Tipping the balance. Controlling Iowa’s General Assembly is a major goal. Republicans asking voters to replace the democrats' majorities. We’re analyzing the prospects with senate majority leader Mike Gronstal and house minority leader Kraig Paulsen on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: National observers see a possible sea change in the upcoming federal election, as republicans are campaigning hard for majority status in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Whether or not that potential republican midterm tide will impact the Iowa statehouse elections is another question. In the Iowa senate, democrats now enjoy a 32-18 advantage, but exactly half of the 50 senate seats are up for election right now. And of those 25 seats on the ballot, 19 currently held by democrats. In the House of Representatives, democrats have a 12-seat edge and, is the case every two years, all 100 seats there are up for election. Council Bluffs democrat Mike Gronstal leads the senate's democratic majority. Hiawatha republican Kraig Paulsen leads his party's minority in the House of Representatives. Gentlemen, you're frequently here during the session. Welcome back to Iowa Press.
Thank you, dean.
Happy to be here.
Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Mr. Gronstal, let's start with you. You two are probably out there among the grass-roots political area in this state more than almost anybody. What’s the political climate this year, Mr. Gronstal?
Gronstal: I think -- I think everybody is very concerned about the economy, concerned about jobs, concerned about high unemployment. I think there's -- I think there's a lot of frustration across Iowa. I think people are looking for leadership that's going to create a sound foundation for recovery in the state. I think we can make the case we've done it.
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, the same question to you. You’re out around the state a lot. What’s the political climate out there? And add to that with your projection of where republicans are going to be on November 3 in the house.
Paulsen: Well, first of all, I wouldn't disagree as far as the political climate with what senator Gronstal said. There’s a fair amount of angst. There’s 114,000 Iowans out of work right now, and there's a considerably larger number that are either underemployed or stopped looking. That’s what house republicans want to go work on. On November 2 I think it's going to be a pretty good day for house republicans.
Glover: Will you have a majority?
Paulsen: That's my expectation and that's what we're working toward.
Glover: Mr. Gronstal, you have 32 democrats in the senate right now; 19 democrats are up for reelection. On November 3 how many democrats are you going to have?
Gronstal: I’m not going to speculate because we have -- we have a great set of candidates that are out there working very hard. These are local races -- I’m confident we'll have a majority in the Iowa senate. Thirty-two is 64 percent of the senate. That’s the highest we've ever been in the history of the state. We might lose a seat or two. So where we're going to be -- hey, we're going to play out the election. That’s why we have elections. We’d all like to declare victory today and skip elections, but we've got to have it if the people are going to speak.
Borg: I imagine that you're minimizing, lose a seat or two. But that seems to say that the anti-incumbent mood that seems to be in the federal elections might be carrying over into anti-incumbent also. You have the incumbency.
Gronstal: Let me -- first of all, where would you rather be? Would you rather be in my seat where I currently hold 19 of the 25 seats that were up four years ago? I think that's a pretty good place to be. Does it mean I’ve got a lot more defense to do? Yes, it does. But would you rather be there or would you rather be with the party that got 6 out of 25 seats four years ago. I think we're well positioned to maintain a strong majority in the Iowa Senate.
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, if we would be -- agreed if we were confused about whether this was a midterm election or the beginning of the 2012 election cycle. Over the next week at least five potential republican presidential candidates are going to be campaigning in Iowa. Does that have an effect? How does that play out on local elections?
Paulsen: Well, I think it adds to the excitement of some of the base. It’s Iowa. That’s part of what goes on here. So having these folks stop in and help us out I think just adds to the enthusiasm level for republicans or conservatives.
Glover: And, Mr. Gronstal, you don't have a presidential election -- or a presidential primary, let's say. Does that hurt you?
Gronstal: I think -- I think in both cases, the caucuses for both parties have helped the two of us build two of the best organized political parties -- state political parties in the country. In years when the incumbent is a democrat, a little more energy goes on the republican side. In years when the incumbent is a republican, a little bit more of the energy goes on our side. But this isn't about presidential politics. This is about individual candidates standing on people's doorsteps and making the case for sending them to office or returning them to office. I think we're well positioned.
Henderson: Mr. Paulsen, there are those who argue that republicans benefits from this judicial retention election and that republican leading voters are being encouraged to vote no on the three justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. We have their names on the fall ballot. Are you indeed benefiting in terms of turnout from that election?
Paulsen: Maybe, maybe not. I mean you can create an argument that the environment is better for us. I think that's true. You can create an argument that the ballot is better for us. You can develop that argument. The truth of the matter is it does go back to the individual candidates. I have 92 republicans running across the state of Iowa for those 100 seats. Democrats have 75. My candidates are motivated. They’re working hard. I can tell you as a leader, they challenge me to stay in front of them. And I mean they're just doing a fabulous job contacting -- making good contact with Iowans.
Borg: Stay in front of them, what does that mean?
Paulsen: Just as far as you need to be doing this, candidate whoever. Well, I’m already doing that. Oh, great. It’s just part of the coaching we do. There’s just not quite as much coaching required in this particular election cycle because they are -- they're extremely motivated.
Henderson: Mr. Gronstal, in regards to the judicial retention election, there are statistics which show there's great fall off in terms of how people vote on down-ballot issues like that. How do you think the judicial retention election is impacting democratic turnout, if at all?
Gronstal: I don't know that it's having a significant impact. When it's all said and done, most judges are retained when those elections are held. I have some confidence that that's what's going to happen in this case. It’s interesting and somewhat ironic that the party that fears -- that says they fear the politics of the courts has decided to directly inject themselves into the politics of courts. I think that's a mistake. I think that's bad for the future of the state of Iowa. The U.S. chamber of commerce says we have the best judicial system in the country -- among the best in the country.
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, is this election a referendum on that court ruling on gay marriage?
Paulsen: I think this election is a referendum on the democrats' handling of the economy, spending, and debt, both at the state level and the federal level.
Glover: Mr. Gronstal, the same question to you. Do you think that there is at least some degree of this being a referendum on a court ruling on gay marriage?
Gronstal: I don't think so. I think this is an election that is on the future of Iowa, not the past, not backing up, not going away from early childhood education, not abandoning their kids at community colleges. This campaign is really about the future. And some people want to say, okay, we want to go back, we want to take away a bunch of progress we've made in the last few years. I don't think most Iowans want that.
Glover: And one of the things voters are going to be asked is if they want to have a constitutional convention. If they say yes, it will be up to you to decide how that plays out. How will that play out?
Gronstal: We'll wait and see what voters decide. then we'll make some calculation as to how -- if they in fact approve a constitutional convention, we'll make some calculation based on -- based on where we're at that moment, whether it's losing control of the house, whatever the majority is in both chambers, who is the governor. We’ll make some judgment once that comes to pass.
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, what would you like to see handled at a constitutional convention if voters decide to have one?
Paulsen: Well, I haven't thought through all that. I’m kind of where senator Gronstal is. Iowa is going to make a decision, and then we'll respond accordingly.
Borg: Do you think that, Mr. Gronstal, you might have made, and the democratic party and you leading the Iowa senate, a tactical error in not allowing Iowans to vote on same-sex marriage because is has now ejected -- become so much more with Bob Vander Plaats' campaign?
Gronstal: The reality is the legislature voted on a constitutional amendment on gay marriage in 2004. It passed in house. It failed in the senate. The reality is the votes are not there to pass it. They are not there. I am not going to personally engage in order to insert discrimination into the constitution.
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, can you gain from his decision?
Paulsen: I don't know. And as far as whether it's a tactical advantage or disadvantage, I don't know. I think it's the wrong decision. We have the code of Iowa, which the legislature writes saying one thing and we have a court decision that says something in this case almost directly the opposite. The right author of that decision is Iowans.
Borg: I want to show you something here. Reducing the size and expense of state government is among the major issues in the gubernatorial campaign. It’s a cornerstone for republican Terry Branstad. And in Thursday’s Des Moines Register debate, governor Chet Culver wasn't conceding any ground on that idea.
Culver: I provided the leadership necessary last session, working with the legislature, to come up with a reorganization plan that will save you, lance, and Iowa taxpayers, $250 million in this current fiscal year. Terry Branstad tried to reorganize government in the '90s. He promised savings of tens of millions of dollars and came up significantly short of that promise.
Branstad: You know, governor Culver, I know you've tried, but results speak for themselves.
Culver: Yes, they did.
Branstad: They speak for themselves. And that is the status quo is not good enough for Iowans. And lance is exactly right; we can reduce but the way we need to do is not -- Governor Culver doesn't conduct budget hearings. He doesn't know the details of the budget. I do and I will spend the time and the effort and work to set priorities and work with the legislature to, over the next five years, reduce the cost of the size of government by at least 15 percent.
Borg: Mr. Paulsen, budget cutting, size of state government, the cost of running government, is that an issue in local legislative campaigns?
Paulsen: Oh, absolutely it is. It’s one of the things that my folks are running on. And the bill that passed, and it passed with republican support, because I think that's one of the bills we actually worked on, at least on the house side. I don't know how things were in the senate, but on the house side we worked in a bipartisan fashion. But I think it was more in the neighborhood of about $75- or $80 million of general funding expenditures, not 225, or at least that's what the legislative services agency said.
Borg: Mr. Gronstal, what I see governor Culver saying is, hey, give us a little credit, the democrats did some overhaul. Are you feeling left out?
Gronstal: No. I think just look at the history. Terry Branstad talked about state government reorganization in 1986. If you look at the 1986 budget and then the 1987 budget that at best Branstad could claim that he saved $19 million. We saved -- we saved, we believe, over $250 million. But even if it's only $75 million, it's five times as much as Branstad did in the '80s. Five times as much!
Borg: But the issue is, is there more money to save.
Gronstal: Of course there is. And we're going to continue to look at that and some of that savings is over multiple years, and we're obviously very interested in saving and making state government more efficient. That’s why we basically saved 5 percent of the state budget last year. Terry Branstad couldn't reach one percent savings. When he did it in 1987 -- it's really pretty simple. The first thing terry Branstad asked me to do was to raise sales tax on working families. The first thing Chet Culver asked me to do was to raise the minimum wage. Who do you want on your side when you're in a tough economy? I say Culver.
Henderson: Well, the next thing I want to ask about are the campaign ads and the mailers that voters are receiving for these legislative races that you two are directing. First of all, on some of the republican advertisements, you're suggesting that people like mark smith are supportive of Obama care and align him with President Obama. Is that fair since Mark Smith didn't vote for Obama care?
Paulsen: Mark Smith sent a letter to the president and also a copy to Speaker Pelosi and, I believe, Majority Leader Reid, and that's the position he took. I think that's something that's relevant to let the electorate know.
Henderson: Conversely, democrats in some mailers are accusing republicans of intending to cut social security. Is that fair since, I don't believe, legislators are able to affect social security benefits?
Gronstal: Well, certainly from my perspective, campaigns on both sides tend to exaggerate at the end of the campaigns. I often tell people to turn off the TV in the last week of October. That’s probably --
Henderson: Not tonight.
Gronstal: Save some of your sanity. Well, not on public program like Iowa Press, but certainly -- true story; I woke up the other day after falling sleep with the TV on here in Des Moines at the hotel. I woke up to the sound of attack ads at 5:00 in the morning. Now, you know, that -- that annoyed me. And I’m sure all Iowans are annoyed --
Glover: Mr. Gronstal --
Gronstal: -- at republican ads and democratic ads at this point in the game.
Glover: Mr. Gronstal, one of the issues that you have faced in the past, although you've not dealt with, is what do you do with large confinement livestock operations. Do you tighten state regulations? Do you give local governments a hand in putting them where they're going to go? What do you do with that this year?
Gronstal: I think that's an issue that sorely divides Iowans. It’s a very tough issue to deal with in the legislature. Our efforts in the legislature have been to focus our response in a way that is attentive to family farms and doesn't leave them in a position where it's impossible for them to be -- in animal agriculture. So we try to help family farmers as opposed to the -- as opposed to the big operations. It is a tough -- it is a tough balancing act.
Glover: What my memory tells me is you haven't done anything.
Gronstal: Well, I think haven't done -- haven’t done enough, I’m willing to take that. Haven’t done anything, that's not really fair.
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, what will happen to this issue should republicans gain control of the legislature? Will you act on it? Is it an issue you hear about on the campaign trail?
Paulsen: Local control of livestock, right?
Glover: Well, local control or what do you do with large confinement livestock operations? Do you give local control, will you tighten environmental regulations? Will you do more clean water stuff? What do you do?
Henderson: It's an issue in the governor's race because of the DeCoster situation.
Borg: And it's an issue in the secretary of agriculture race too.
Henderson: I’m just wondering how that percolates, as Mike is, down to legislators.
Paulsen: Well, I think it varies from house district to house district, and each legislator is going to come back representing their district. But I think globally watershed management is something the legislature is going to continue to talk about and we'll make direction. But from my perspective, if you care about water quality in this state, you want control of livestock at the state level. You can't let one county impact the water quality of another county and think that's a good thing.
Glover: So the fundamental issue is local control, and if republicans gain control of the legislature, that won't happen?
Paulsen: As I understand your question, that's correct. We need to maintain statewide control.
Henderson: In regards to labor issues, that's been something that's motivating voters on both sides of the political spectrum. Mr. Gronstal, what should labor expect if democrats retain control of the house and the senate?
Gronstal: I’ve never couched these issues in terms of the labor. I’ve couched these issues in terms of a strong middle class. that's what I want to see in this state is organized labor comes with some recommendations that I believe helps build a strong middle class, helps raise average family incomes. I think those are proposals worth considering. So that's what I’ll do in the legislature, regardless of the house. Regardless of whether we're in the majority, I’m going to pursue issues that I think build a strong middle class in this state. And if there are issues that don't build a strong middle class, I’m going to -- I’m going to move away from those issues. But if it's about raising average family income in this state, then I think you can look to some states around us that aren't much better off than we are in terms of average family income. So I’m willing to take a look at those kinds of issues.
Henderson: Mr. Paulsen, are republicans able to make any political hay on the labor issue?
Paulsen: What do you mean political hay? I mean we're obviously talking about those things. Governor Culver again yesterday said he's going to push to repeal the Iowa’s right to work law. He’s going to push several of those different things. Why in the world with 114,000 Iowans out of work right now you would want to make it harder to be an employer in this state, I have absolutely no idea. Make no mistake, because of decisions in Des Moines, there are Iowans who are not being offered jobs, whether it's on the property tax side, some of the policies, or just the simple fact that they are anxious about the current political environment.
Glover: Senator Gronstal, an issue that's rattled around this state a lot is ethanol and what the state can do to promote the ethanol industry. What’s the next logical step for ethanol this legislature can take?
Gronstal: Well, first of all, I think we're encouraged that the federal government has now gone to 15 percent. I think the market in Iowa, when it's all said and done, is somewhat limited. The market nationwide is obviously a lot bigger. There are things we can do to get the feds to move forward -- the 2007 model year and above, vehicles are approved to 15 percent. We’re hopeful that that's going to move --
Borg: What kind of a challenge does that make for the legislator if you were in the democratic majority again? what would you do, because 15 percent is going to be hard to implement at filling stations around because you've got 10 percent now, you're going to have 15, you've got to have e85, you've got to have blender pumps.
Gronstal: I think blender pumps are really an important part of the solution to this problem. We have provided money -- there's money in the budget now -- over the last three or four years, we've been providing -- I think for the last year to help gas stations convert to blender pumps where that's feasible and where it makes sense. It’s a chicken and egg problem. you have manufacturers that say we're not going to make cars that are flexible fuel because there's no places to fill them up, and the places to fill them up say we're not going to put in a tank because there's no -- because there's no cars to use it. we're trying to get the manufacturers -- and that's a national solution, get the manufacturers to make all of their -- you know, every car sold in -- made in brazil by general motors, every car made in brazil by ford is a flexible fuel vehicle. Why can't we do that here? If we do that, then you help -- you help petroleum marketers convert to blender pumps, and we can do --
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, ethanol has not been a partisan issue in the past, but let's say republicans take control. What do you see as the next logical step for the state to take with ethanol?
Paulsen: Well, first of all, I would agree moving to the e15 is a step absolutely in the right direction. I think that we can expand it to more model years, and that's a good thing. I’m ready to put it in my car as soon as it's available. House republicans -- again, it hasn't necessarily been a partisan issue. I’ve been supportive of the industry. I think as the industry -- as the industry grows, the manufacturers of the ethanol are finding more efficient ways to do it and make it a more competitive product. All those are good things.
Glover: How big of a deal is it?
Paulsen: How big of a deal? It’s a big deal. I don't have the numbers off the top of my head, but obviously it impacts the economy a great deal. the increase in the revenue estimating conference last week or the week before, whenever it was, a lot of that was contributed to the agriculture commodities, partly driven because the world economy and shortages in other parts of the world. But regardless, the ag community, and in this case the grain sector, is extremely important to Iowa.
Henderson: Gentlemen, let's return to the mechanics of the 2010 campaign. there's been a lot of complaining about outside groups which are running advertisements in Iowa on behalf of federal candidates. some of that has trickled down to statewide candidates. you cannot control these outside groups that are chartered under federal rules. are either of you envisioning any campaign finance changes at the state level to address some of the money issues that you're seeing out on the campaign, Mr. Gronstal?
Gronstal: Maybe this is something we can agree on. I think there ought to be disclosure. I think if you're running ads that mention candidates by name, there ought to be disclosure. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are free to engage in this kind of activity. we ought to at least know if it's big oil paying for the republican ads. we ought to at least know if it's big tobacco paying for the democratic ads. we ought to disclose who the contributors are for these organizations. so that's what I’d like to see in this. I think it's pretty clear from the U.S. supreme court decision that we probably can't get at restricting them. when they're not involved in the -- we probably can't get there but we can at least find out who is financing this operation.
Henderson: Mr. Paulsen?
Paulsen: That came from a philosophical standpoint, and I think that's right. one of the things on this whole issue kind of waiting for this election to run its course, see how the ruling from the supreme court impacts things, what different challenges or questions come out of that, and then we'll have to look at that. quite frankly, I think we could look at more disclosure of our own campaigns on a more often basis, especially since almost all of us report electronically now.
Glover: Haven't we seen any effects of that decision?
Paulsen: I think we're seeing them right now. we need to see, you know, just run through Election Day. we're not going to change the laws between now and Election Day, so let's see and watch it play out, and then we'll have concrete data to make decisions off of.
Glover: Mr. Gronstal, one of the issues that the legislature is going to have to deal with in this upcoming session is redistricting. it's important this year because Iowans are going to lose a seat in congress. we're going from five to four. will you commit now that the state will maintain its nonpartisan rather unique process of drawing the district lines?
Gronstal: I think we have every intention of maintaining that commitment. we obviously have a role in deciding what decisions that they put out -- the maps that they put out, whether they meet the test of law. the legislature does have that role, but we have to approve or disapprove of the map and the governor has to sign or veto it. so we will -- I won't tell you sight unseen we're going to approve whatever plan they send us. I will tell you we respect the process. we think it's served Iowans, and we'll continue to do that.
Glover: Whether or not you approve the first plan that's given you, the process you have is a nonpartisan group draws some maps. you vote them up or down. you'll stick with that?
Glover: Mr. Paulsen, if republicans control the legislature, will you stick with that process?
Paulsen: That would be my expectation. there's no conversation about changing that.
Henderson: There was very little conversation in the legislature when two different sessions passed a constitutional amendment that's before voters at the bottom of the ballot in regards to what's called water land legacy amendment. do either of you envision that passing? there's been pushback on that from groups on that that say it's just setting the state up for a tax increase in the future. Mr. Paulsen?
Paulsen: Originally I think thought that probably would pass. now that we're kind of getting closer to election day and some of that pushback exists, I don't know the answer.
Henderson: Mr. Gronstal, do you know the answer?
Gronstal: I don't know the answer either. I think there's -- I think there's a lot of people that think it's important for the future of Iowa to preserve our heritage. I think I that -- and I think that takes something like this to push in that direction.
Glover: A finer point on this, Mr. Paulsen, how will you vote on that?
Paulsen: Well, I’ve already voted twice for it. I don't have any expectation right now of changing that.
Glover: Mr. Gronstal, how will you vote on it?
Gronstal: I called it up in the senate.
Borg: Are you somewhat surprised at seeing the issue come up now? it's been quiet until just these few weeks before the election. are you surprised that now television ads and the Iowa farm bureau is actively campaigning, Mr. Paulsen, to vote no on that?
Paulsen: I’m not surprised or I’m not unsurprised. I’m in charge of house campaigns.
Gronstal: I would say I’m disappointed. I would say we passed this through the legislature, and they did not express opposition to it. we actually worked with them this year on setting out a framework for how those dollars would be spent with Farm Bureau on that.
Gronstal: I got their cooperation and then they came out against it.
Borg: Thanks, both of you, for being with us today. A program reminder -- Tuesday of this coming week that's October 26 -- incumbent republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and democrat Roxanne Conlin will meet in a radio debate. that's at WHO and Gary Barrett will be hosting that. Iowa Public Television will have cameras in WHO's radio studios, and we'll show you the Grassley/Conlin debate at 9 next Tuesday night. And we'll be back next weekend, usual Iowa Press times -- 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I’m Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.