average, as you mentioned you just signed into law the latest step in expansion of preschool programs. What is the next breakthrough you have to have on education? You've done teacher pay, expanding preschool, what's next?

Culver: Well, number one, we need to follow through on this commitments. We have another year where we have to fund education at a very high level so that we can protect those investments. We don't want to close early childhood centers, we want to open more of them. So, that is the number one goal is to continue to make education a priority, to continue to invest in our teachers and our kids across this state and at every level. I think that will be the challenge given the economic situation, the worldwide recession that we're dealing with is protecting those investments first and foremost. Longer term we want to continue to push the new model core curriculum into our schools. We're raising the bar and that will take a couple of years. We're going to have more math, we're going to have more science in the classroom, we're going to be more competitive as a state when it comes to educational excellence. We're going to offer more advanced placement courses. We want to offer more community college courses online to not just kids in Des Moines but to kids in McGregor as well. We've got to make sure that there is equity and fairness across the board.

Glover: So, you're going to increase the role the community colleges play in this whole educational process. It's building on high school, preparing for college is kind of a bridge? Is that how you see it?

Culver: Well, we've made some real strides in having better coordination between the community colleges, the public and private institutions of higher learning and that is important. It's all about fairness so we just want to make sure that every child in this state whether they're going to preschool or they're entering their senior year in high school to have the same opportunities. And we're going to level the playing field, these investments in education have really helped us do that but we've got a little bit further to go.

Borg: Does it at all bother you that as you say you're raising the bar in educational standards that Iowa's rate of graduation is dropping?

Culver: We have work to do. One of the things that I fought for unsuccessfully last legislative session is to raise the dropout age to 17. Right now we allow kids to drop out when they're 16 years old. That is sending the wrong message and I'm afraid that's having an impact on our dropout rate. It's not the right message to send our kids that it's okay and legal for you to leave school and drop out when you're 16. So, next legislative session I'm going to fight and hopefully will be successful in raising the bar in telling kids that it's not okay to drop out at 16, we expect you to graduate and get your high school diploma. As a former high school teacher and coach this is something I know a about, I'm very familiar with and I'm going to continue to raise the bar when it comes to what we expect from Iowa students.

Henderson: Speaking of proposals which you support which were unsuccessful in clearing the legislature, a big to significantly redo the state's income tax structure and get rid of a major deduction for Iowans. Will you push again in 2010 for legislators to pass that package?

Culver: Well, we'll see. One of the things I really look forward to doing during the interim here, after the legislative session and before the next session is getting out and talking to Iowans. I love the opportunity to travel across the state, to have coffee at diners with my constituents, to listen to them and we'll put together a legislative package in large part based on what the people of Iowa are saying, what the flood victims in Cedar Rapids need, for example. And so we'll have to see if that becomes an issue. I am in favor of a middle class tax cut. I am in favor of doing something to reduce the tax burden on veterans and on senior citizens. So, we'll see if we can't build a consensus and have some sort of tax reform that includes a tax cut for the overwhelming majority of Iowans. That was what I was hoping we could have done last session.

Glover: Governor, you're very familiar with the kind of things that we in our business do and one of the things we do is we all write did and didn't stories about the legislature, things the legislature was able to accomplish and things the legislature was unable to accomplish. In the didn't list this past session was a package of labor backed bills ranging from paying the prevailing wage on public projects -- are you going to be engaged on those issues pushing them again? And is there more you can do to push those to the top of the agenda? There are critics who say you weren't active enough on it.

Culver: Sure. Well, one of the things that I think we can do a better job of, again, in the interim here between now and the beginning of the next session is reaching out to business groups, reaching out to the Iowa Business Council, for example, and chambers across the state and cities and county officials to try to have a little better dialogue about some of this labor reform. I can't imagine, for example, that the majority of Iowans are against giving a carpenter or a pipefitter a couple of more bucks an hour. It's no different than what we did on the minimum wage. So, I'm hopeful that we'll be able to have that discussion, to have the dialogue to bring people together and build consensus around a number of labor reform measures. I think that has been missing, frankly, I think we could do a better job. I've already started that conversation, frankly, with some business leaders. And so if we propose it in a different way that is maybe more inclusive I think we'll have a better opportunity to get it passed.

Glover: For a package of about four bills have you picked the target you'd like to focus on? Is there a priority within that package that you'd like to do?

Culver: There's really not a priority. I think the bottom line is we have hundreds of thousands of hardworking men and women, city employees, state employees, carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters, all we're trying to do is improve their quality of life. That is the bottom line. We do a lot of things to assist business. We have a lot of incentives for businesses in Iowa that want to expand or incentives for companies that want to come to Iowa whether it's Google or Microsoft or IBM. And all we're saying is let's try to do a little more for hardworking Iowans that make our state the best in the nation.

Glover: So, did it come down to the question of you lost a public relations campaign in the last session?

Culver: I don't think so. I think we were very disappointed in a couple of individuals who promised they would vote for the labor bill when they in fact didn't.

Glover: You can give us a couple of names.

Culver: That's okay, that happens. But we'll have to kind of regroup and hopefully build a broader coalition. I've said since January of 2007 when I became the governor of this great state that what I'd like to do on these tough issues whether it's related to environment and our ag community working together, we need to do the same thing when it comes to business and labor, that's my job, it's my responsibility and hopefully we'll be successful next session on any number of these important labor management issues.

Borg: On the other side of the coin there's a group also that I think will be regrouping something you opposed and that was an increase in the gas tax. When might that become palatable to you?

Culver: Well, here's the bottom line and this is another major victory this legislative session. I said early in January I'm opposed to raising taxes on hardworking Iowans and I fought to keep that commitment. Look, we're dealing with a tough economic situation. 85% of Iowans are opposed to increasing the gas tax.

Borg: I've heard that from you before. But I asked is there a time when that would become palatable to you?

Culver: We'll see. We've got to work our way out of this recession, we've got to create jobs, we've got to help hardworking families put more money into their pocket. We've got 82,000 families that are looking for a job today. They can't afford another tax at the pump. I understand long-term that we have real infrastructure needs. I understand it as well as anybody. In fact, that's why I pushed so hard to pass the I-Jobs initiative where we're going to invest $815 million in our infrastructure including $115 million in bridges and roads.

Glover: Times are going to be tough next session as well so can I assume that the gas tax is off the table next year?

Culver: I've been very clear in my opposition to raising taxes period.

Glover: That holds for next year?

Culver: Well, it's very likely that we will not have a debate about the gas tax or any tax increase next session.

Borg: That pretty much does that. What do you think will be the priorities for you during the next session?

Culver: Balancing the budget, flood relief to places like Cedar Rapids and Pelo and Waterloo and other parts of the community that need it and protecting investments in our priorities like education, renewable energy and standing up and fighting for our veterans.

Borg: Thanks for being with us today. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're getting an economist's view of the economy. We'll be tapping the expertise and experience of Iowa State University Professor Emeritus Neil Harl analyzing what's ahead for Iowa and the nation. Economist Neil Harl at our usual times next weekend, 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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