Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable

posted on November 24, 2010

Transition tensions.  Democrats preparing for yielding state government power to republicans but in a contentious atmosphere.  The question is which governing decisions should be made now and which should be conceded to those who won election victories?  Iowa political journalists are discussing transition trivialities and much more on this edition of Iowa Press.

Reporters Roundtable

Borg: New political dynamics taking shape now at the Iowa statehouse.  Actually those dynamics have been working their way through Iowa's electorate and November's general election locked them into state government.  Republicans are taking over the governor's office returning republican Terry Branstad and dismissing democrat Chet Culver.  Republicans also have a 20-seat majority in the new House of Representatives convening on January 10th.  Hiawatha's Kraig Paulsen, taking over as Speaker of the House, Garner's Linda Upmeyer will be leading the majority republicans.  In the Senate, Council Bluffs democrat Mike Gronstal remains as the majority leader but he is leading now a very slim majority, just two more democrats than republicans in the new senate.  Well, translating those statistics into the personalities and decisions affecting Iowa is the job of political journalists like Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Political Reporter James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids.  Anxious to hear all your insights.  But, Kathie, first of all, this was the way that the Des Moines Register, your newspaper, highlighted one of the happenings within the past week and that is the state union agreement to the AFSCME agreement with Governor Culver, gave it quite prominence.


Obradovich: Banner headline.


Borg: A banner headline above the fold, that's right.  Well, a banner headline is always above the fold isn't it?  And then Jim Lynch, your Cedar Rapids Gazette, that very next day had an editorial with a headline that says it all, a deal that Governor Culver shouldn't have made.  Kay, how much poison did this pour into the well of good intentions in transition?


Henderson: Well, this deal raised all sorts of questions for the cynics among us.  First of all, was this a deal that Chet Culver struck with the state employee's union last year when they agreed to take pay cuts and make accommodations in their set aside for pension and other retirement benefits?  There are way too many questions about behind-the-scenes deal making which is not terribly attractive for a governor who is exiting the stage of government.  It also raises the specter of a governor who has diverted from previous practice.  When Terry Branstad handed the governorship over to Tom Vilsack, a democrat, Terry Branstad, a republican, let Tom Vilsack negotiate the deal with the unions.  And so this doesn't look good for Chet Culver.


Glover: The only question I would raise about your question, Dean, is how deep that well of good intentions was.  I don't think it was very deep to begin with.


Lynch: A shallow pool.


Glover: But the one question to me is I don't really understand quite what was in this for Chet Culver.  He had to know he's leaving office, I strongly suspect he'll end up out of Iowa somewhere.  What is in it for him?  He knew he was going to get bashed for doing this.  It's not a great deal for the unions.  I mean, it's potentially not the worst deal they could get but it's not like they got some huge pay increase.  There's a lot of questions about it and it just leaves a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths.


Borg: Jim Lynch, you just made the off comment -- I don't know if the listeners know who said that -- but a shallow pool, you said, of good intentions.  So, that really raises the question, was this an act on Governor Culver to stick it in the eye of the man who beat him?


Lynch: Well, I don't want to judge his intentions but it certainly appears that way to some people that he took that decision away from incoming Governor Branstad who probably wouldn't have been as generous with AFSCME as Chet Culver.  Anyone who remembers the previous history of AFSCME and Branstad know they went to court, the court sided with the union in that case, but politically Branstad probably came out the winner when he tried to block a union contract.


Glover: And this is going to be an interesting period.  We've got to stop and think -- we've got another couple of months of Chet Culver being governor and I spoke with him a week or so ago and he made it clear I'm governor until January 14th when Terry Branstad is sworn in, I have all the powers of governor and I'm going to act as governor until January 14th.


Obradovich: And he did make that statement when it came to judicial nominations as well that if he is governor and the nominating commission brings names to him that he might very well go ahead and make that decision to nominate new supreme court justices which, again, Terry Branstad is not happy about.  I do think with the budget Chet Culver is, in fact, still the governor and he can exercise his rights as the governor but he did also say to Terry Branstad, I'm going to involve you in the budget process, and then he turns around and takes really $100 million right out of his hands.


Borg: And how significant then, you've just said, is pretty significant if you take $100 million out of his hands.


Obradovich: Right.  Well, it is significant in the sense of state employee salaries is one of the biggest things in the budget, it's really one of the few things where the governor could, in fact, cut a lot of money right up front.  And, of course, AFSCME knew that which is why I think they came to Chet Culver with what looked to him like a pretty good deal and one that they probably wouldn't have repeated to Terry Branstad.


Glover: They're saying all the rights things publicly, you know, we're going to give them a transition office.  Where is their transition office?  Across the street.  And they're saying all the right things about, we're trying to work for a smooth transition but there is almost no communication between those two camps and there's every ...


Obradovich: Do you know where Tom Vilsack's transition office was? 


Glover: Right around the corner.


Obradovich: But it was about, I don't know, maybe ten square feet of space in the very back of the legislative dining room where it was -- and it was hotter than blazes back there.  It wasn't a palatial office.


Glover: But Branstad's is completely across the street, it's not even in the building.


Lynch: Let's me offer a minority report here or opinion in that this may be a favor to Terry Branstad, not a favor but it may work to his advantage.  He can blame everything on Chet Culver for another year.  That $100 million contract, you know, our hands are tied and it would have been a protracted, ugly contract negotiation session.


Obradovich: Actually that's not a minority opinion at all because I do think too that it also gives Branstad cover to take more money out of state employee salaries and to find other ways to do that.


Henderson: Well, it gives Branstad cover when he lays people off because he will say the layoffs happened because of this.  And last week on this program House Speaker-elect Kraig Paulsen said as much.


Borg: Do you think that's going to happen?


Glover: Absolutely.  And I think you touched on a good point.  For about the next year Terry Branstad, because there is a pretty bad budget situation right now, everybody I think on all sides of the aisle agrees there is going to have to be some fairly serious cutting because we're looking at a fairly big budget shortfall, $600 to $800 million, projections differ.  So, Terry Branstad is going to have to do a lot of painful things over the next year, the kinds of things governors don't like to do and he's going to have a built-in excuse for every one of them, it was that darn Chet Culver, that darn Chet Culver, those democrats overspent, I've got to do all this painful stuff but it's their fault so he'll have a built-in excuse for at least a year.


Henderson: And, of course, that worked really well for Barack Obama to blame George Bush for his problems.


Obradovich: This isn't really such a bad deal for the unions, even if they have to accept some layoffs in the short-term to get this deal, because I think that they know that over time those positions tend to come back and if they can maintain their base salary and keep moving up and keep moving that base salary up they're better off in the long-term, even if they have to take some layoffs in the short-term.


Glover: One of the interesting things I saw, Kraig Paulsen said last week when he was on the show, was we can't do anything about this contract, this contract is between the governor's office, the administration and the union.  So, once a contract is signed it's a binding contract ...


Borg: All they have to do is fund it.


Glover: All they have to do is fund it but they don't have to fund it all and so that's where the layoffs will come in.  I think when they start going into budget cuts they're going to start saying, we don't have the money to pay for all of this so, okay, you folks are still around, you're going to get a little pay increase but there won't be as many of you.


Borg: Go ahead, Kay.


Henderson: And it's building an agenda for layoffs sooner rather than later because as they look to cut, as Paulsen says, hundreds of millions of dollars from the current year's budget, you do that by laying people off.


Borg: How will split control -- we've gotten into legislative agenda here -- split control of the legislature -- how is that going to affect what happens in the general assembly?


Lynch: Well, I see two sort of agenda passing in the night.  I think senate democrats are going to have a very different agenda than house republicans.  House republicans are going to try to limit late-term abortions, relax gun laws, talk about immigration legislation, possibly the death penalty.  I think senate democrats are going to be talking about green energy, combined reporting on taxation, some of their favorite issues, a much more liberal agenda.  And we're going to have a big collision somewhere out there in the rotunda and we'll see what pieces get picked up.


Glover: And one of the possibilities -- I think you're right, I think those are the agendas that each of those chambers are going to talk about -- and since last I checked both chambers of the legislature have to approve things.  The house can pass some kind of an abortion restriction bill which won't pass the senate, the senate can pass some kind of a green energy bill which won't pass the house.  I think it's a recipe for not a lot getting done.  I think they'll pass a budget and that's about it.


Obradovich: I think, though, that Mike Gronstal out here, when he was here on Iowa Press, made it sound like he understands that the new governor is going to get some significant parts of his agenda and that they're going to try to find some ways to make some of that happen including passing a budget that they can both agree on and probably taking some steps towards property tax and doing something for small business.  I think those are items that senate democrats are probably going to find ways to agree with Terry Branstad.


Glover: And I think you're right -- I think those are all budget fiscal issues, which I think they will find some way to resolve it, economic issues.  The other things, though, the social kinds of things, I think those are off the table.


Lynch: I think both Senator Gronstal and Representative Paulsen understand that they need something to take to voters in two years.  They have to have something to show.  It's not enough just to say, we had gridlock, I don't think voters want to hear that.  So, they need to strike some deals whether it's on the budget or on other issues that they can go back to voters and say, we accomplished something.


Glover: There's a significant slice of the electorate that they don't do much other than the budget, that's fine.  There's a lot of that electorate out there saying, we don't want you to do a whole lot of stuff.


Borg: Kay, were there any harbingers as to what is ahead in this general assembly in the way that the republicans, democrats chose their leaders?


Henderson: Well, it is interesting that everything old seems to be new again at the statehouse.  We have a governor-elect who has been there before, we have a leader in the senate in Mike Gronstal who has been there before and in the house you have Kraig Paulsen who was sort of the leader in waiting and democrats in the house, despite significant losses in the past election, chose as their leader someone who had been there before in Kevin McCarthy.  The only new face that we have on the scene is Linda Upmeyer who will be the floor leader making decisions about when bills are debated, what bills are debated, who gets to lead debate.  So, I do think it was an interesting, internal dynamic, which I don't think voters are really going to notice.


Glover: I think it says that politicians are still assessing what happened in November.  I think they elected the same old leaders, stop and think about it, democrats took a real good whipping in November, they got beat really bad and yet they re-elected their same leaders.  And I think that is because the new wave of leaders have not yet emerged.  I think the leaders that got elected this time are leaders in waiting, waiting for the next set to come along.


Henderson: Yeah, well, and one of the dynamics is, in the house where you have 60 members, a good share of those, what is it, one-third of them are new members.  So, they didn't even know who the other people were among them before they got there.


Obradovich: I wouldn't be surprised if maybe sooner rather than later we might see some shakeups in leadership in the house.  Kraig Paulsen has told us that he has to sort of stir up his courage to stand in front of that caucus sometimes and they're only going to get bolder I think.  So, they wanted to reward him for getting them to where they are and certainly he deserves that position for that.  But he's going to have to be able to play ball with these folks and some of them are significantly different than the caucus he had before.


Glover: I think it will be interesting to see what role he eventually plays.  There are two roles that house speakers traditionally play.  When Don Avenson was house speaker he ran the show, I mean, he was everything.  When Del Stromer, Linda Upmeyer's dad, was speaker he deliberately did not involve himself in the goings on in the house, in fact, he didn't even attend republican caucuses.  He saw his role as the presiding officer over the entire house and he let the majority leader run the agenda.  It will be interesting to see what position Paulsen takes.  I think it will be more towards that position where he kind of just presides over the house and lets others sort this out.


Lynch: I think he's going to have his hands full, though, and I think Linda Upmeyer will have her hands full as well with these 20, 22 new members coming into the caucus.  Some of them appear to be much more conservative than their predecessors and I'm sure they came with ideas, things they want to get done.  And it's one thing for Paulsen to lead a minority caucus and say, on principle we're going to vote no on everything, we're not going to vote for any new spending, we're not going to vote for any new taxes, no, we're standing on principle.  But when you're the majority it's a little different.  You're in a different place and it's going to be harder, I think, to hold that caucus together as one unified block.


Glover: And they talk about budget cuts, like everybody is in favor of cutting state spending, everybody is in favor of shrinking state government, everybody wants smaller government.  But when you actually wade into the budget, okay, you've got to say to your voters back home, your kid is going to pay more in tuition because I'm going to cut aid to the Regents universities, your kid is not going to get into college because we're going to cut aid to community colleges.


Obradovich: Unless you're going to shut down the government ultimately at the end of the session you've got to have a deal with the democratic majority in the senate and the governor.  And Terry Branstad is probably not going to want to start his first term by shutting down the government.  So, he's going to have to -- Kraig Paulsen is going to have to convince some of these purists in his caucus to actually hold their nose and vote for some of these budget bills.


Glover: Go back to the campaign in the republican gubernatorial primary, some conservatives reminded us that during Terry Branstad's tenure as governor the size of the state's budget doubled.  Terry Branstad did not govern as a conservative, cut government person.  He governed as a pragmatist.


Henderson: The one dynamic we haven't mentioned thus far, senate republicans.  They re-elected their leader in Paul McKinley but they have a whole load of new, energetic republicans there who aren't happy about that decision and who are ready to play ball, so to speak.  And the dynamics here, I think, is the senate confirms people to positions and so they're, in some instances, perhaps willing to hold Terry Branstad's feet to the republican fire and say, we don't like some of these liberal people that you are nominating for boards, positions within state government so I think that will be an interesting dynamic to see play out because you need 32 votes to be confirmed for a job for many of the jobs in state government.


Borg: Thanks for mentioning that.  I'm going to go back also to an issue I think that you've been covering and that is the Nebraska physician who may be opening a late-term abortion clinic across the Iowa border in Council Bluffs.  How is that going to play out in the Iowa legislature?  Any reaction there?


Henderson: Well, on this program last week Kraig Paulsen said legislators are internally already plotting strategy for dealing with this issue.  You have outside groups like the Iowa Family Policy Center, the Iowa Right to Life movement who are trying to think of ways to change Iowa law.  Iowa law in this regard says late-term abortions are allowed in instances to save the life and health of the mother.  I think there will be a push to take out the word health so those abortions would only be allowed in that instance and I think that will pass the house, it's not going to go anywhere in the senate.


Borg: Well, except that Gronstal's hometown is Council Bluffs -- that doesn't make any difference?


Henderson: No.


Glover: Kay's right, that will open the door for what I think is going to be a discussion of social issues and I think a lot of people at the statehouse want to have that discussion for political reasons, not because they think that some law is going to eventually pass or that they're going to change something.  But for political reasons their political base is driving them to have that debate.  The abortion debate will happen because of that, the same-sex marriage debate will happen because of that because there will be three new judges on the supreme court to replace the three who got tossed off because of their ruling on same-sex marriage.


Obradovich: One conclusion I think we can draw from the re-election of Mike Gronstal as majority leader in the senate is that his caucus supports his stand not to put up the constitutional amendment on marriage for a vote.  He would not have been re-elected if his caucus were adamant against that.  So, I think that is sort of a signal that you're not going to see a caucus that feels conflicted very much on these social issues.


Glover: And it was interesting to me in that same press conference after Mike Gronstal was re-elected, when he re-affirmed that he's not going to allow that to be debated on the floor of the house Jack Kibbie, the president of the senate, stood up and said, well, it might come out of committee, we might have a little discussion about that.  And that would give democrats, like Jack Kibbie from Emmetsburg, rural Iowa, an opportunity to say, I voted for this constitutional amendment knowing full well nothing is going to happen.


Henderson: Now, the other dynamic here, Dean, is there is going to be a presidential campaign going on next year during the legislative session and you may have a candidate like say, oh, Mike Huckabee who was in Iowa last week saying, tax cuts are fine but unless we address the abortion issue, unless we address the same-sex marriage issue you're never going to fix what ails America.  So, if you have those folks out there grabbing headlines, grabbing TV time, talking about that, that will add pressure to the legislative debate.


Borg: And Mike, how is that going to affect the appointment of three new justices?  Is that going to be completely partisan free?  How do you do that?


Glover: No, nothing is completely partisan free that happens in that building at all.  But that issue will not directly affect the appointment of the judges.  We currently have an interesting system of appointing judges where there is a 15-member commission, half appointed by the governor, half elected by the state bar association, chaired by the senior justice on the supreme court.  They interview potential applicants for the court and recommend three to the governor and the governor picks the new justice without any kind of confirmations.


Borg: What is the timing?


Glover: The timing is probably late January or early February before any of these names get to the governor and they have yet -- they have to make a number of decisions that will affect that.  Do they meet once and recommend nine potential justices that the governor picks three from?  Do they meet once and pick three potential justices and they meet again which would stretch the process out?  Those are decisions they haven't made yet and that is because the results of the election won't be certified until late November and the whole process can't begin until the election results are certified.


Borg: What effect might that have, Kathie, on Iowa's caucuses -- what happened to the Supreme Court justices, the fact that Iowa is deeply split right now on that question?


Obradovich: I think it's pretty apparent that conservatives who might want to run for president are drilling to get into Iowa.  They see from the result of that election a very energized social conservative electorate and we know from past caucuses in Iowa that that block of folks is very influential in the caucuses.  Now, does that say that any other type of candidate, any more moderate candidate can't come and compete here?  I think it depends on who runs and I think it depends on how many other people are in here splitting the vote up.


Glover: I was having an interesting conversation last week with Rich Swarm, a former Iowa republican chairman, and he said, these caucuses are really late, the campaign is really late getting started.  We would expect in most election cycles by last summer to have campaign offices in the state.


Borg: Why is it?


Glover: He is saying he's worried, he thinks the biggest threat to Iowa's first in the nation status is not some other state jumping ahead of Iowa, it's the Iowa Republican Party has become so conservative, so dominated by evangelical Christians that a lot of people feel very comfortable skipping Iowa.  Look at the last cycle -- John McCain didn't announce I'm skipping Iowa but he did.  This time if Mitt Romney runs again I'm told by his people he won't announce he's skipping Iowa but he won't compete seriously here.  It could be very well that Iowa's caucuses on the republican side to be simply a contest for who wins the support of the Iowa Christian Alliance.  In other words, if Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin run they'll be the only ones here that will compete for the Iowa Christian Alliance and Iowa will become a less significant part of the process.


Lynch: At the same time those folks can't really skip Iowa.  I mean, they do it at their own peril.  So, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more people adopt sort of a McCain strategy.


Glover: That's what I mean.


Lynch: I'm in, no I'm not competing, I'm in, he's here, he's not, he's here so he can walk away, lower the expectations, you walk away and say, well, I never really thought I'd win in Iowa, go to New Hampshire, go to South Carolina and do better there.  I think they have to do that.  I don't think they can skip it entirely because you don't get any attention if you skip Iowa.


Glover: And that's my point, I don't think anybody is going to announce I'm skipping Iowa, but I think a lot of them will do what John McCain did in the last cycle which is not really compete.


Obradovich: Plus, the judicial appointment is not the only thing that happened in Iowa.  Terry Branstad was also re-elected and he was not the choice of that block of voters by the most part, at least not in the primary.  So, it's not really the entire party, it's an influential group, and that part of it really hasn't changed.


Henderson: And there's not unanimity among that group.  There are people in the Christian Alliance who are not real happy with the folks over at the Iowa Family Policy Center and vice versa.


Glover: And I think, if we go back to Terry Branstad, I think we have to remember Terry Branstad got elected by independents and they don't participate in caucuses.


Borg: And when he was elected Chet Culver is going to be job hunting.  Kay, you did, at least a report, on Mary Culver looking for a job, not Chet Culver but Mary.


Henderson: Well, the day after the election I talked to Chet Culver and he said he was looking forward to exciting opportunities and that’s basically where he has left it.  Mary Culver said that she would probably return to her job as a lawyer.  She worked in a downtown Des Moines law firm and then she added a great word as a caveat, she said, maybe, which is the indication I think we all know that Chet Culver's job search is beyond the borders of Iowa.  They might be moving as a family.


Glover: It would not be surprising at all if Chet Culver ends up with some association or some form of the administration in Washington.  That wouldn't surprise me at all.  He's not going to go back to Hoover High School in Des Moines and teach.


Borg: And yet Secretary of State Michael Mauro was defeated in the election as a democrat but he may have a job in the republican administration.


Obradovich: Yeah, Terry Branstad said right here at this table that he might consider Michael Mauro -- at least he said it afterwards -- that he might consider Michael Mauro in his administration, Michael Mauro said he might be interested in that job, at least in talking about a job.  I thought it was a good olive branch for Branstad to offer to democrats.  Michael Mauro was well liked and I think that he may have upset some republicans that way but it was a way that he could afford to do.


Glover: And Terry Branstad has always, in both his campaigning and his governing, has always campaigned as a conservative and governed as a moderate and I don't see any signs that that's changing.  So, it's not surprising at all to me that he would reach out to a relatively conservative democrat like Michael Mauro as a signal that I'm not going to be governing as a right wing conservative governor.


Borg: And apparently he isn't afraid of offending some republicans.


Glover: He has always taken the approach that you have to take your base for granted.  At some point you have to assume that the republican base is going to be there and your focus is on independents and conservative democrats.  That is how he has carved out his success in politics in this state.


Obradovich: You just said independents elected him and so it would make sense that he would govern in a way that might help them stay in his corner.


Glover: And it's very interesting to me that Terry Branstad is not, he's 63 years old, he's not ancient, to some of us and so he's not said I'm a one-term governor.


Borg: In the little time that we have left, just a minute, hometown person of yours, Hiawatha, won the Medal of Honor, or was awarded, he didn't win it, he was awarded for his heroics in Afghanistan.  In fact, President Obama called him as humbled as he is heroic.  I was struck by the fact that in all the contentiousness of the political atmosphere this non-political event really unified Iowans behind this young man.


Lynch: It certainly did and whether you're a conservative or a liberal this is something most people can see the glory, see the worth of that and I think Sal Giunta has conducted himself in a way that makes Iowans proud, certainly that humble hero but he has really represented himself and I think the state very well.


Borg: Yes.  Well, thanks so much for your insights and thanks for the warm note at the end.  We'll be back next weekend but it will be at a special time.  It will be at 6:30 on Friday night, make note of that and that will be our primary channel that you'll be seeing us on so that we can bring you December Celebration programming and that will be very, very good.  I hope your Thanksgiving weekend is going well for you.  Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: AFSCME budgets Iowa Iowa legislature politics state employees unions