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Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (D-Des Moines)

posted on March 26, 2010

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Iowa’s General assembly winds down its current session. The attorney general's office monitors possible legal issues in new legislation. We’re discussing policy and politics with Attorney General of Iowa Tom Miller on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: During legislative sessions, issues surface demanding immediate attention by the attorney general's staff in Iowa.  Currently issues surrounding tax credits and non-government organizations, such as the Iowa School Board Association, are getting attention.  Attorney General Miller is now in his seventh four-year term.  Welcome to Iowa Press.

 

Miller: Thank you.  Nice to be here, Dean.

 

Borg: And across the table, people you know well from the statehouse --

 

Miller: Quite well.

 

Borg: Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

 

Glover: General Miller, we want to talk to you about some of the immediate items that are coming before the legislature, but for now start with -- I’d like for you to step back just a little bit and look at the broad picture.  They are tying the strings on the end of legislative session.  From a law enforcement perspective, what's the biggest accomplishment of this legislature?

 

Miller: Well, I think certainly the biggest accomplishment would be the legislation that prohibits those that have been convicted of domestic abuse and have no contact orders against them from having guns.  This is something that we worked on for ten years.  We’re nothing if we're not persistent in the attorney general's office.  Ten years of effort and the legislature has passed this.  It’s going to make families safer.  It’s going to take some of the fear and terror out of difficult situations where people won't have guns now.  The law enforcement community was very supportive of this.  The victims groups, who do just great work for folks that are in this situation, were part of this.  It was bipartisan.  It was great to see something done bipartisan.  This I think was the biggest accomplishment -- a big accomplishment of the legislature.

 

Glover: What does it say about the power of the gun lobby that it took you ten years to get this bill?

 

Miller: They do have some power certainly.  You have been around for a while and understand that, of course.  But let me say that, you know, we worked with the NRA on this and they compromised with us and we compromised with them and that was part of the resolution.

 

Borg: Mike, could I interrupt you just to ask would you like more gun control? Is this a first step?

 

Miller: Well, this is an important step. We didn't come at it so much from a gun control agenda as a victim's protection. All the victims programs, crime victims programs are in our office. We administer those.  We provide assistance and we provide advocacy, and that's a very important part of our office.  We’re very committed to that. So we came at this legislation from that point of view.

 

Glover: And I’d like you to flip that opening question to the other side of the coin.  What’s the biggest failure of this year's legislature? What are they not doing they should have done?

 

Miller: Well, I think -- I think they've done a good job under very difficult circumstances. The budget has just been a very difficult challenge, which I think they've done with some common sense and some responsibility. Obviously there have been cuts. Our office has been cut and we're barely able to survive but we will survive next year.  So I think the legislature has had a good year in a difficult situation, particularly relative to the budget. We’re very appreciative that they passed the legislation concerning the guns that I just mentioned. And last year they passed something that we worked fifteen years on, the private right of action for ordinary Iowans to get into court. That was very important. So we're very positive on this legislature.

 

Glover: And we've heard a lot of talk about these budget cuts. And something you just said intrigues me. You said you took a lot of cuts but you're going to survive. Everybody in state government has taken a lot of cuts, but they're going to survive. Does that mean we had too much spending going on before?

 

Miller: I don't --- I don't think so. I think that what has been cut are things that can and should have been done. We’re powerless in terms of -- in terms of doing the criminal responsibilities that we have with the funding. It’s touch and go and that's not an ideal situation. We should have more area prosecutors. We’re down three. We should have more in criminal appeals. We’re down two. That would be a better situation. We are in a situation where we can survive and do what we need to do for the public, but we could do more. We could do it better if we had additional funding.

 

Henderson: Attorney generals from over a dozen states are suing to prevent implementation of the health care reform plan that president Obama signed into law this week. Why are you not joining that effort?

 

Miller: Well, you know, we've taken a good look at it. And our perspective is as the law:  what does the law provide; not what's our politics or what's our ideological perspective on this; you know, what's the law in terms of such a challenge and does it merit a challenge? The first thing we noted that there's a history here, that social security was passed. They brought lawsuits. They weren't successful. The civil rights act, the same thing.  Lawsuits not successful. The voting rights act, lawsuits not successful. So we thought as lawyers that we had a responsibility to take a good look at the case.  When we looked at it, it's a very weak case. The main part of the case is to try and knock out the mandate for everybody getting insurance because congress didn't have the authority to do that. What’s the law on that?  The law is that the commerce act -- the congress can use the commerce power that they have over interstate commerce in certain cases.  One of it is if it's in interstate commerce, the activity. The other is if it affects interstate commerce. And here when people don't have insurance, some of them get sick, very sick.  Some of them have accidents and end up in the emergency room, and the rest of us end up paying for that. Nationwide they estimate that it's in the billions, the cost for those that aren't insured. That has an effect on interstate commerce. I think it's hard to deny that it has an effect. So the case is weak. Three-fourths of the attorney generals have not joined. Based on our best estimate of what the law is -- and when there are legal matters, we try and call them like we see them.  The case just isn't there, so we're not going to join.

 

Henderson: If they were to be successful in what you have identified as a weak case -- if they were to be successful at the Supreme Court level, would that make Medicare go away as well?

 

Miller: it would -- it would -- it would not. Although that's -- that's one of their even weaker theories that they attack Medicare. Excuse me, Medicaid? Did you mean Medicare or Medicaid?

 

Henderson: Both. They’re government paid health care programs.

 

Miller: There is the possibility of that if they develop -- if they agree with these sort of very unusual theories, because they're mandatory too. Even social security is mandatory. So I don't think -- I think congress has the authority to do Medicare, to do Medicaid, to do social security, to do this. And I think the courts will uphold that.

 

Glover: And thanks for your answer as a lawyer there, but I’d like you to take a look at the politics of this. I would assume that some of these attorneys general wandered into this case because of the perceived public backlash against this national health care plan.  But I’ve seen polling since it's passed that shows that that may be turning around and that people may be lining up behind it. And I’m seeing some polling that the individual items within that health care bill are pretty popular. What’s the politics of this health care thing?

 

Miller: Well, thanks for bringing that up, Mike. Those are some points that I intended on -- intended on making here because they're very important points that the public is switching on this. And the last -- last issue you raised is the most important, that the major parts of this legislation that would provide additional coverage for 30- or 32 million that would deal with the preexisting condition, which is a fear for practically all Americans, and to do cost cutting, those are the core of the legislation and those are supported by the public.  So I think, you know, it's started to turn public opinion. You know, the president had the great visit to Iowa City this week. He’s going to continue to advocate for this program, and he's terrific at that. So public opinion may well turn on this because if you analyze the substance of it, this is good legislation and this is going to help people. I got an e-mail from a woman that said that she has a son -- a 16-year-old with cystic fibrosis. The new legislation will mean that he's at least covered till he's 26 on their family plan. She was elated about that and relieved.

 

Glover: You mentioned the president's visit to Iowa City this past week. One of the things he said was if republicans want to make this a political issue in the midterm election next November, bring it on. Are you as comfortable as he apparently is that democrats cannot only survive this but win on it?

 

Miller: I think what he was talking about there is a debate with him. You know, if republicans want to argue that they want to repeal this whole legislation that helps an awful lot of people and go back to the system where people had concerned about pre-existing conditions, not being covered and putting them in bankruptcy, where they have to be concerned about enormous increases in premiums for health insurance like we saw, he's willing -- he's willing to make that debate. And I think he can win that debate.

 

Borg: I want to bring you back to state government here particularly, and I mentioned as I was introducing you the controversy over tax credits specifically. I think your office is involved now in tax legislation credits for the film industry that sort of went awry. It was hard to monitor. Are tax credits inherently difficult to monitor?  That is, is there something in there just inherent in the legislation in administering tax credits that you have found in investigating this particular case that you say applies across the board?

 

Miller: Dean, it's a little bit like, you know, out of sight, out of mind. The thing about credits is, you know, they're sort of -- they're self-executing. Huge amounts of money.  When we do grants -- when you give $5 million in grants, people are going to, you know, stop and look at that and say, well, does that make sense, that's a lot of money. But if you do $5 million in credits, it's just sort of off the radar screen. So that's why there has to be a special scrutiny for tax credits, not only the film tax credits but all of them, both -- on two levels.  One is what's the purpose of this and what's the amount of money spent.  And then on the implementation: is this really what's provided; are all the rules being followed?  And, you know, that's very important. It’s a half billion dollars, for instance.

 

Henderson: Did legislators go far enough this session in developing that level of scrutiny?

 

Miller: I think -- I think they took a good first step.  And probably the most important thing is to set up a separate committee to look at all of them on an ongoing basis for five years to justify all of them. You know, I think -- I thought that they could have cut more this year in a 500-million sort of pie that is available in this kind of difficult year.  Although they did make some cuts, I think a very rigorous look at them in the next few years, which they've promised, is very, very important for the reasons I said.

 

Glover: So this is an ongoing debate. You want a multiyear look at the whole thing of -- we get caught up in this whole flap over film tax credits, but you think it's a longer question looking at the whole question of tax credits.

 

Miller: I do, Mike. I think that there's so much money available, it's so much off the radar screen, people don't focus on it. And they really need to ask the two basic questions and ask them over and over again, given what we're spending in tax credits, does that justify what we get out of them, and the micro side of it. People that are getting credits, they're making applications, you know, are they exaggerating? Just make sure that they meet all the obligations and money isn't wasted.

 

Borg: I heard you say that you'd rather see grants, real money being exchanged rather than credits.

 

Miller: Well, I’m not sure that -- I think there's a place for credits. I’m not saying they should all be grants, but I’m saying that -- because grants inherently have a lot more scrutiny. We should figure out a way so that the credits have the same kind of scrutiny.

 

Henderson: I’ve heard Eric Tabor, one of your deputies, explain to legislators at length about the film office investigation, in which your agency is participating. He’s been pretty cagey. He says, "I can't say much."  Can you tell Iowans about your involvement and investigation of the Iowa Association of School Boards and the potentially misuse of money there?

 

Miller: You know, that's just unfolding and we're involved in it. We’re looking at that very carefully. We started an investigation on the civil side, looking at the salary question, is the salary too large and any other related questions. You know, there's been public reports that the FBI is involved, which means the U.S. Attorney's Office is involved. And we're prepared to work with the U.S. Attorney's Office or the county attorney's office on any kind of criminal investigation that would seem appropriate.

 

Glover: And there is a criminal investigation going on there?

 

Miller: Well, the FBI is involved, so I think from that --

 

Henderson: You said that there's a civil investigation in your office as to the misuse of --

 

Miller: That's correct, in terms of the salaries and any other question.

 

Henderson: What would you say to Iowans who are concerned about this episode?

 

Miller: I think Iowans have every right to be concerned that the school board association is largely funded by public money in one type or another. That money should be spent right. I think the legislature is investigating. We’re investigating. Others are as well. We’re committed to make sure that we find out what happened and to do the appropriate remedy.

 

Henderson: Would you support an effort among legislators to ensure that the Iowa Association of school Boards is subject to the open meetings and open records law so the public could see what's going on there?

 

Miller: We do support that. We think that's -- we think that's good legislation in the public interest.

 

Glover: And another issue that's sitting before the legislature this year is an overhaul of the state's open meetings and open records law, putting in place for the first time an enforcement structure. Admittedly it's a pretty basic enforcement structure. Where are you on that particular issue, and what's your prediction of what happens?

 

Miller: We support that legislation and it sounds like it's going to pass but you never know for sure in this process.

 

Glover: And to be clear, what that does, that would put in place a board which would be charged with enforcing the open records law. What role would you play in that?

 

Miller: Well, I think we'd play a supportive role with the new agency. We’d work with them.

 

Henderson: Are you comfortable with the role you played in administering Iowa’s open meetings, open records law? There are people who have asked you to do more.

 

Miller: We are -- we are comfortable, particularly in recent years.  We prepared to do any cases.  We’ve looked for cases. We’ve talked to the ombudsman. We talked to the media. If there are any cases that we should bring, we're prepared to do that. There was a period of time with particularly small towns that we left that up totally to the county attorneys. Looking back, we think that was a mistake.

 

Henderson: Earlier this week or this month, rather, you asked legislators to pay special attention to the mortgage hotline in your office, asking for a bit more money to be dedicated to it. Is that hotline going to maintain operations, number one? And number two, what are you seeing in the area of foreclosures in Iowa among home owners?

 

Miller: The hotline is vital to Iowa homeowners that are having any kind of difficulty concerning their mortgage. We set this up a couple years ago with the Iowa Mediation Service that did the mediation in the 1980s that was so successful in dealing with farmland. We’re working with the Iowa Finance Authority. We’re working with the local non-profits that provide housing advice and assistance to people. We brought everybody together and with some difficulty. They’re working very well together. It’s very hard work to try and seek these modifications of loans. By everybody's estimate, ours is the best in the country. We’ve put more effort into it. We’ve got it working and we're saving homes.  Iowa went from being about in the twenties in terms of foreclosure rates down to in the top ten, now the lowest ten, in part because of this. Iowans are being foreclosed at a rate of 62 percent of the national average. This is something that's really working and doing some good. It’s in jeopardy of folding up for lack of money. So we're talking to the legislature and we're talking to the federal government. It really has to go on because there's so much at stake for Iowans.

 

Glover: General Miller, it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press show if we didn't spend a little time talking about politics. We do have a few minutes left in this show. Talk to me a little bit about the climate this year. It strikes me it's kind of a dichotomy here. History would say this is a pretty good republican year. It’s the first midterm of a democratic president. But the economy seems to be driving everything, and that usually works for democrats. Talk to me a little bit about the climate this year.

 

Miller: Well, the climate is unusual, unpredictable. And, you know, we've got six, seven months to go before the election. There’s a lot -- there's a lot to be -- a lot to happen. You know, people are suffering economically because of the great recession, the downturn. It’s been devastating for Americans and for Iowans, and they continue to suffer. The Obama administration did some things to make sure that the whole thing didn't fall apart and become a depression. But there's -- the recovery has started but it's very slow. Like many serious financial recessions or depressions, the last thing to come back is employment, and that's the most important thing for Americans.

 

Borg: I think what mike is getting at, though, who is going to bear the brunt of the voter anger?

 

Miller: Well, I think that's -- that's very unclear. I think that right now the republicans may have a little bit of an edge on that. But that could change and it has a lot to do with what the president will do and what all of us will do, because the president and -- an example is the reform of the financial situation. The president and democrats and particularly attorney generals have been fighting to change that to protect the consumer, to protect the individual. The republicans have been fighting on behalf of the big banks. As that discussion and debate comes forward, you may see a shift of some of the anger.  And I think that -- I think that Barack -- the president is going to continue to be -- to do well the rest of the year. I think he's hitting his stride in a lot of ways. That could help the democrats. But, Dean, it's sort of a confusing answer because the whole situation is confusing out there and uncertain. It’s hard -- it's hard to say what's going to happen.

 

Glover: And you're in your seventh term as attorney general. You’re running for another term. Republicans think they have you in their sights this year. They’re very enthusiastic about the opportunity to get you in this year's election. Why are they so excited?

 

Glover: Well, I certainly haven't seen, you know, republican voters that are feeling that way. Maybe some of the operatives have some excitement. But we're going to run hard. I always run hard. I always take every race seriously. I treat my opponents with -- in a serious way and with respect. You know, I will do that this year. I think that I’ve done a good job for Iowans. I’ve always stood up for ordinary Iowans, battled for them in consumer protection, in criminal prosecution, in the legislature. I’ve been the person that fights for the ordinary Iowan. I believe that that's good policy, and I think that it works as good politics too.

 

Henderson: The republican who has emerged to run against you, Brenna Findley, says it's time for a new face, an anti-incumbent mood.  She hopes to sort of ride that anti-incumbent mood into your office.  How do you address the idea that you've had your time and that you should go?

 

Miller: Well, you know, that I’ve done good things and served the public very well and are still very energized to do it and can continue to do great things to serve the ordinary Iowan and that that's very important in that job. That’s what the job is all about. Sort of the contrast, too, with her on the experience issue. As best we can tell, she graduated from law school nine years ago, went out to California, and it looks like she practiced law. It’s not clear that she did that for a year or so, and then she spent the last seven years in Washington as part of the house -- Senator King's chief of staff.

 

Henderson: Congressman King.

 

Miller: Congressman King.  I better not make that mistake, not with Senator Harkin being such a good friend. You know, it looks like she's never practiced law in Iowa. If she's practiced law, it's just been a short time in California. That is not the experience you need to make the kind of decisions that are in this office, that there are very serious litigation decisions, civil and criminal, that you need some experience to make. She doesn't have that experience.

 

Glover: You were one of the first public officials in Iowa to endorse then-candidate Barack Obama. You were with Barack Obama this past week in Iowa City when he did his health care announcement. Is Barack Obama going to be a plus or a minus on a campaign trail this year?

 

Miller: I think -- I think he'll be a plus. You know, I think that he's an extraordinary person both as a president and as a spokesperson for our party. I think he's turned the corner now with the passage of health care reform. As I told him yesterday in Iowa City, I think he's just -- he's caught his stride much like he caught his stride at the JJ dinner in 2007 in November here. I think he'll be a plus.

 

Glover: And you would want him out here campaigning for you?

 

Miller: I certainly would.

 

Henderson: How do you think the issue of gay marriage will impact democrats in the fall election?

 

Miller: Well, I think that -- I think the issue is having less visibility and less effect as time goes on. What happened was the Iowa Supreme Court, a unanimous court composed of democrats and republicans, appointed by democratic governors and republican governors, came to a unanimous decision. It was well written, well reasoned. And, you know, we've lived under that for about a year now. And, you know, the state hasn't fell apart.  The world hasn't crumbled as a result of that. Life has gone on pretty much as before. Here and in other states that have had this -- had gay marriage, I think that -- that the public is -- is looking at other issues and moving on.

 

Glover: So you think Iowans have accepted that opinion and those who are trying to stir up anger are missing the point?

 

Miller: Well, I think -- I think a lot of Iowans have seen that that opinion hasn't had any kind of serious bad consequences for our state. You know, some people still feel strongly. They have a right to feel strongly. They have a right to express their opinion, and they do. But I think most Iowans are moving on, particularly in -- in difficult economic times, and looking at those issues rather than the gay marriage issue.

 

Glover: What else is banging around out there on the social side of the equation?

 

Miller: Well, I think that -- I think that, you know, particularly with the difficult economic times that everybody has experienced that that's where the focus is rather than the social issues. I think people are concerned about jobs and about the quality of education and about the future of their children and their families rather than keying on social issues.

 

Borg: I’m sorry, we're out of time. Thanks so much for spending time with us today.

 

Miller: Thank you, Dean. It went fast.

 

Borg: We'll have another edition of Iowa Press next week, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I’m Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

 


Tags: attorney general campaign 2010 elections Iowa Iowa legislature politics Tom Miller