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Governor Chet Culver on the State Budget

posted on January 15, 2010

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Borg: Setting the record straight. Governor Chet Culver using his Condition of the State message for telling his side of the story. We're questioning 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. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations … connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, forever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge, and municipal utility infrastructure. And by Iowa's private colleges and universities … enrolling 25 percent of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44 percent of the baccalaureate and 40 percent of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at Iowa's 118 hospitals are dedicated to serving all Iowans with community focused health care. 70,000 hospital employees provide real value every day. Quality care that's always there. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

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

Borg: There's no mistaking election year politics as Governor Chet Culver delivered his annual Condition of the State address to the newly convened legislature this past week with a statewide television and radio audience. The governor called Iowans resilient, working through the challenges of the shaky economy and their revenue-short state government. Not coincidentally, though, the upbeat outlook being directed to the same people who will be voting for our governor in November. And although he hasn't officially announced, there's little doubt that Governor Culver is seeking a second term. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Culver: Great to be with you. And happy new year to you and to all three of you and to your viewers.

Borg: And thank you for that. I just noted that you hadn't announced for governor yet. When do you plan to do that? Are you going to do it this morning?

Culver: No, I’m not going to do it this morning. I’m focused on governing and getting things done to keep moving this great state forward. But I am excited about the fact that 2010 is an election year, and I’ll have a lot more to say about that perhaps on a different show.

Glover: Governor, it's safe to say that you may or may not have formally announced but you are paying some attention to this campaign that's coming up in the fall. You just reported your campaign fund-raising for last year. You reported having about $2.6 million in the bank. That's about $1.3 million more than your only republican who's reported, Terry Branstad. Two-part question: Are you happy, satisfied with that fund-raising? And what do you say to critics who say that Branstad has been able to get in the game rather quickly financially?

Culver: I’m very satisfied with the outpouring of support. 85 percent of those funds raised came from in the state of Iowa from more than a thousand very generous contributors. And I’m very fortunate to have that type of support, and we're exactly where we need to be. Look, this is a very competitive state. I’ve always taken my campaigns very, very seriously. I’ve always expected tough battles for every office that I’ve run for, and I like to campaign. I enjoy the opportunity to get out and talk to the voters, but right now I’m focusing nearly a hundred percent of my time on governing, getting things done this legislative session and moving this state forward.

Glover: And Branstad's fund-raising?

Culver: Well, you know, I welcome him to the race. I really do. And we'll see what happens on the other side. There's a long way to go in that very competitive primary, and we'll know in June who the republican nominee will be.

Glover: And some have suggested that you're one of the most vulnerable democrats in the country, given the polling, given you've got a former governor running against you. Do you consider yourself vulnerable?

Culver: You know, I have really enjoyed being the governor of this great state. I love the people of Iowa. It's been an honor and a privilege to serve, and I am doing everything I can every day to keep moving Iowa forward. I’m making tough decisions under very difficult times. I think the fact of the matter is no incumbent in America right now for any office is probably very well liked. We saw that with the city elections across the state in November. But this is not a popularity contest. This is about making tough decisions, making good decisions under very difficult circumstances.

Glover: Are you worried about that anti-incumbent mood?

Culver: You know, I’m not. I just have to tell the people of Iowa exactly what I’ve done and why I’ve done it and most importantly where I want to go. In my Condition of the State speech, I talked about this being Iowa's century, an opportunity to rebuild and modernize our infrastructure, to help rebuild eastern Iowa after the floods. I am very, very, very, very optimistic and hopeful about Iowa's future. And that's what campaigns should be about: are we going to go forward or backward? And my vision and my plan will continue to lead this great state forward.

Henderson: You used part of your Condition of the State message to compare and contrast your record with that of former governor Terry Branstad, the aforementioned republican candidate who has raised $1.5 million. Do you consider him the likely GOP nominee, and is that why you're sprinkling your speeches with these kind of Branstad references?

Culver: You know, I’ll leave that up to you and the other experts. But, again, I am focused on governing and getting things done. And I feel good about where Iowa is right now: the eighth fastest growing economy in the United States; the fourth best place in America, according to Forbes magazine, to do business; Des Moines, Iowa, was recently ranked number one in the nation as the best place in America to do business. So under difficult circumstances, whether it's been related to the flood and those natural disasters of 2008 or the great recession, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, we have made the tough decisions. We're investing in Iowa through our I-jobs initiative. We're putting people to work, and we have bright days ahead of us.

Henderson: You mentioned the 2009 November election, during which a couple of democratic governors in other states did not win reelection. You also, in the past few weeks, saw the governor of Colorado, a democrat, decided not to seek reelection. Is it a sobering time to be a democrat seeking reelection?

Culver: It's not. I think it's a sobering time to be in this country, given the economic challenges that we have. Look, this is a very serious and deep recession that is not only affecting the United States but it's affecting the world. The fact is 49 other governors in America are having very similar challenges, if not worse. Illinois, $11-billion budget deficit, for example. So relatively Iowa is leading the way. We're going to come out of this recession stronger and in a better position than every state because we've made tough decisions and we've made bold moves like the Iowa jobs initiative last legislative session that will create thousands of jobs across this state, 1,400 separate infrastructure projects and, most importantly, allow us to recover from those devastating floods and tornadoes in 2008.

Borg: You mentioned earlier the incumbents are hurting right now because of circumstances that may have been imposed upon them by the economy and so on. What about President Obama? He won the Iowa caucuses handily. But there's been quite a lot of erosion in that euphoric support. How is that going to affect Iowa in this coming election?

Culver: Well, first of all, I think what's most important is that the voters, my constituents, Americans across the country understand that we -- we really get it in terms of the challenges that so many families and businesses are faced with and that we -- as elected officials and as the governor of Iowa, I’m trying to do everything I can every day to reach out and help those families that continue to struggle. So that's number one is -- and I think President Obama is effectively showing the country that he's looking for solutions. Whether they're popular or not, he does believe that we should expand access to health care for nearly 50 million people. And I think these polls can change pretty quickly, Dean. My father has always said that 24 hours is a long time in politics. And again, it's not a popularity contest. I do believe that the president will have some major victories legislatively over the coming months. That will change, I think, the mood of much of the electorate. And he will prove that he is the right person for the job during these difficult times as the president.

Borg: Well, I would think that having you reelected would be in President Obama's best interest come the caucuses, if you were reelected, to have a democratic governor in place. Would you welcome President Obama out here to campaign on your behalf?

Culver: Look, President Obama has been very, very popular in the state of Iowa. He has delivered as president in terms of flood recovery. We've now secured $3.6 billion, and he has remained very focused on the needs of our state, doing whatever he can to help the state of Iowa. The education stabilization money, for example, in the stimulus bill helped save as many as 2,000 teaching jobs. So, yes, I think the people of Iowa will embrace President Obama and continue to support him. But again, he's going to have to make some tough decisions and then explain exactly why he's made those decisions. And I think when he does that and when he comes back out to this state, he will get a very good response from the people.

Glover: I'd like you to step back and take a look at the big picture if you would. It strikes me that both political parties have challenges. In the Republican Party just this past week, a group of social conservatives endorsed a very conservative Bob Vander Plaats. More importantly, they said if Terry Branstad is the nominee, we won't support him, a schism within the Republican Party. The democratic side, there are some in labor who are not happy with this legislature and with you, frankly, and what you've produced. Give me a condition report on the health of the two parties.

Culver: Well, I’ll tell you, our Democratic Party is strong and we are united. We are working very closely at the legislature this session. We've opened the lines of communication. And I don't -- I think we're actually in a better position today than we were right after my primary for governor. So we've had some ups and downs, but we're moving forward united. On the other side of the aisle, it's a very different story. But the democrats are focused on moving this state forward, investing in education, supporting our veterans, and continuing to help Iowa lead in renewable energy. We're really focused on good, sound public policy, common sense ideas like government reform and finding efficiencies to save taxpayer money and eliminate redundancies. So the politics are really on the other side right now. The democrats are focused on governing and getting things done.

Glover: I’ve asked this question of several people, and I'd like to ask it of you. You know something about history. This is the first midterm election of a democratic president. That would seem to argue that history would tell us it's a republican year, but the economy seems to be driving everything. That generally works for democrats. What's the mood that you're seeing this year?

Culver: Well, you know, it's typically and historically, as you say, a little bit difficult for the party that's in power but, you know, we can't pay any attention to that. What I have to focus on every day is doing everything I can as governor to lead this state forward, to make good decisions. And frankly, I believe that I can control my success as governor and at the ballot box in the future if I work hard and make those right decisions and convey exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing and where I want to take this state to the people. So I’m not -- you know, look, I am optimistic about the future. I choose to look forward and not backward. And despite obstacles that remain, whether it's related to flood recovery or getting some important legislation passed this session during the -- through the legislative process, I’m confident we're going to do both. So I’ll save the doom and gloom for someone else.

Henderson: When you emerged from the Iowa house on Tuesday after giving your Condition of the State message, you were greeted by a group of people who were chanting 'let us vote.' Will you pay a political price for not being a cheerleader and an open advocate for a constitutional amendment which would ban gay marriage in Iowa?

Culver: I don't think so. And, look, this is the people's house. So we welcome groups to the capitol from every part of our state with divergent political views. I think it's healthy to have that kind -- to provide that kind of opportunity to any group or any individual that wants to come to our capitol, to their house, as long as we are civil and respectful of the different views. And I think that was certainly the case on Tuesday. There was no problem whatsoever and I talked to and met with a lot of the people that were there and had some pretty good conversation and really appreciate the fact that they were so respectful.

Henderson: But what about the political problem that you may have in November because --

Culver: Again, I am focused on doing everything I can to move this state forward, and I’m not worried about November. I’m worried about January of 2010 and working as hard as I can as governor to get things done.

Henderson: Last week on this program Senator Mike Gronstal, the democratic leader in the senate, said gay marriage will likely not be an issue in the November election. Do you agree with his assessment?

Culver: I think that Iowans are focused on jobs, economic recovery, flood recovery, doing what we can to support our kids, expanding health care for children, continuing to invest in things like early childhood education, and being a leader in renewable energy. I really think if most Iowans prioritize what is front and center and their number one concern you'll hear, probably eight times out of ten, jobs and economic recovery.

Borg: One of the more controversial recommendations that you're making to the Iowa legislature is to transfer road use tax -- transfer the Iowa Patrol into the road use tax fund to be able to pay that patrol. It's been done in the past, and we stipulate late that, but it's not extremely popular now. Is that an ultimatum? Is there no fallback from that, either the troopers are paid out of the road use tax fund or we're going to cut and reduce the number of troopers?

Culver: First of all, Dean, again, I don't think Iowans are looking for their elected officials to always do things that are popular. In fact, I think sometimes they give you more credit if you have the courage to stand up and do the right thing in your mind. Look, for twelve years we used funds from the road use tax fund to fund the Iowa State Patrol and the Department of Public Safety. It was a really good idea then. For a long time republicans and democrats and republican governors supported that. And so if we've done it before, I think we can do it again. Number two, because of my commitment to roads and bridges and investing in our infrastructure, last year we committed $1.7 billion in state and federal funds to our infrastructure. We've never spent anywhere close. It was an all-time record. Prior to that I agreed to move forward on changing the funding formula so that rural communities in particular got more money from the road use tax fund and increased the dollars going into those roads. So $1.7 billion. We're asking for 50 million, a very small price to pay to keep those roads safe. I support our law enforcement officials. I support members of the Iowa highway patrol. And a road isn't really worth a whole lot if it's not safe.

Borg: Okay, let's go back to the basic question, though. Is there a fallback? Is that an ultimatum, either we cut troopers or they're paid out of the road use tax fund?

Culver: We are going to find a way to fund the Iowa Patrol and Department of Public Safety. I’m very serious about this commitment. And the reality is, Dean, we have some real challenges with the budget. That's another argument for using money out of the road use tax fund is because it doesn't come then -- the $50 million doesn't come out of the general fund.

Borg: But it's not going to be easy to get that done.

Culver: Look, nothing is easy. Look, I enjoy the challenges of governing. I really do. And I also understand that --

Borg: I thought you were going to say I enjoy a good fight.

Culver: No, I enjoy the challenges of governing. And it's my job to try to build consensus. The democratic leaders have said that that idea is still very much on the table. And I appreciate the fact that others -- look, there are a lot of -- there's quite a bit of support out there for it too. I was driving with a number of troopers across the state yesterday, including the leader of the -- of their police -- state police organization, who was very excited about this possibility and what it means in terms of public safety in this state.

Glover: You mentioned education earlier. The legislature is in the process of sending you a package of education bills that you asked for. One of them is what's called a race to the top. You make some changes in charter schools, you make some changes in failed schools, you become eligible for $175 million in federal money. Critics say all you're doing is involving the federal government in local school decisions by making changes to get the money. How do you answer that?

Culver: I answer that in saying that we need to do everything we possibly can for our kids. And there is up to $175 million available that Iowa school districts could benefit from that our kids could directly benefit from. And as a former teacher and coach and a parent of two young children, education is paramount in terms of its importance. We need all the tools that we can garner to invest in education. And I don't think there's anyone in this state who is for an underperforming school. The reality is it takes a lot of money to turn a school around. You have to literally in some cases close the building, move the students, bring in a new team, and that takes resources. And in this case the secretary of education is going to provide them.

Glover: Another one of those pieces of that package would require local school districts to spend some of their cash reserve before they go back to property taxpayers. Your argument is that you're tapping into your reserves, schools should do the same. Critics say that's once again the state moving in and taking over a local school decision against a tradition of local control in Iowa. How do you respond to that?

Culver: Well, first of all, I’ve always supported local control. But I think if we're providing hundreds of millions of dollars -- if the taxpayers are providing hundreds of millions of dollars annually, they would expect that before there's a property tax increase that the school districts draw down to a reasonable level their cash reserves. There's a second thing that's missing here in this whole discussion. We also expect every school district to find efficiencies, to reduce redundancies, to eliminate waste. Just like every family, every state government entity, we're all tightening the belt. I’ve come up with a one-billion-dollar cost savings plan that I’ve presented to the legislature. Over the next five years I believe the state of Iowa can save one billion dollars with these common sense steps, more group purchasing, offering an early retirement package to certain state employees. We expect every school district to do the same thing. So the idea that we're just going to keep spending more and more money year after year after year without expecting a more efficient result is not accurate. So we're -- I think it's a fair tradeoff.

Henderson: Several of your top agency managers last Friday issued a report on tax credits recommending several changes, yet you did not wholeheartedly endorse that and tell legislators, hey, endorse every one of their recommendations. Why didn't you do that?

Culver: Well, again, this was a report directed to the legislature. I convene the task force. I asked these department directors to look at every tax credit on the books and to take that process on the road to get input from the stakeholders, and that was a major step in the right direction. Now, as I told Dean earlier, it's up to our office and the legislature to try to find some consensus. Not all of those recommendations are going to go through, but I think the majority of them will. The bottom line is we need more transparency, more accountability, and taxpayers deserve it. They need to know with certainty that they're getting a very good return on those investments related to those tax credits.

Glover: But this session is all about money. There has been one suggestion that would bring a little money into this state. Some have suggested a limited form of allowing gambling machines in adult-only establishments. It would bring a little money into the state. It wouldn't be as widespread. As a Touch Play debate of a few years ago, where are you on all that?

Culver: In all honesty, it's not come up. I’ve met with probably two dozen legislators already. I’ve had them down in my office. We've had good conversations and it's not come up. It's not come up at leadership meetings either.

Glover: And one of the things I have to confess I’m guilty of is this whole idea of talking on your cell phone and texting while you're driving. I do it a lot. I shouldn't. There's a suggestion you've got to put limits on it. Where are you on that?

Culver: Well, anything we can do that's reasonable and makes sense in terms of increasing public safety is a good idea. The facts are there in terms of the consequences of distracted driving.

Borg: So are you saying that is a good idea?

Culver: I think there will be a bill this session that addresses it to some extent, especially if you look at the number of accidents with young people in particular. We cannot encourage distracted driving. We should do all we can to prevent it. But again, it's not been a front burning issue --

Borg: But you'd sign it?

Culver: I would. I would support it.

Henderson: During your Condition of the State address, you talked about your I-jobs initiative. You told us how many projects had been financed. You've told us how much money has been leveraged. How many jobs have been created?

Culver: Well, the law requires those job numbers to be reported by the end of January, and we will have a complete report -- a transparent report that every Iowan can see. We will make it available on our web site. The great news here, Kay, is that 1,400 projects, $530 million have been invested at a critically important time, both in terms of flood recovery. About $200 million of that has gone right into eastern Iowa to help communities recover from the floods, to help business owners and home owners that are still having challenges get back on their feet. I think it's been a great investment. Short term it will create jobs. Long term it's a great investment to have a -- and transform our state and make it connected in terms of the 21st-century economy. So I’m excited about what this has meant in terms of helping us get out of this economic downturn and also in terms of flood recovery.

Borg: Governor, will you announce by April?

Culver: I will announce at the most appropriate time. My number one priority right now is having a successful legislative session. And I’m anxious and excited about November of 2008, but I’ve got a lot of work to do in the meantime.

Borg: We're out of time. Thanks so much for being with us.

Culver: Thank you, Dean.

Borg: On the next edition of Iowa Press, continuing focusing on the democrats directing the legislative process. A week ago we heard from senate majority leader Mike Gronstal. Next week, questioning house majority leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines. By that time we'll be two weeks into the legislative session, so we expect that there will be plenty to talk about. You'll see Representative McCarthy at the usual Iowa Press 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. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations … connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, forever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge, and municipal utility infrastructure. And by Iowa's private colleges and universities … enrolling 25 percent of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44 percent of the baccalaureate and 40 percent of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at Iowa's 118 hospitals are dedicated to serving all Iowans with community focused health care. 70,000 hospital employees provide real value every day. Quality care that's always there. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

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