In state government if the word of the day is cut, the next three are what, where and how. That's exactly the questions facing Iowa legislators seeking to save money and increase efficiency. Even in solid economic times it's tricky business. Two state legislators leading the initial efforts are Council Bluffs Representative Doug Struyk, ranking republican on the house state government committee and Iowa City Representative Mary Mascher. She is the democratic chairwoman of that same committee.
Borg: Representatives Mascher and Struyk, welcome to Iowa Press.
Mascher: Thank you, Dean.
Struyk: Thanks for having us.
Borg: And across the table, two people that you see regularly at the Iowa statehouse, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Representative Mascher, let's start with you. The senate has passed a government reorganization bill that backers say cuts about $118 million out of state spending. How much does the package you're going to push cut?
Mascher: We're estimating that ours is $125 million. We have increased some areas in that particular bill and we feel that we're going to see additional savings. There may be some additional things that come out on the floor and we're working on those with the constituency groups right now to get consensus on that to be able to move those forward as well.
Glover: Representative Struyk, the governor says he needs you to cut about $140 million in order to match up with the cuts that he is going to order on his own. Can you reach that level?
Struyk: In our committee we actually, republicans offered an amendment and we're hoping that we can work in a bipartisan way on the floor to add those. We didn't add them in committee but we've actually added another $290 million on top of what was offered so I believe we can meet not only the governor's expectation but actually what I believe we need to meet, an additional $290 million.
Glover: Representative Mascher, I have to ask this question. Will people notice -- will the average Iowans if there is such a person notice what you're doing to state government?
Mascher: I believe they will because one of the things we're trying to do is streamline state government and we're trying to be more efficient. Things like paper warrants, right now we have a lot of paper warrants that we send out in terms of checks from state government but most of those are going to be done electronically. So, if you're an individual who is used to getting a paper warrant from the state you won't get those any longer, those will be electronic deposits. That is an immediate kind of a solution that we feel saves a great deal of money and is more efficient.
Glover: Representative Struyk, I'd like to take this question to you. The legislation this year came in with a budget shortfall and found $341 million, they hoped to find a total of $341 million to cut in state spending without a major impact on the state and its citizens. Why can't you do this every year?
Struyk: Great question.
Glover: I mean, if we're spending $340 million more than we need to why haven't we done this before?
Struyk: Let me answer it in a couple of different ways, in parts. First, I'd welcome you to come down to some of our legislative forums every other Saturday in Council Bluffs where you'll find that most people are coming with a project that they believe needs to have government funding so it seems like we're always being asked to do more. When we have budget constraints placed upon us we're asked to do more with less. And that's exactly what we're attempting to do with this bill. Can we do it every year? I would direct you to, I believe it's section 48 in the bill, that creates a rolling review of government programs and administrative rules. Every five years programs are to be reviewed and determine whether or not similar to what we did this year with the tax credit programs look at the programs, see if they are meeting their needs, determine whether or not they need to be eliminated. So, not only are we looking at it but we're also doing it in the future.
Henderson: There is a tandem package that would advance retirement incentives to long-time state employees in hopes of them choosing to retire early. Representative Mascher, is it wise to do that in a downturn economically statewide when many Iowans look at that $25,000 bonus that some Iowans can qualify for and say, gosh, that seems a little too handsome to me?
Mascher: The point is, is that we're able to save a great deal of money. Those individuals who we are offering that to are at the top of the salary schedule and they are our most expensive employees. They obviously have a great deal of experience as well but at the same time that's where we can find the most savings. We have a whole lot of students and college kids who are graduating and are looking for jobs and we need to provide those jobs in this state so that they can obviously start their careers and stay in our state. That's part of what we're trying to accomplish. And part of the reason why people are a little hesitant to retire is the need for that health insurance and that is one of the things that we're providing is that health insurance opportunity until they reach the age of 65 when Medicare would kick in.
Henderson: Representative Struyk, republicans in the senate by and large were reluctant to support this proposal whereas republicans in the house, you included, were supportive. Explain that disconnect.
Struyk: We certainly had some interesting caucuses and being the ranking member on state government a lot of the questions came to me to explain exactly what was going on. As we worked through it one of the things that we were most moved by was looking at the fact that there were 6600 eligible individuals and it's either 2300 or 2600 individuals that had already met all requirements in order to retire yet they were not retiring. Driving that message home, talking to our members and saying, it's obvious that we have individuals who are waiting for some reason to retire and we cannot realize the savings that we need to realize until we put out just enough of a carrot, not too much of a carrot, just enough of a carrot to get individuals to move that way. And we're talking about some significant money here, between $26 million and $61 million this fiscal -- the 2011 fiscal year, about $6 million in 2010.
Borg: Representative Mascher, as I look at the state budget, though, more than half of it is outside the realm of what you're looking at right now, it's in education, Board of Regents, K-12. What is the role of the legislature there? Or are you satisfied that the same impetus that you are showing in state government committee and streamlining is going on in those entities?
Mascher: Absolutely. They have recognized budget cuts over the past few years in terms of the economic downturn that the entire country has experienced. And so with that our revenues at the state level have been less and those institutions, all of our regent institutions, our private colleges, our community colleges, many in the healthcare provider industry have had to downsize as well and they are looking for efficiencies within their own entities and have found many.
Borg: Representative Struyk, are you satisfied the same diligence in looking for money saving is going on in K-12 school districts throughout Iowa and in the Board of Regents institutions?
Struyk: I believe that our K-12 schools are certainly tightening their belt and they have been tightening their belts for the last three or four years as they dealt with it and if we brought in budget guarantee we could go back a decade. I believe our K-12 schools are doing as much as they possibly can with as little as they possibly can. I know that's a rash generalization but I'm very confident of that in my school districts. The Board of Regents, we offered several different areas to look at, $6 million in furloughs for individuals this coming fiscal year and the fact that they all maintained duplicative infrastructure in areas that's about $63 million in cuts that I think we should consider.
Borg: Representative Mascher, at the Board of Regents meeting this past week they had a six percent tuition increase, Regent Downer from your hometown of Iowa City made the comment there as he voted for it reluctantly, he said, as the Board of Regents we have got to get serious, those are his words, about efficiencies and limiting duplication and other things at the regents institutions. So, when you say that they're doing -- Regent Downer says, hey, we've got to get serious.
Mascher: Well, when we originally came out with our reorg proposal the regents were all a part of the system for DAS and obviously joint purchasing with also the IT services. Many of the institutions have individuals on staff that are very, very capable and competent in those purchasing areas and in their IT services. What we need to do is partner better with the state. Those individuals can help us at the state level in terms of our DAS and our administrative services in finding those efficiencies and that is one of the things we're really working on is how do we coordinate that better and how do we build on the strengths of the regent system in terms of their purchasing ability. So, that is one of the areas that we are working on. Ray Walton has been very cooperative with that effort and the regents have been at the table on a regular basis. I think it's going to be -- we're going to see a lot of savings as a result of that.
Glover: Representative Mascher, as Ross Perot used to say, let's look under the hood of this thing and talk about specifics of things we're going to do. There's been a lot of discussion about closing, restructuring one of the state's four mental health institutions. Will one of the four mental health institutions be closed?
Mascher: I don't believe so at this time. If you remember the interim committee report what they talked about was building capacity and right now we don't have the capacity in our local communities to accommodate those individuals so it doesn't make much sense to close those institutions if we don't have some place for those individuals to be. One of the proposals that we're looking at is a mirroring what has been done in Minnesota where it's a one to seventeen bed facility in the local areas that would be spread throughout the state so people are in their local areas and receiving that treatment and care. It also pulls down federal dollars. Medicaid will pay for that if we set up our institution or the system in that way. It would deinstitutionalize people, put them back in their local communities and provide the care that they need.
Glover: Representative Struyk, all the buzz when the legislative session opened was that the facility in Mount Pleasant was going to be closed. Suddenly that's off the table. There are suggestions of politics at work here. I mean, it is Tom Vilsack's hometown, it is a pretty democratic area.
Struyk: I'll leave that discussion to -- the first time I read it was in the Register where they were talking about that, came in on my Blackberry and talking about Dave Heaton and Tom Vilsack. I'll let better minds than I speculate on it. The arguments that we came up with showed that it would be a 1.3 million savings to close, to DHS to close Mount Pleasant. But it would be $1.4 to $1.5 million worth of an increase to the Department of Corrections to deal with the individuals who would come out of the MHI at Mount Pleasant. So, we argued it, not on politics, we argued it on what is the fiscal ramification. To us it looked like it was spending $200 million and we were taking individuals who had mental problems at putting them into a prison situation instead of providing them the treatment they needed.
Glover: Representative Mascher, another issue that has been floated out there, the governor suggested it, the former Governor Terry Branstad did it, which is take the money that is used to fund the Iowa Highway Patrol out of the general fund and sticking it in the road use tax fund. I don't hear a lot of talk about that. Is that just dead?
Mascher: Yes. I don't believe that's going to go forward this year. There has been a lot of discussions about it. Obviously we are woefully inadequate in terms of our road fund as well. And we're all politicians who listen to our local constituents. Going back home to our forums I can tell you that in Iowa City that people have said, please don't touch that, have you seen what our roads are like in the rural areas? Have you seen what the winter has done to them? Please do not go into that and touch that fund, we need those dollars.
Glover: Representative Struyk, let's make it a bipartisan proposal. Is it a bipartisan we're not going to do this?
Struyk: Very easily, yes, it's a bipartisan proposal that we're not going to touch the road use tax fund. The roads are bad now and we have yet to go through the rapid freeze frost cycles of spring. They are going to be bad. I believe there are other ways that we can take care of the highway patrol so that we can maintain our safety and certainly not dip below the 385 troopers that we have right now.
Glover: Representative Mascher, I'd like you to step back for a second and not look at a specific proposal but it strikes me that this legislature if it has a general theme it's cut, cut, cut, take away, take away, take away. How does that sell in an election year? You aren't doing a lot of things to make people happy.
Mascher: I would come back with reorganize, reorganize, reorganize. We need to be more efficient, we need to be leaner and be able to provide the services but at the same time I think people expect us to be looking at these programs yearly and making sure that we can identify where there are savings. So, in a tough time this is an opportunity to do that and we're willing to step up to the plate and get it done.
Henderson: One more look under the hood question. Representative Struyk, you mentioned a series of proposals republicans offered hoping to include that in the bill when it is debated in the full house next week. One of them accounts for about $15 million for selling or leasing the Iowa Communications Network. That has been talked about for years. Do you really think that can be accomplished?
Struyk: I think it can be accomplished. We need to figure out exactly what the purpose of the ICN is and move forward. We have lots of different concepts on what the ICN should be doing but right now it's a floundering system. When you look at what current technology can do as far as -- I don't know if I can say this but I will -- Skype and other name brand software packages that are out there, people are already communicating both voice and video. The state doesn't need to maintain that backbone at the level that it is. We either need to stop investing money in keeping an archaic system up to speed or we need to sell it. Selling it creates all sorts of interesting dynamics as far as who is going to buy it, who is going to have the ability to use tax free right-of-ways when they run it. That certainly is difficult but the first step is stopping to invest in the infrastructure and the next step becomes who wants to buy it. It can be done.
Glover: Is it the biggest boondoggle in state history?
Struyk: I'll leave that up to you to decide. I wasn't here when it was created but it certainly is a headache for all of us.
Glover: Representative Mascher, I was here when it was created, is it the biggest boondoggle in state history?
Mascher: You know, I would say no. I think there have been many, many ...
Glover: Bigger boondoggles?
Mascher: Yeah, bigger boondoggles. Come to the university, you'll see some ...
Henderson: Laser center.
Mascher: Laser center, yeah. No, I really don't think so because the universities have benefited from it, community colleges have benefited from it, K-12's have benefited from it. So, we have had lots of good uses of it prior to this. Should it be changed? Is it changing? All the time. Technology is never, never constant and we found that out in looking at the system we have now.
Borg: Aren't you using it right now ...
Mascher: We certainly are.
Borg: ... in telemedicine to save money by connecting doctors with the state penitentiary at Fort Madison?
Mascher: Absolutely. That is a good example. The parole board uses it. I mean, we can see throughout state government many different entities that utilize it on a regular basis. So, to say that it's a boondoggle I just, I wouldn't agree with that at all because as a classroom teacher I have benefited from it and we used it on a number of bases. So, I think it was there for a purpose, it started us down the road in terms of looking at a technology system for the state and I think that was good.
Henderson: Let's take another path on the road. You both sit on a committee which has jurisdiction over gambling issues. Representative Struyk, house majority leader Kevin McCarthy was on this program a couple of weeks ago and outlined a gambling proposal. He mentioned you by name, said you're in on the discussions about this proposal which would allow casinos to have these large scale poker tournaments in facilities that are connected to the casino like a convention center or a hotel ballroom. Where is that going?
Struyk: Where is it going? It's going to be discussed. Representative Quirk is I believe the lead democrat on the working group and I'm the lead republican on the working group. We had a brief meeting Wednesday night and then yesterday, Thursday morning we went in together to drafting and set out some parameters that we'd like to see the language and see how it works so that we have something that individuals, our colleagues in the house and senate can take a look at and see what their reactions are. One of the things that will be in there is poker tournaments, allowing for off-gaming floor wagering, in particular poker tournaments. If you imagine you have a riverboat and you had everything bolted down, if you want to have a poker tournament you need to have a lot of poker tables. You would have to take all of those machines out, put the poker tables in so you've stopped all that gaming, went to something else and then you get to change it all again three or four days later. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So, if it's an item that we want to add, taking it off the gaming floor is necessary to facilitate that.
Henderson: Representative Mascher, another component of that proposal would essentially allow the casinos to pay the state, we don't have to have gambling referendums every eight years among residents in the counties in which these casinos are located to reauthorize gambling. Is that too controversial? Or is that something you're going to do?
Mascher: You know, I don't think it's controversial. I think a lot of people have become very used to gaming in their particular communities and the question becomes is there a real move across the state to get rid of it in areas? I don't see that and so you've got to ask the question, is it worth it to put the money into that when you can have a reverse referendum where people can get their petitions filed and if they really want it out of the community they can do that.
Glover: Representative Struyk, let's go back to this. Why shouldn't we assume that some kind of a gambling expansion will happen this year? I mean, we go to the gambling well every time we need money, we need money this year. Isn't the gambling well inevitable?
Struyk: If you look at the individuals in the legislature, we haven't had a significant change aside from change in leadership obviously as far as republican/democrat, the numbers that are there show that this is not a slam dunk. Are there 51 votes for gambling expansion? I couldn't tell you. Is it inevitable that we talk about gaming because we're looking at ways to bring in more revenue? You betcha. But is it inevitable that we pass a bill or even bring a bill to the floor? No. We need to have 51, hopefully more than 51 before we even think about bringing it to the floor. The first gaming bill I dealt with I had to walk off the floor in the middle of debate to make sure that one of the groups had come online and were okay with it so that we had our 51st vote before we could end debate.
Glover: Representative Mascher, same question to you. Isn't it more or less inevitable? Gambling is where you turn whenever you need money, you need money this year. Isn't that inevitable?
Mascher: I think it is going to be a discussion that we absolutely have and obviously there is a work group to pick that up. I think there are probably the votes to get it out of committee. I haven't been a big proponent of expansion of gaming, I'll be honest with you. I think we have lots of different avenues in the state and I wonder when we get saturated to the point where you're competing against yourself. And so it is not something I have been interested in personally and my constituents really and truly don't support that. But at the same time I know that there may be the votes to do that in the house and I think within our state government committee they may be there as well.
Henderson: Representative Struyk, just as a reminder to viewers you're from Council Bluffs which has casinos in the area. Senate President Jack Kibbie is from Emmetsburg, home to another casino. He is offering another gambling proposal which would have the state get in the business of sports betting if indeed Congress allows states to do that. Currently there is a nationwide ban except in a limited number of states. Is that going to be tacked on to this gaming proposal that you're discussing?
Struyk: I don't know what you mean by tacked on but it will show up in what Representative Quirk and I have asked to be drafted as a starting point for discussions. It's always interesting to think about including something that is technically illegal at the present time but we would have enabling legislation should the Supreme Court or Congress, however it comes about, decide that it is acceptable for other states because of the equal protection argument.
Henderson: Is that a bridge too far for you, Representative Mascher? You just expressed some reservations about gambling.
Mascher: That would be a far reach. I would have very difficult times with that.
Glover: Representative Mascher, I'd like you to put your forward looking lens on an issue you're going to deal with not this year but after the next election, it's redistricting. The legislature will have to draw a new congressional and legislative districts. That will probably come through your committee and it's going to be particularly important because we're probably going to lose a seat in Congress. Can you assure our viewers that the rather unique non-partisan system we have for drawing new districts will remain in place for the next redistricting?
Mascher: Absolutely. I think we have one of the best systems in the nation and other states are envious of us and asked, how did you ever get that done, because by taking it out of the political arena you don't get all the gerrymandering that occurs in other states where you've had districts that just don't make sense. So, I really believe that we will keep that in place. We are -- I'm very -- I have a lot of pride in what they have done there and I think that that's a good idea and should remain.
Glover: Representative Struyk, it strikes me that this takes the most partisan of decisions and hands it off to a non-partisan agency, the legislative service agency. Can you assure from a republican standpoint that that system will be in place for the next set of district lines? Republicans have a lot to lose here.
Struyk: Republicans have a lot to lose. Certainly if we're not in control when the lines are drawn in some way, albeit, we're going to do everything that we can to make sure that we continue to uphold the Iowa tradition which is not gerrymandering but letting non-interested parties draw the lines. We don't argue about our fiscal notes that we get from LSA which is non-partisan, we should be doing the same thing as we have in the past maintaining the integrity of our system.
Glover: And the last two times those districts have been drawn, control of the legislature changed. Representative Mascher, how worried are democrats?
Mascher: Good question. I believe that politics is all local, it depends on your candidates and everyone would tell you that you've got to find the right candidates for each district. And so I think -- the public looks at it that way too. They want somebody who will reflect their priorities and so I don't believe that's going to be an issue at all.
Glover: How big is the opportunity Representative Struyk?
Struyk: There are a lot of things at play, not only because of the redistricting, because of the national tide I think which has at least stopped shifting and hopefully shifting back the other way. It is a huge opportunity. There's also a huge risk and we will be prepared not only on issues but with highly qualified candidates in order to seize any opportunity that is out there.
Henderson: Representative Mascher, we have less than a minute left. I know the Iowa Attorney General is looking at the Supreme Court ruling on corporate donations and seeing if Iowa can finagle some sort of limit. Do you think that's even possible?
Mascher: I think the Attorney General will advise us on that. If it's not I know they are looking at it at the federal level too and I think there will definitely be some changes made at the federal level that will affect us at the state level. But we've got to look at what was in the ruling and then what can we actually do in the state that would affect that.
Henderson: Real quickly, Representative Struyk, would republicans resist any move in this area?
Struyk: No, in fact, when the Supreme Court handed out their ruling within minutes I had several representatives come to me, republican representatives and say, have you spoken to Mary yet, Representative Mascher, and talked about doing a bi-partisan bill to get this thing moving. They wanted to act then and there so we're going to wait and see what the Attorney General comes out with and move forward. So, no, we're looking for balance. We don't want to side one against the other. We want balance in that system.
Borg: I'll say it, Doug and Mary, thanks for being with us today.
Struyk: Thank you.
Mascher: Thank you.
Borg: That wraps up this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. Another edition next weekend at the regular times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.
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