Stalemate. Whether that's the word or if it's deadlock or gridlock, at Iowa's Statehouse there is no end in sight for the current legislative session. Hiawatha republican Kraig Paulsen is Speaker of the House of Representatives and we're questioning him on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa legislators remain in session but they are not always at the statehouse these days. The session, now three weeks past the scheduled adjournment, has no end in sight. With legislators' pay ending officially three weeks ago, many are remaining at home these days on several days when the legislative leaders are at the statehouse working on compromises. Democrats control the Senate, republicans have the House majority and the Governor's office. The Iowa Democratic Party is seizing on the legislative impasse displaying an Internet calendar ticking off the days until July 1st. That is when the state's new budget takes effect but the legislators don't yet have a budget agreement so democrats are suggesting that Iowa government will be shutting down on July 1st. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen is one of the leaders working to avoid that. Speaker Paulsen, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Paulsen: Thanks for having me.
Borg: I saw this week that you're scoffing at the idea that government shuts down on July 1st.
Paulsen: Well, I think that whole conversation is a long ways away and it's not helpful. Right now we need to be doing the work Iowans sent us here to do and that is coming to an agreement.
Borg: And I might add that we're getting Kraig Paulsen's republican perspective today and we intend to have the democratic perspective at this table next week. At the table today statehouse reporters the AP's Mike Glover and Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson.
Glover: Speaker Paulsen, let's talk about what's going on up at the statehouse. Are there real negotiations taking place? I don't see movement on either side. Are these real negotiations?
Paulsen: Well, I think they're very real and I think we made some progress this week. Obviously the pace is going to need to quicken at some point. But right now we're getting some of the larger pieces and having those discussions and I think we're moving down the road.
Glover: Tell me what the differences are. It strikes me that in a roughly $6 billion budget you have a relatively small difference and is it only the budget that is the difference between the two sides?
Paulsen: Well, from my perspective I think the difference is very simple. Democrats want to spend more than republicans. I don't think that should come as a surprise to anybody. And that is largely this week we talked about the size of the pie, I think that it was important that the democrats understand that we're serious about the general fund being at $5.99 and nothing more and quite frankly when I got in the legislature my first session was 2003, we were at $4.5 billion. So, we're almost $1.5 billion above that in nine short years.
Borg: Let's talk about total state budget.
Paulsen: The general fund budget, the total, that is correct. You know, there is more than enough money there to meet Iowans' priorities.
Glover: And is it only the budget that is dividing you right now?
Paulsen: That is what the discussion is about. We obviously are also having ongoing conversations about property tax and I have been part of those. There's mental health discussions going on. So, there are other issues being discussed. But the budget is the one that consumes the bulk of our time.
Henderson: We'll get to those other issues but I want to ask you about the true pressure point here. You don't have 150 legislators sitting at the statehouse sort of stewing that nothing is happening. They are all back home in their couches watching this program. What is the true pressure point here? Isn't July 1st, the start of the new state budgeting year, the true pressure point?
Paulsen: Maybe that is the pressure point. There's no question that we could bring back all 150 members and that would generate an internal pressure, I guess. But I also think that that has the potential to maybe make for bad decisions so what we have chosen to do is make sure the people are here who need to be part of the different discussions that are going on or if there's anybody who wants to interject themselves obviously they are always welcome. But it's also important that we continue to have a dialogue. So, speaking only for my caucus, I know that both the leader and myself continually call members, this is what's going on, what do you hear, what are you thinking, where are we at so we make sure we always know where our boundaries are as well.
Henderson: Tell Iowans how you get this resolved. It appears from the outside that republicans have said X and democrats have said Y and there's no resolution.
Paulsen: Well, I think the answer to that question, first you've got to back up -- House republicans put forth a proposal that was a total expenditure of $5.89 billion for the next fiscal year, fiscal year 2012. Subsequent to that we sat down with the democrats and went through every single budget and we went through every single line item, it took three days, maybe a little bit short of three days but it was basically three full days sitting there going through these line by line by line. Once we did that we sat back down again and said, okay, Iowans chose to leave democrats in control of the Iowa Senate, we need to be respectful of that, if these are some of the priorities that they have identified is there a way to accommodate and still make sure that we don't spend more than the state takes in and so on and so forth. And so we moved, republicans moved $101 million up to meet those needs and Governor Branstad agreed with that number and so we think we put an amount of money on the table that is very reasonable and from which to work to, like I say, meet those priorities and accommodate their concerns.
Borg: I'd like to go back to that question that Kay mentioned on July 1st being a pressure point, the start of the new budget year. Is that really a pressure point because can't you as plan B or an option just continue this year's budget until you can reach agreement on a new one?
Paulsen: Well, we're the legislature, we have the ability to move forward with a full budget, partial budget, one month budget, one year, all those. Yes is the answer to your question, that's the short answer. I mean, we have all those options. But I don't think that's the right solution. I don't think that's the best solution. The best solution is to continue to sit and work through this and figure it out.
Glover: So, July 1st is really not a pressure point? There are ways around it in your view?
Paulsen: We're the legislature, yes, there are ways -- yes, there are ways around it but I think the right answer is to resolve this.
Glover: Let's go back to the two sides have been making all wrong as their core arguments. Republicans argue that they got elected to shrink state government and they're going to carry out that mandate. Democrats argue that there has never been zero percent allowable growth since you've had a school aid formula, and they're right. So, both sides are right. What is the road out?
Paulsen: Well, first of all, on zero percent allowable growth, to think that, that requires an investment of $216 million to backfill the property taxes that were underfunded the previous year and also to pay back the amount of one-time money. Republicans are extremely frustrated that Iowans are going to make a $216 million investment in the K-12 education and you only get zero percent allowable growth for that. That having been said, that is one of the areas where we went through, that is republicans went through and made sure that we held harmless and tried to keep them at the same number. And I understand the arguments about, that's a per pupil funding meaning that a school district gets so much money for however many students they have sitting in the seats so some districts it is actually an increase, some it is a decrease, some it will be the same or effectively the same.
Glover: Is there a possibility that republicans can move off of zero percent or is that a line in the sand?
Paulsen: The line in the sand is the size of the pie, the $5.99.
Glover: So, you could move up school aid as long as you stayed within the budget?
Paulsen: We're going to have to go back through the budget and find out where we're going to get that from. But I also think that school districts have certified their budget, I think the average pay raise across the state for teachers right now is running at about three percent or slightly more and the truth of the matter is if you've got 20 people sitting in a classroom you suggest in the foundation formula you're still looking at that classroom representing $120,000 that doesn't include federal money, doesn't include the per-pupil levy, instruction and support levy, bond support and all those different pieces. And so we also need to continue to ask the question and try to get an answer which I have yet to get is where's all that money going because I know the teachers aren't getting paid $120,000 a year.
Henderson: Let's talk more specifically about education and how it affects schools. Governor Branstad, during his campaign, said he wanted to return reliability and predictability to school funding. That level of state aid was supposed to be set months ago and schools have now sent out pink slips to teachers, there are many schools which have not actually extended contracts to teachers because they don't know how much money they will be in their budget when the school year starts in the fall. Haven't you actually created more chaos in schools because of this impasse over state spending?
Paulsen: Well, actually by state law that number was supposed to be set in the previous general assembly and the democrats put it off until this year. No action is zero percent and I know when I have talked to my superintendents back home while they would obviously prefer more the most important thing that they have continued to tell me is whatever that number is you have to fund it, we can't get halfway through a budget year and have another across-the-board cut because that was just devastating to them. And so that is what we have committed to is we'll hold you harmless and we're going to make sure we backfill those hundreds of millions of dollars that were underfunded the previous years.
Henderson: You said you have committed, House republicans have committed but the Iowa General Assembly and Governor Branstad haven't settled on a law that puts that into effect.
Paulsen: Well, I can tell you whatever the allowable growth number is, House republicans are going to insist that we fund it.
Borg: A fallback for local governments including schools has been property tax and if they don't get enough from the state they can levy additional property tax. But you have raised the specter in this session of some big changes in property tax and the way it is levied. But isn't that, with the current impasse and your attention now just to getting a new state budget on the books before July 1st, isn't property tax reform this session for all practical purposes dead?
Paulsen: Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not. We're having very serious conversations about that. You've got three competing proposals out there, the Senate democrat plan, the House republican plan and the Governor's plan. The thing that is interesting as I went through those, and they are different and they're competing, that's true, but the other thing that is interesting to me as a legislator is they're not necessarily mutually exclusive of one another meaning that I think there's a way to put a package together that meets the priorities and addresses the impact that each individual party is going to, wants to do. And what I mean by that is, clearly the Governor has staked out commercial property tax relief as being a priority to economic growth in this state. The Senate democrats have put forth a plan that is consistent with that, different way to approach it but it is consistent with that. House republicans have said that we want all classifications of property to have property tax relief but we're okay with an emphasis on commercial right now and they are the second highest commercial property taxes in the nation is what we have in Iowa which is totally unacceptable. So, I think there is a way to fold that together and I'm still, I would be disappointed if that doesn't happen.
Glover: You mentioned a few minutes ago you have spoken to your local school superintendents. Speak to the school superintendents across this state. What is your advice to local school officials given that the legislature has not resolved this major budget issue and it doesn't look like it's going to resolve any time soon? What should they be doing?
Paulsen: Well, I think right now that they need to plan on zero percent and the other piece that goes hand-in-hand with that is providing opportunities then for them to be more flexible in their decision making and the House has passed several different bills that would do that. The one I'll mention here and I think is the biggest one is giving them home rule authority where they don't have to ask for permission every time they want to do something just a little bit different. That would permit them the flexibility to use those dollars in a more efficient fashion as well and that's one of the things I have told my personal superintendents. Yeah, you're probably going to get less money with republicans in control but we're also not going to tell you how to spend it.
Henderson: You mentioned at the beginning of the program that you're working on mental health, perhaps we should tell viewers, not our collective mental health but an actual redesign of the system for delivering mental health services much of which has now been by county property taxpayers and this is part of that property tax reform package. Do you intend to fill that in with the commercial property tax or do separate legislation.
Paulsen: I think that would probably be difficult to fold those together in the time span that we have so I would anticipate they would be separate legislation. Of course, the House has already passed a mental health reform proposal and that is something in the tradition of the House that House republicans and House democrats worked well together on that and came out with a package that both parties could support. I think it passed off the floor, I might not have it exactly right, with somewhere between 85 and 90 votes, something along those lines and that is traditionally the way the Iowa House has addressed healthcare and healthcare related issues.
Glover: Let's step back for just a second. There is a big fight at the statehouse over state spending and other issues that you mentioned on this program. Isn't in fact this a battle about who is in charge? We've got a new republican governor who just said there's a new sheriff in town and people need to understand that. Republicans have taken control of the House by a pretty wide margin. Isn’t this not just about this year but it's about who is running the show at the statehouse?
Paulsen: I think at some level it can be and there's no question that House republicans believe Iowans should be in control. And what they told us last fall and what they have told us up until now is we want a state government that is more efficient, costs less and leaves more taxpayer dollars in our pocket. And so that is what we're fighting for.
Glover: So, it's not just this year, it's for the next couple of years?
Paulsen: Well, I intend to fight for taxpayers and for Iowans every single day.
Henderson: The new sheriff, Governor Branstad, has also insisted on a two-year budget plan. Is that the intention of your negotiations, to achieve that? Or do you, as has been expressed privately by republicans, consider that I guess a power grab by the Governor?
Paulsen: I think all parties in this have effectively conceded that we're going to do a two-year budget. What exactly that looks like whether it's the Senate proposal of a 50% in the second year and excluding some areas, whether or not it's that or whether or not it's the Governor's or whether it's what the House has put forward remains to be seen. There is a concern, no question, that that maybe transfers some legislative power to the executive branch and so one of the things that House republicans are adamant about is that there's a provision in there that limits the Governor's transfer authority so that when we appropriate that money, which is the legislature's job, when we appropriate that money ultimately it gets spent on what we intended for it to get spent on.
Henderson: Another unresolved high-profile issue is the Iowa legislature's response to a Nebraska doctor who said he intended to open a late-term abortion clinic in Council Bluffs. The Iowa House has taken one approach led by republicans, the Iowa Senate has taken a different approach led by democrats. How will this get resolved?
Paulsen: Well, obviously my preference would have been that they would have called up the House file and if they have any objection to it amended in a fashion that makes that amenable to them.
Henderson: Which, to make clear, is a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, that's what cleared the House.
Paulsen: Correct. That is correct. And what the Senate sent over to us was basically putting in place a process whereby a doctor can go and get a certificate and get authorized to perform these procedures, these late-term abortions. I don't think House republicans are particularly interested in formalizing the procedure. What we're interested in doing is getting rid of abortions after 20 weeks, we'd be interested in getting rid of more than that. But to address Dr. Carhart that's what we're interested in. So, we have to have a discussion as a caucus what exactly we're going to do with that Senate file.
Glover: Well, you've got to look at the practical impact of something. If you come to gridlock, if you pass nothing on abortion this legislative session the law will be as it is and we'll have a late-term abortion clinic in Council Bluffs.
Paulsen: That's correct. The House has already addressed it once and, like I said, we're going to have a caucus discussion.
Glover: Don't you have to actually settle on something to prevent this?
Paulsen: Well, obviously in order to become the law both the House and the Senate have to pass it.
Borg: I think Mike is saying are you going to get that done given all of the other things that are on your plate?
Paulsen: Time will tell on that. I don't know an answer to that.
Henderson: Let's talk about some of the other issues which are pending, which may get pushed off the agenda because of your focus on budget and property tax issues. There is a bill that is pending in the Senate that deals with nuclear energy and the prospect of a new nuclear power plant in Iowa. Is that still on your to-do list or is that falling off? Are there other key legislative issues that are falling off the agenda?
Paulsen: Well, obviously the House has sent quite a few bills over to the Senate that I think regrettably they're not picking up whether it's strengthening Iowa's right-to-work law, Healthcare Freedom Act, some income tax relief and this would be another one that we have sent over there. My understanding is, however, that the Senate is continuing to look at the bill, see if it needs a modification or not and my hope is they'll continue to address it. Nuclear power is great base load power, that's one of the things we're going to need.
Henderson: You just mentioned the income tax bill, you guys passed a 20% cut in individual income taxes. Do you expect the Senate to pass that?
Paulsen: I don't.
Glover: I'd like to talk to you for just a second if I could about this gridlock. You've talked about the number of bills the House has sent over to the Senate, the Senate is not taking up, the Senate will tell us that they have sent over a number of bills the House has not been taking up and that not a lot has gotten done. How is gridlock selling you back home?
Paulsen: I don't know that Iowans are particularly concerned. I think sometimes obviously many think less is more. I think the things we have passed have been worked on by both chambers, between the chambers, with the Governor's office and it's been good work. I don't think you judge the success of the session by the number of bills that have been passed. Some may but that's not the way I would judge it.
Glover: So, you don't think the public is getting turned off by this gridlock at the statehouse?
Paulsen: I think the public right now is busy finishing up their planning, going to high school graduations and carrying on with their life. Now, I think we get to June 20th and maybe the public will have a different perspective but I think on May 19, 20 whatever day it is today, they're pretty busy and they expect us to get our work done.
Borg: But you heard me say earlier that legislators aren't getting paid and haven't for the last three weeks will they be saying, good, if you don't get anything done?
Paulsen: No. I have not gotten a single e-mail yet concerned about whether or not I'm getting paid.
Borg: Well, are legislators volunteering their time? Let's just clear that up. Are they volunteering their time when they come back? We've suggested that only leadership is there trying to work out compromises. Those are that are back home and when they do come back into session, volunteering?
Paulsen: We get paid a salary through the year whether we finish our work in 80 days, 90 days or what are we at, 130 some days. So, are we volunteering? I guess to the extent that we didn't get it done earlier maybe we are but the truth of the matter is we're getting paid our salary because that's what we get paid for the year. What we don't get is any per diem or some of those extra dollars, all of that is run out now.
Glover: But you do get expenses like mileage back and forth from your home to the statehouse?
Paulsen: Actually I don't know the answer to that. I thought we did not and someone mentioned that to me the other day and I haven't taken the time to figure it out. So, I honestly don't know the answer to that.
Henderson: One of the ways that legislators deal with prickly issues is to deal with them in an off election year. 2011 is a year in which no legislator has their name on the ballot. If you guys can't come to agreements on prickly issues in 2011, what is 2012 going to look like in terms of the accomplishments of the Iowa General Assembly?
Paulsen: I get asked that question a lot. Actually in the House I don't think elections impact us as much. It's naive to say that it would impact us at all, especially with the number of freshmen we have who will go through their first re-election. But the House, we're up every other year, that's the beauty of being up every other year. I get that it's annoying sometimes for Iowans, all these elections coming along and it's work for us but one of the things is a campaign is just something that happens. So, I don't think it impacts the House quite as much. The Senate I think it does because of the longer terms.
Henderson: How is the impact of the reapportionment plan which legislators have already approved impacting relationships among republicans and democrats who may be seeking the same turf to represent the same new turf?
Paulsen: You know, it's just the business we're in. I mean, we campaign and I think probably there's some, well, I know there's some people who would have been preferred not to be thrown in with a caucus colleague or whatever but that is the business we're in, that's just the way the ball bounces, especially when you have 60 members, you're going to have some people that are put together.
Glover: When we get back to politics one of the things that is happening in Iowa right now is there's a caucus campaign going on amongst republicans. What role do you intend to play in that campaign? Do you intend to endorse a candidate before the Iowa caucuses?
Paulsen: Well, I have said that we'll worry about that after the session is over. So, actually I would anticipate that I very likely will endorse at some point in time but I'm not going to worry about that until we're done with the year's work.
Glover: And give us your take on that republican presidential campaign. It's now conventional wisdom it got off to a slow start, we've had some prominent names say they're not going to run. Give us your assessment of the health of the republican presidential campaign.
Paulsen: I think it is very good. No question, I agree, it was a slower start than what we have seen in years past, probably faster than some other years though too. But clearly slower than the last handful of election cycles. I think it's a good field. I think the field is not completely set yet. I would not be surprised to see some more folks jump in.
Glover: Who do you think might jump in?
Paulsen: The current name here, of course, Mitch Daniels, would be the biggest name probably but I wouldn't be surprised to see one or two others.
Borg: What was your reaction to the piece written by a person from New Hampshire, published in the Des Moines Register a couple of weeks ago, about the Iowa caucuses losing the luster and the appeal of rank and file republican candidates, particularly those who might be more moderate and the fact that Iowa has marginalized itself by its republican party moving into conservative social issues?
Paulsen: I skimmed the article, I really didn't study it. I know the article you're referring to. Actually I'd invite him to come here and be part of the process, be part of the straw poll, see some of the dialogue.
Glover: Is there anything to his argument?
Paulsen: Well, I guess somebody thinks so or they wouldn't have printed it.
Henderson: One of the things that has happened in the past week is that Donald Trump has made clear he's really not running for president. What does Trump's candidacy say about the Republican Party in that there were many people who were interested in having someone who has never held public office seek office? And does that percolate down to legislative races?
Paulsen: I think, I don't see it percolating down to legislative races right now. I think what it says is Donald Trump decided that wasn't what he wanted to do. I don't think it's any more than that. As to legislative candidates what I am seeing right now it's been a little bit delayed because of the session and probably on the flip side it accelerated because of the new maps coming out and the attention to that.
Borg: Trump's out and we're out.
Paulsen: We're out, oh.
Borg: We'll be back next week, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg and thanks for joining us today.