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Iowa Reporters on the 2011 Legislative Session's Final Days

posted on April 1, 2011

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Target in sight. Iowa legislators moving into the session's final month targeting April 29th adjournment. But there's much more work before the final gavels. Political journalists assessing the possibilities in a reporters' roundtable on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: As we're turning the calendar, beginning April, Iowa legislators are focusing on priorities. Just as it was on January 10th, the session's first day, the lawmakers are interpreting priorities differently. Certainly between republicans and democrats but for republicans even within their own party. Some are seeing social issues priorities, others concentrate on cost cutting and budget balancing. And the new maps redrawing congressional and legislative districts, released this week, add to the workload and the political tension. We're seeking perspective from statehouse journalists and political writers, the AP's Mike Glover, Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and James Lynch reporting for The Gazette published in Cedar Rapids.

Borg: On Thursday of this week, as I said, the legislative service agency produced the first maps for redistricting the state of Iowa. The new maps are the first to be made public. They may be the only ones if they are accepted. They shuffled the deck in the Iowa House, the Iowa Senate and Iowa's congressional districts in the U.S. House of Representatives. The old congressional map, redrawn from the numbers produced in the census of 2000, shows Iowa with five congressional districts. The new reality, produced by the 2010 census, reflects a loss of one congressional seat in Iowa. While the changes appear to be subtle, there is a dramatic twist in the new configuration. Sitting republican Congressman Steve King of Kiron and Tom Latham of Ames will be in the same district 4. And two incumbent democratic congressmen, Bruce Braley of Waterloo and Dave Loebsack of Mount Vernon are both in the new first district in eastern and northeastern Iowa. And that leaves an open seat in southeast Iowa, now identified as congressional district number two. And the new configurations affect the election of 2012.

Borg: There is a rather precise procedure attached to the legislature's approval process of the new congressional districts and for the new proposed districts in both Iowa House and the Iowa Senate. We'll be talking about that process in just a moment. But, Kathie, first of all, we've known for a long time Iowa is losing a congressional district and that would mean that if there are going to be four districts somebody is going to be thrown together. But isn't this a surprise that there are four thrown together?

Obradovich: Yeah, the maps are always a surprise because they are drawn in secret by nonpartisan folks and while everybody could speculate about how they might look, you know, they're always a surprise on the day. The things is though is kind of makes sense the way it came out because a lot of the population growth was in eastern Iowa where Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack are, the two democrats that were thrown together. And in western Iowa where Steve King and Tom Latham are is where the districts had to get a lot bigger. The district that they are in, the fourth district, is by far the biggest in the state when it comes to the number of counties involved. So, because that is spreading over a lot more territory the chances that it would catch more than one congressman were pretty likely. So, it's really not really out of the realm of imagination that this could happen.

Borg: Once you start thinking about it.

Glover: And it tells me that we're already seeing some of the solutions to these problems which tells me they have been thinking about it for a while. We're already seeing that Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack are in the same district. Dave Loebsack can move one county south and be in that new southeast Iowa district which is most of what he represents now. That would solve that problem. I think the Tom Latham, Steve King problem is a little bit more complex because I don't know exactly where Latham can go and so we may end up with a primary out there.

Henderson: There are two other names that we should mention sort of at the top. Christie Vilsack, Iowa's former First Lady has been saying for months now that she is interested in running for Congress. She could move into the newly created second district, which is in southeast Iowa, because she is a native of Mount Pleasant.

Borg: Which doesn't have an incumbent ...

Henderson: Which right now doesn't have an incumbent but if, as Mike suggested, Congressman Loebsack moves that would pit Loebsack against Christie Vilsack. Congressman Leonard Boswell, who currently lives in Des Moines, would inherit under this plan a district that includes a lot more of southern Iowa and that is maybe an even better fit for him than the current third district which is more urban in nature because, of course, he is a former farmer and he did represent huge scores of that district when he was in the state legislature and when he was in Congress earlier.

Borg: Since you brought up Christie Vilsack I'll ask you to speculate a little bit. Was this good news for her? Ostensibly it was until Dave Loebsack allowed only a couple of hours to go by before he said, I want to represent southeast Iowa.

Henderson: Well, it is not good news if she had hoped to move back to Mount Pleasant and run. It's not good news if she had hoped to stay in Des Moines and run. And it is maybe okay news if she had hoped to move into the other district and challenge Congressman King.

Glover: I think as time unfolds it is less and less likely that she is actually going to run because there just doesn't seem to me to be a natural fit anywhere. She moves back to Mount Pleasant, you're right, she's got Dave Loebsack, an incumbent democrat who will be able to raise a lot of money in a primary against her, Leonard Boswell same story. In northwest Iowa, should she move there, that's a tough district if you assume that Steve King stays there. That's a district that favors King fairly heavily.

Lynch: That is going to be the interesting matchup to see what King and Latham do, if they work this out among themselves or if they go head to head. That is a district that the north and western part of it are very republican so it's good for either one of them. Latham might be a better republican candidate for that district having won in Ames and Mason City, a district that included those cities. So, the primary would favor King, the general Latham may do better.

Borg: What are the options, Jim Lynch? What are the options there for King and Latham in moving and shifting themselves?

Lynch: I think moving would be a little bit harder for Steve King. He is sort of in the middle of the district. Latham could move a county to the south and challenge, go head-to-head with Leonard Boswell. I'm not sure what the up side of that is. He could move a couple of counties to the east and challenge Bruce Braley. I'm not sure what the up side of that is.

Obradovich: But in the third district there is an up side for Latham in that the biggest population center really is Dallas County, other than Polk County in that district, Dallas County which he represents now. The other thing is that district is a lot more republican than it has been for a while.

Borg: Place for us where Dallas County is.

Obradovich: Dallas County is the western suburbs of Des Moines and just the county to the west. It is the fastest growing county, one of the fastest growing in the nation.

Glover: There's going to be pressure on Latham, I think, to move into that district and challenge Boswell because that is a, as you mentioned, it is a more republican congressional district. Leonard Boswell is a moderate democrat but he's a democrat that always seems to be in trouble somehow and I think republicans would like nothing better than to knock him off and they might see throwing an incumbent republican congressman, it's a good chance to do it.

Lynch: He's always in trouble but he always manages to pull it out. This would be a bigger challenge but I'm sure he would get a lot of support from the democratic establishment to hang onto that seat.

Henderson: The other wild card in this is Tom Latham and the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, are best friends. If Tom Latham decides to move into Leonard Boswell's district he would have far more resources than any recent republican to challenge Leonard Boswell and it would be a very competitive race.

Glover: And Leonard Boswell, you're right Jim, has always found a way to win but this would, I think, be his biggest challenge to date, a sitting republican congressman, this dean of Iowa's congressional district with all the money in the world, that's a tough challenge in a district that trends kind of republican.

Lynch: It would make it easier for Boehner to get involved if it's a Boswell-Latham matchup rather than a King-Latham matchup, two republicans against each other, and he would open the spigots I'm sure for Tom Latham.

Obradovich: It would also give probably some incentive for party people to try and, as you said, chill a Christie Vilsack candidacy if they think that whoever wins that seat is going to be challenging Tom Latham.

Glover: And it could be an opportunity for republicans in that district to take a district that is trending a little bit more republican and make it a long-term republican district by putting an incumbent in there and having the advantage of incumbents.

Henderson: And Latham has an appeal to the rural parts of that district. He comes from a family that has a seed business, he has an affinity for rural Iowa and he would do well, I think, in those rural districts.

Borg: Has there been any indication -- I indicated Dave Loebsack has already said he'd like to represent southeast Iowa and he even spelled it out, I think he said I-35 east to Keokuk --

Glover: He drew the district lines.

Borg: Well, my basic question is, any other indication from the congressmen who are involved here on how they react to this new one, Jim, this new map?

Lynch: It's been pretty muted, everybody has complimented the process, the Iowa redistricting process works very, very well and Loebsack has said he wants to continue to represent southeast Iowa, Braley is obviously in, they're all in. Most interesting was Latham's comment. He praised the process but didn't answer any question about whether he'd even be on the ballot or where.

Glover: And that raises another issue. We have said that people have been thinking about this for a while so the map didn't really come as a surprise. I'm getting a sense that this map may have legs, this map pairs two democratic congressmen, it pairs two republican congressmen, that's a break-even, there is an open district and the solution to that pairing out east may be a more difficult solution than the pairing out west. But I have a funny feeling that a lot of people, what I heard most of the day when this map came out, was this is not a bad map but I don't know what the next one might look like.

Henderson: I had a fascinating discussion in the elevator at the Statehouse with a house member who was paired with someone from his own party and he said the same thing, this map looks pretty good, we don't know what we're going to get out of door number two. So, this appears to be ...

Borg: I'm going to interrupt whatever you were going to say to say we're at the point I think where they are indicating what comes next. What is the process here? Because they are saying we don't know what comes next.

Obradovich: Right, well lawmakers have to wait a couple of weeks to get, there is a redistricting commission that has to hold three public hearings around the state and that is going to be what is happening in the first week of April. The earliest they can report back to the legislature is April 14th. I believe if they get the report back they could take the bill up, they could take that resolution up that day. It may be the 15th before they can take it up. The house that likes the plan the least will probably take it up first because if they fail it the other house, the other chamber won't even bother with it, they go right to a second map and it would probably then have to be a special legislative session because they have to wait bout a month before they can consider another map.

Glover: The process, Dean, is once they vote on plan one, if they adopt plan one, game over, we move onto the rest of the session.

Obradovich: As long as the Governor signs it, yeah.

Glover: And I don't think there's any doubt he would. If they turn it down then they have to wait 35 days for the legislative service agency to prepare a second map. So, that would put it, you're right Kathie, into a special session. And then if they turn that map down then it gets really complicated because they have to wait another 35 days and they come up with a third map which can be amended. The first two maps can't be amended. So, we've gotten a third map once before and so the assumption is at some point before map three they'll agree on something.

Borg: Is it possible, Kathie, that some of the congressmen will be lobbying quietly behind the scenes about this with state legislators who are making the decision?

Obradovich: They can try but I think history has suggested that lawmakers care a lot more about their own situation than they do about the congressional districts. Lawmakers, when they got the maps this week, were really just pouring over their own districts, they may have glanced at the congressional configuration but they're really more worried about their self-interest and this map looks pretty good for most legislators. Only 27 legislators in the House were thrown together. The last time we did this the first map had 50 and really a minority of the Senate as well. So, if you just go by the number of lawmakers thrown together without really getting into how those districts look they can really probably find ways to vote for this.

Borg: Jim Lynch, I liked your lead today in the Gazette where it said, state legislators yesterday had their political futures handed to them in brown envelopes and they may either accept those futures or say return to sender.

Lynch: By the end of the day yesterday I was getting a feeling that this may, they may like this plan and they may take it. We heard Senator Gronstal talk about it may be a hard swallow for some legislators but the next map might be harder. And by the end of the day Speaker Paulsen was saying that his feeling going into it is he would prefer that the first map be taken, just from a process standpoint. And I didn't hear people coming out and saying, this is awful, this is the end of the world. In fact, some people were saying, I don't know how they could have done a better map.

Glover: And this whole idea of legislators caring about Congress -- I talked to Steve King yesterday and one of the telling moments was he said, when I was in the legislature I ran the bill that redistricted the state. I didn't care what happened to the congressmen. Now I'm a congressman and I know they don't care what happens to me.

Borg: Are there state legislative leaders however, Kay, who are in trouble because they are thrown together with other strong candidates?

Henderson: Well, of course you're referencing House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, a republican from Upmeyer, from Garner rather, who under this plan would face off against another republican from Garner, the town of Garner has two representatives in the Iowa House which is a bit odd. I'm told he intends to retire and the other person thrown into that district is Stewart Iverson. Viewers may remember he was the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, he is the former majority leader in the Iowa Senate and I'm told that he is looking seriously and would likely run for an open senate seat. So, that problem is solved.

Glover: And I think that's another indication that this map may well have legs because when you see a situation like Linda Upmeyer in a group of three republicans in the same district you don't hear, oh my gosh, we've got to shoot this down. What you do hear is, this is how we're going to solve this problem. And Pat Grassley is paired with another sitting ...

Henderson: Sweeney.

Glover: Yeah, Sweeney. And what I -- I saw them with their heads together behind the House chamber. They're not talking about how we're going to beat this map, they're talking about how are we going to deal with this and I think there will be all kinds of ways of dealing with it.

Obradovich: Those solutions sometimes bring their own problems because sometimes lawmakers think, oh yeah, well so and so said that they would probably move and then so and so talked to Mrs. so and so and Mrs. so and so doesn't want to move and sometimes these little things spill over into other legislation and complicate the end of session. That's another reason to get it over with.

Borg: And that brings the exact question that I wanted to ask you, Jim Lynch, how is this going to complicate -- now Mike has already said that if they don't accept this one we're into a special session -- but how is this complicating what already seems to be a slowly moving session? That is, we don't have any decision yet on school funding, preschool defunding and lots of other major issues.

Lynch: I think leaders, part of their embrace of this plan, is they would like to get it out of the way so they can move onto these other issues because if they wait two weeks and everybody is itching to vote against this and then they have to wait another 35 days it really is going to slow down the process. And it can spill over into relationships, especially if I'm all of a sudden paired up with the legislator sitting next to me, you know, we may not be able to work together as well.

Obradovich: I might not think your bill is such a good idea.

Lynch: Yeah, I may slip it in the desk drawer and forget about it. Those sorts of things can happen. And so I think from a leadership standpoint they would be happy to make a decision and be done with this and move on to budget bills and working out compromises on indigent defense and those sorts of things.

Glover: And I think part of the answer to your question, Dean, is that a lot of the stuff that we're hearing talked about up there is just not going to happen. At the end of the day they're going to negotiate a budget because they have to, they'll come up with some kind of indigent defense thing because they have to, they'll come up with some kind of a school funding thing because they have to, they'll cut deals on all this stuff but beyond the budget, beyond the things they have to do a lot of this stuff is just simply not going to happen because of time and divisions.

Borg: Kay, do you agree with that? And if you do, what isn't going to happen?

Henderson: A lot. Seriously, if you look at the table it looks like they'll pass a budget, they'll make decisions related to preschool because it has a budget implication, not because they want to make a policy decision. Because you have divided government with democrats in control of the Senate and republicans in control of the House I think the big king maker here, the big decision maker here is Terry Branstad. He is an old hand at this, he did it for 16 years, he re-started in January and I think he is going to make key decisions. He is already on a major budget impasse involving state legal bills to attorneys who have represented indigent clients. He has sided with democrats in the Senate on that, not with republicans in the House. I think you're going to see him assert himself over the next few weeks to try to get the ball moving, to try to get people to make decisions.

Obradovich: And I think that the Governor will get a lot of the things that he asked for, maybe not in the way he asked for them. I think that there will be some tax relief approved this session. It may not be exactly the form that the Governor wanted. There probably will be a property tax plan, maybe not exactly the way the Governor wanted it. They will revamp the Department of Economic Development, probably fairly close to the way he wanted it. So, his big planks are going to do something on it and he's not going to end the session empty-handed no matter what.

Glover: Part of that is because Mike Gronstal has been in the legislature for 30 years and has been a leader much of that time and had Terry Branstad as Governor for a lot of that time. He is very accomplished at making deals. He understands that at the end of the day when you have divided government you have to cut a deal. Branstad understands at the end of the day when you have a divided government you have to make a deal. There are two people who are willing to deal.

Borg: But, Jim, if you agree with Kathie Obradovich that there will be some sort of property tax relief is it going to be what the Governor asked for to benefit corporations?

Lynch: I think there will be some sort of commercial property tax relief. It's going to be incremental because I don't think anyone thinks the state can afford to do what the Governor would like to do, you know, cut back what was it to 60% or 65% of what is being assessed now. So, if there is a plan I think it will be in steps, it will be phased in over a number of years which means that the next legislature will come back and tinker with it, no doubt, but he's not going to get the whole loaf.

Borg: Is the improving economy, Kay, taking some fuel out of the fire that was burning very brightly in January as we began the session on cost cutting and downsizing government? Because the revenue estimating conference last week said, hey, tax revenues are improving. Is that taking some of the fuel out of that let's cut costs?

Henderson: No, because House republicans, many of them believe they were elected with one task in mind, to cut the state budget and this developing story where Terry Branstad is sort of cutting them off at the pass on many of their proposals is just making them angrier about cutting rather than, as you said, dampening the fire.

Lynch: Terry Branstad ran to make government smaller too so they're coming at it from different ways but I think they are in agreement they'd like to reduce spending. If you listen to the rhetoric at the legislature apparently only democrats are seeing an improvement in the economy and they think that is part of a solution, a way to get out of this session. Republicans, whether they see that improvement or not, they still want to cut spending.

Obradovich: It gives them some wiggle room to make those deals at the end of session but ultimately republicans, if the budget doesn't have to be cut because we're in a crisis then we want to cut it so that we can have money to give back in tax cuts. And so a lot of the discussion we're seeing over setting aside money to some special fund for tax cuts is coming from the fact that they think there might be some actual money to put in it and they can, in an election year, come back and make some real tax cuts.

Lynch: It's not a fiscal argument for them, it's a philosophical argument that we want to lower spending, we want to give money back to the taxpayers and that's the way to reduce government too.

Glover: I don't know if you looked at the polls recently but government is not terribly popular right now, people aren't completely happy with government. This is not 1960 with the new frontier and let's go solve problems with our government. This is a completely different era where voters are saying, in lots of cases that's driving the Tea Party movement, we don't want government involved in a lot of things.

Borg: Kay, are there compromises, though, that seem probable in some of the key legislation that is there? For example, let's take -- that's been a hot issue, that is preschool funding, whether or not there might be such things as vouchers for needier families but everybody else pays their own way.

Henderson: Well, you have House republicans on this side, end it. You have Senate democrats on this side, continue it. You have Terry Branstad in the middle, let's do some vouchers. On Monday of this past week Terry Branstad said, my message to superintendents out there who have to certify budgets in the middle of April is, follow my recommendations because that is the middle road. He sees that as the compromise. In terms of general state aid to schools you have House republicans at zero, you have Senate democrats at two percent increase in general state aid to schools, one percent seems the likely compromising figure.

Glover: And it's been fascinating to me throughout the session why republicans picked preschool as their first high profile, big budget fight. I mean, I understand the philosophy of it but for gosh sakes, a lot of people like the idea of being able to send their children to preschool to prepare them for school. It's been a mystery to me why they picked that particular topic.

Borg: I'm going to shift gears here really quickly, Kathie, for our final couple of minutes because I want to get to the presidential campaign, if there indeed is one.

Obradovich: There indeed is and what we're starting to see is a lot more traffic in Iowa among presidential candidates, or potential presidential candidates. This is a late start to the season, especially compared to four years ago when we were already up to our eyeballs in presidential candidates but I think the big question is, you know, where some of the people with really big national names and people who are leading the national polls, how much will they play in Iowa. We have not seen Mitt Romney here in Iowa yet this year, Mike Huckabee has been here a few times but indicates that if he runs it will be really late and we've got a group of other players who are starting to really start to develop real campaigns here.

Borg: What about the Republican Party’s organization, Kay? Are they a little concerned themselves or are candidates looking at the Republican Party in Iowa and they're concerned?

Henderson: Well, as you may know, Rand Paul has been booked to give a speech on behalf of fundraising for republicans, Haley Barbour has done it, the Donald is going to do it in June. But I think the key about those events is those are not the people that those candidates need to connect with. They need to connect with people outside the party apparatus and I don't think they're doing it yet. I think the most significant event in politics that happened in the last week was Michelle Bachman's appearance at Congressman King's event in Des Moines. It showed us that she is for real.

Borg: Well, one thing is for real right now is that we're out of time but I really thank you for the perspectives. We covered a lot of ground here. Thanks so much. A reminder that the Internet is your communication link to our Iowa Press staff and the e-mail address right now is at the bottom of your screen, it's We'd sure like to hear your comments about Iowa Press. And we'll have another edition for you next weekend, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: government Iowa Iowa legislature politics redistricting taxes