Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable

posted on January 21, 2011

Keeping promises. Iowa legislators now two weeks into the new General Assembly session quickly filing bills, taking sides, fulfilling promises made during the election campaigning. Iowa political journalists will be evaluating the new political climate on this edition of Iowa Press.

Reporters Roundtable

Borg: There is little doubt there's a new sheriff in town. Actually at the Iowa statehouse make that plural and make it newly elected governor and republican legislators. Governor Terry Branstad delivers his 2011 Budget Address this coming Thursday. There is no doubt it will be austere. The only uncertainty is where and how surgically precise those funding changes will come. Republicans controlling the Iowa House of Representatives aren't waiting for those details. They are already working on what they are calling Taxpayers First initiatives combining government spending cuts with tax reductions. But, as always, the devil is in the details. And to provide insight we're calling on Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Iowa Public Radio Statehouse Correspondent Jeneane Beck.

Borg: Kay, some perspective. It is confusing. Here we have the Condition of the State Address by Governor Culver, now former Governor Culver. AAA bond rating, surplus at the end of this fiscal year, no tax increase, we did it without a tax increase. Sounds very, very rosy. Republicans take over, they are wringing their hands as if the ship of state is sinking, they are proposing all sorts of cuts. What is going on?

Henderson: Very Dickensian, isn't it? It is the best of times and it is the worst of times, as that novel began. They are both right. The federal stimulus package, which came out of Washington, sent money to states. States like Iowa used that money, one-time money for spending on education. The feds argued that that money should be used to avoid layoffs in education, teachers and public safety, prison guards, those sorts of things. Republicans are right in that that is one-time money that was used for ongoing expenses therefore in the coming budget year, since we're not going to have that pipeline of federal money, we have to make cuts to adjust the state budget.

Borg: Kathie, is there also some fear that state government has over-committed itself, aside from the one-time money?

Obradovich: This happens every year, Dean, where generally what we call it, we call it a budget gap. It is a difference between the money that is generally expected to be spent in the next year and incoming revenues and there's almost always a gap. Now, lawmakers come in and they make adjustments in the budget and they deal with that gap. The one-time money that was spent adds to that. In addition, Governor Branstad was not anticipating this deal that former Governor Culver made with the state employee union. That adds additional increase in spending for personnel expenses that they were not expecting. So, that is going to add to the pressure of cutting the budget. The other part of it is political. Republicans want to save money so that they have money to cut taxes. If they are going to cut property taxes they need to have a pot of money to give back some money to local governments and that is driving some of this as well.

Glover: Elections have consequences, Dean, and the consequence of this election is the state is going to take a different direction. Under Governor Culver and a democratic legislature the state committed itself to big, ongoing programs. We're talking about teacher pay increases that cost a lot of money, we're talking about preschool programs that cost a lot of money and they're going to go in a different direction now. The first big battle of this legislative session was over $60 to $70 million a year that the state spends on new preschool programs. The house has voted to end that. And that is just a consequence of this past election where voters elected a lot of republicans who campaigned on the pledge of I'm going to cut back state government, make state government smaller, leaner and spend less of your money.

Borg: Jeneane, is there a dichotomy too still lingering, though, between democrats and republicans? That is, democrats say, no it's not this serious and republicans say, oh yes it is. Or does everybody agree, we've got big problems?

Beck: No, I do think there is a dichotomy. I do think democrats do understand there have to be some reductions, in part because they're not the only player at the table anymore and in part because they realize there is less federal money anymore. But they are saying, okay, let's take preschool, for example, this is about a $70 million a year proposal and they say, we're going to have $970 in a budget surplus, we can afford preschool. Republicans say you can't. And I don't know that Iowans have weighed in on that. I do believe you are right, that the election would make it seem that they are ready to get rid of it but this is a program that interestingly has a constituency base. You know, some of the programs they are talking about, these are people who maybe don't pay as much attention, maybe they don't vote but people who send their kids to preschool vote and I think it is yet to be told whether that is going to be popular getting rid of that or not.

Obradovich: Republicans generally campaigned on having a smaller state government and I think if you talk to Iowans statewide they would agree, cut state government, cut taxes. But when you get into specific programs, including preschool, that is -- you sometimes get a different story and the Des Moines Register's Iowa poll last time we asked about this was one people thought that while preschool could be cut it was a worthwhile cost for state government. So, when you get down to these details, like you said, that is where some of those fights are going to happen.

Glover: I think Jeneane is right, I think republicans campaigned on general promises, shrinking government. I think they may have made a mistake in making preschool the first high profile fight of this budget squabble going on because, you're right, people who use preschool, and there are a lot of them out there, this is a very important thing. And so I think there could have been a mistake made here in picking that particular program as the first axe to fall.

Obradovich: Well, and it's not just people, it's middle-class people who are really finding it hard to pay for preschool. We're talking about Branstad saying we don't think that taxpayers should pay for everyone who can afford preschool. Well, the people who can afford preschool may not be really just the people who are getting free and reduced lunch or other charity programs in school. You know, these are people who may have two parents with good jobs who are still really finding it hard to shell out $450 a month for preschool.

Glover: One of the parts of the debate on that on the house floor was Representative Janet Petersen, a Des Moines democrat, stood up and said that she and her husband, who both have good jobs, have kids in preschool and at the end of the month there's not a lot left over. So, these are solid middle-class people who find preschool -- preschool is not a nominal expense. It is $500 or $600 a month.

Beck: That's if you want quality and that is the argument here. Do you want to send them to a sitter in which maybe they are watching television or are you sending them to a quality program? And that is the argument.

Henderson: Well, and the argument boils down to Branstad's proposal to provide subsidies or vouchers for people who don't quality for Head Start. Remember, Head Start helps people below the poverty line, these middle-class people that you are talking about. And we may get into a debate of who is middle-class? Do republicans really want to have that debate? And also the democrats in the house began making an argument, which I think we're going to hear a lot more of, getting a voucher or subsidy from the state doesn't mean that if you live in a rural area of the state you're going to be able to find a preschool to send your child to.

Borg: I noticed this gets the ISEA in too because if you're cutting preschool or reducing it in the public schools that is cutting some teachers and I noticed the ISEA is beginning to weigh in on this too.

Glover: There's another aspect to the debate and that is the child development aspect because I think in this current environment if you have a child and that child doesn't have preschool opportunities, good quality preschool opportunities, that child is going to start off their educational system way behind everybody else because most children do have the preschool opportunity and hit kindergarten ready to run. If a child shows up at kindergarten without any background they're going to start off at a disadvantage.

Borg: And another constituency, schools themselves, because the schools for each of those preschool children is getting $3,000 a year. That is money that those schools were using. Kathie?

Obradovich: And the access issues cuts both ways because republicans will say that the state-run preschool program has driven private operators out of business and that we should be giving this opportunity to the private business and not the state. However, when you hear about waiting lists that are years long you have to wonder whether the private sector really was fulfilling the need there and whether there's going to have to be some sort of combination.

Borg: Kay, this gets me to another question. Where are democrats? Is it in preschool that they are drawing the line? Or is it elsewhere? Where will democrats draw the line in cutting state spending?

Henderson: I think right after the election you saw the chair of the Democratic Party of Iowa issue a statement that said, this is where we are drawing the line. Democrats think this is an issue which they can use to mobilize their supporters. They think it can also cut across party lines. They think there are plenty of middle-class republicans who think that preschool is a valuable investment in the state's youth.

Glover: And I think that is -- going back to the point I made earlier -- I think that is why republicans made a mistake in making this the first line in the sand because there are going to be a lot of budget cuts this session but you all know that the first one is the one we pay attention to and the first one is the one that leaves the impression with the public and I don't think this was a very wise choice to make this the first one.

Henderson: And I think the misjudgment stems from the fact that this was a part of the campaign conversation between Chet Culver and Terry Branstad and I think the calculation was Terry Branstad has a mandate, because he was elected, to cut preschool for all. I think the calculation was wrong because in the environment of the 2010 election I don't think Chet Culver had an argument to make that may have led to his re-election as governor. It was about the person, it wasn't about the policies that they were pursuing.

Glover: If you think that Terry Branstad won the election by promising not to increase childcare or preschool programs I think you made a real political miscalculation.

Obradovich: I think Terry Branstad himself has maybe softened his position a little bit or at least emphasized that he is not looking to take away preschool for everyone. He wants people who can afford it to pay for it. Now, that is different than taking away preschool for everyone which is what that first bill did. There was no voucher program in that first bill.

Borg: Let's go beyond preschool and just talk about Terry Branstad during his first two weeks in office, Jeneane. Are there any early indications of how he is approaching governing?

Beck: Well, he is visible, he is very visible. He has already resumed his ...

Borg: Is that a contrast to former Governor Culver?

Beck: I think in some ways, yeah. I think in some ways that Governor Culver was not as readily available, at least to members of the media as Terry Branstad was and is apparently going to be again. He has already resumed his weekly news conferences. He has already been in the rotunda meeting with veterans, things like that. I do think he'll be more prominent. And I think that he's got dual hats to play here. He wants to show that he's a true conservative and that he wants to have an austere budget. But yet in his first week in office his Department of Human Services director said, you know, look, some of these cuts that Chet Culver made on the way out the door, we're going to have to take those back because we don't want to close four mental health institutions across the state or reduce beds at those institutions. And so I think already you're seeing how hard it is, the devil is in the details when you go to make those cuts, that sometimes you have to restore funding where you didn't expect to have to.

Glover: I think what we predicted about Terry Branstad is coming true. I think what you're seeing is a governor who is going to govern from the middle. At the same time that his Department of Human Services director was saying, whoa these cuts to mental health programs, we can't do that, can't close mental health centers, at the same time he signed on to a lawsuit challenging the federal healthcare law. So, he'd move it a little bit to the right, a little bit to the left. I think this governor is going to govern from the center because I think he has made the political calculation that the center runs politics in this state and it does.

Henderson: And he's done several things that do not make the conservatives in his party very happy. I mean, I could give you a litany of things that will take all of the rest of the show but I think what it really shows you is Terry Branstad is comfortable using the levers of power and he'll use them for how he best thinks they should be used, he is not going to kowtow to legislators.

Beck: And I think that the gestures that he is making towards the conservative side are probably going to be things like the healthcare mandate where it may not really direct his ability to govern and put together a budget and do the things he wants to do in Iowa. He has made a gesture toward the conservatives but it doesn't really gore his own ox.

Borg: Let me ask, Mike, the newly elected conservatives, as Kathie brought up the word here, conservative members of the legislature, how are they fitting into the flow of things?

Glover: They are creating what I think is going to be a session long problem for the republican leadership in the legislature. You have two different kinds of legislators. Those who get elected saying I want to eventually be a player up here, what they do is they come in, they sit for a term or two, they learn the right levers of power, they get on the right committees, they do the right things. A lot of these newly elected republican conservatives are Tea Party types who came in with a mandate to throw bombs and they started on the first day throwing bombs and it's going to be a real challenge to the leadership, republican leadership in primarily the house to team these people, to corral them without pushing them off the reservation.

Borg: Well, and these aren't seasoned leaders there, Kay, either, Kraig Paulsen and Linda Upmeyer.

Henderson: They are new leaders but if you step back this is a mini-battle in the war in the Republican Party to define what it means to be a republican. The new conservatives who were elected, I'm thinking specifically of the three who have been trying to draft articles of impeachment against the four justices who remain on the Iowa Supreme Court, have a view of the state government that is not reconciled with other republicans. They believe that the judicial branch of government is subordinate to the legislative and executive branches. There are other republicans who refer to them as a co-equal branch of government. So, this is a battle for the philosophical viewpoint of the Republican Party and it's going on in the legislature and sort of playing out daily on a variety of issues.

Obradovich: It is a subset of the republican caucus that is not interested in the art of the possible at the statehouse. What they want to do is stay true to their principles so they're not going to -- let's say the abortion bill, for example, there is a bill being drafted that would limit abortions after 20 weeks.  Okay, that bill by itself if that is all it did may have at least a ghost of a chance of getting through the Iowa Senate. But there is going to be a group of republicans in the house who say, no, we want to ban abortions totally. We are not going to go against our principles and really give away the argument by saying it's okay to do it after 20 weeks, or before 20 weeks.

Borg: And that issue, that abortion issue is going to come up, isn't it, Jeneane? It is linked into family planning spending cuts.

Beck: I think there are two separate measures there. They are, in the bill that just passed the house there were cuts to family planning spending, which some democrats will argue, okay, well you're spending less now to help women not become pregnant but then you're going to say that you can't get an abortion after 20 weeks. So, there are going to be some democrats that argue that is contradictory but the key is here that abortion bill is not even out of subcommittee yet, I mean, it's got a long road to hoe but I think Kathie's point is, you might have democrats who would agree that after 20 weeks that is too late to have an abortion but if you go hardline and say, no let's try to make another federal run at eliminating abortion all together and have a court challenge, that's not going to go anywhere.

Glover: And you talk to these people and if you say to them, okay, you want to change the bill so that abortions are just banned in Iowa, not after 20 weeks but just totally banned in Iowa. What is going to happen is you're not going to get any bill at all. Nothing is going to change. And you know what they'll say to you? Great, great, because then we'll take that issue and we'll go out and campaign on it. So, they're not the type of people who came into the legislature saying, what kind of a compromise can we find here? What can we do to actually get something done? They were elected to the legislature, they think, to come and make a point.

Obradovich: But it's not even, I don't think in some cases it's even as politically calculated as wanting to have an issue for the next campaign. This is what they feel is right in their own religious values and their own faith and they want to hold true to that and some of these lawmakers have told me, I don't care about the next election, I'm not worried about it, if my constituents vote me out because I've stood true to my principles then that is God's will, so be it.

Borg: Kay, how is that also going to play out as they try to advance in the House of Representatives a possible constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage?

Henderson: Well, it was introduced in the house this past week. It would also not allow civil unions and domestic partnerships in the state of Iowa as it is written. It is yet to be seen if that is the final version that comes up for a vote in the House of Representatives although there are 56 republicans who co-sponsor it. There's going to be pressure to try to change that language. I don't think in the end it will be changed. I think this is the version that will be brought up for debate in the house and republicans will pass it.

Beck: And that, though, makes it harder -- not that it would have gone anywhere anyway possibly in the senate because Mike Gronstal said he would block it -- but, again, that language which is stronger than just saying that you're going to ban marriage between a same-sex couple but then to also say you're not going to allow civil unions or domestic partnership is stronger and, again, means that some of those middle-of-the-road democrats or some of those less conservative republicans might have agreed to it that won't now.

Henderson: There will also be on another track an attempt to pass another Defense of Marriage Act, a state law and say this is not subject to judicial review. Again, the idea that the legislative branch is supreme to the judicial branch. Again, both of those proposals are going nowhere in the state senate.

Borg: And I might just ask the question, some listening to us say, why burn time then? If it's going to pass the house but go nowhere in the senate and that's already been telegraphed ahead, Mike, why burn time?

Glover: It is because these people feel that they were elected to make a point, to advance a cause, to push something forward and what they'll say to you is, we're changing the debate atmosphere, we're changing the frame of the debate. If we don't get anything this year we will re-shape the debate and down the road the debate will no longer be about a woman’s right to choose, the debate will be how much will we restrict a woman's right to choose, how will we eliminate abortion?

Obradovich: Early in the session they have time to burn because they don't have Branstad's budget proposals yet. They don't have their budget targets. They can't do really serious work on anything that is going to cost money. So, these social issues like marriage, which is a bill that was practically already drafted before the session started, it is natural that they would come out of the box first. This is the time for them to do those.

Borg: And Kathie, as long as you're talking I'll ask you, this also relates to the Supreme Court and the possible implications down the road for remaining Supreme Court Justices. There are four there that some are saying should be impeached yet. The Supreme Court, Mark Cady, on this program used the word transparency but it's really a new coming out public relations program for the Supreme Court, for a branch of state government that has been fairly silent.

Obradovich: I think that they have learned, obviously, that the electorate needs to understand better what the role of the court is and that judges can't afford to lock themselves into the courthouse anymore, they have to engage with people and this transparency, for example, taking the arguments out into communities around the state for the justices, it's really just to give people an opportunity to see what the court does. I don't know if that will be enough. I mean, I really think that judges are going to have to engage with people to the extent that they can start to break the political argument from the other side, these people are arrogant, elitist and want to put a social agenda on people without being elected.

Glover: And I think, as Justice Cady said on this show, that that election where the three justices were tossed off the court was a wake up call for the court and I think they realize that there's a new day out there now, there's a new politics going on where judges are now part of the political system and I think they're struggling just a bit and I think this transparency thing is step one, okay, we can do this, we can make ourselves a little bit more open, a little bit more transparent. I don't think they think that is going to be a solution because it certainly hasn't eased the tensions or the criticisms.

Borg: Kay, in the final couple of minutes here the presidential caucus, it will be a republican caucus that will have all the implications of significance, beginning to heat up or open up a little bit in Iowa right now.

Henderson: Right, you're seeing some of the potentials traipse through the state and speak individually with key people, have their surrogates speak individually with key people and address groups like Iowans for tax relief which is a major player in Iowa politics on the republican side. You have some folks who are sitting on the sidelines trying to decide what to do and in all likelihood some of those folks may delay a decision until after the August straw poll that the Republican Party has scheduled.

Glover: I think one of the changes that we're going to have in this caucus cycle is I don't think we're -- the traditional approach to caucuses on both the republican and democratic sides is you come to Iowa a year before the caucuses, you move here, you set up a campaign with hundreds of campaign workers and you try to meet every potential caucus-goer in your political party. I don't think that's going to happen this time. I think it's a new era with a new media structure and a new framework and I think what you're going to have is a bit of a shorter campaign. If you look, the only republicans out there who are doing the kind of traditional campaign are Governor Tim Pawlenty from Minnesota and former Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania, they're doing the let's touch base and all that and I don't think either Tim Pawlenty or Rick Santorum is a favorite to actually end up getting the republican nomination. I think you've got people like Sarah Palin, you've got people like Michelle Bachman that just made a visit to the state who are high name, high energy people who can energize the political base of the Republican Party very quickly.

Obradovich: And I think that does have serious repercussions for the future of the caucuses because if it becomes a media campaign, if it becomes about money and name ID and not about meeting voters on a grassroots level I think that takes away a lot of the reason for the Iowa caucuses to hold its first in the nation status, that grassroots campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire as well are really, it's almost unique in the country the ability of Iowa voters to have that kind of access and if that goes away then a lot of the reason for having the caucuses goes away too.

Glover: I've often said that the biggest threat to Iowa's caucuses is not another state jumping ahead of Iowa. As we've seen in the last cycle, Iowa can deal with that. The biggest threat to Iowa's first in the nation status is a republican only caucus where the dynamic of the caucus campaign changes radically and it looks to me suspiciously like that is what is happening in this cycle.

Borg: Thanks for your insights. I'm sorry we're out of time. When Governor Terry Branstad delivers his budget message to the Iowa General Assembly this next Thursday, you can hear what he says and see lawmakers' reactions. Iowa Public Television's World channel will be broadcasting that address live from the Iowa Statehouse. That is at 10:00 Thursday morning. Iowa Public Television's statewide main channel will carry that rebroadcast at 8:00 Thursday night. And Iowa Press back next weekend at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: abortion chief justices Iowa Iowa legislature Iowa Supreme Court Mark Cady politics preschool same-sex marriage Tea Party