Checks and balances. Iowa Senate democrats claiming populist motives, insisting on mitigating republican sponsored spending cuts. But those republican-democratic differences are producing legislative gridlock. We're questioning Senate democratic majority leader Mike Gronstal on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: We're continuing our focus on Iowa legislators' impasse, republicans and democratic differences that are prolonging the current legislative session. It's now a month past the scheduled adjournment. Last week at this time House Speaker Kraig Paulsen was here telling us that he's seeing some progress in compromising major partisan differences. This week we're seeking democratic perspective from the man leading the slim 2-seat majority democrats are holding in Iowa's state Senate. That's Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs who leads the democrats in the Senate. He's balancing between being praised as a populous defender or criticized as a partisan obstructionist. Welcome back to Iowa Press.
Gronstal: Thank you.
Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, two statehouse reporters, the AP's Mike Glover and Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson.
Glover: Senator Gronstal, there was kind of an explosion this week. Republicans say that democrats walked away from the bargaining table with the budget bargaining blown up. What happened?
Gronstal: Well, that is simply untrue. We did not walk away from the bargaining table. We had planned on having a meeting on today. That fell through for a set of reasons that people couldn't be here on this day to continue negotiations. We offered up three days next week, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday. So, we continue to be available for discussions. What happened yesterday was our caucus came back and we had discussions and I've had these frank, honest discussions with the republicans in our various meetings. I have said, whatever we are going to propose I'm going to have to run through our caucus before we propose it to you. And we had talked about some ideas and our members have come back -- our members have been out there visiting schools, visiting community colleges, talking with people about the impact of these budget cuts and republicans have kind of established this principle of $5.999, not to spend over that and we have been going out talking to Iowans about what they think are important and what our members came back after being away for a couple of weeks with was a lot of folks telling them, keep up the fight, education is important, a two-year starvation budget for local schools is unacceptable. They've got a zero percent allowable growth for schools for the next two years. Now, take every other element of education whether it's early childhood education or preschool programs or community colleges or private colleges or Regents institutions, every other part of education in the state of Iowa is being cut in the republican budget and all of this at a time when the treasurer just identified we have another $100 million in the bank.
Glover: So, state aid to local schools, that is the difference between the two sides?
Gronstal: It is not just local schools, it's all the way up the ladder. I talked with my community college president this week and he indicated that if the republican cuts go through they will be looking at a 25% increase in tuition. They have got tuition about $119 a credit hour and that could go up as much as $30 an hour. So, this isn't just local schools, it runs the gamut from parent education in birth to three programs all the way through college classes. They are cutting everything in education. K-12 they are freezing at zero.
Henderson: House Speaker Paulsen on this program last week said they are fine in terms of approving additional state aid for education if you make corresponding cuts in other areas of the budget. Is that part of what is going on? Are you folks talking about reducing other areas of the budget so that the democratic ideal of advancing additional state aid to schools can be achieved?
Gronstal: We're kind of caught in this -- we're kind of caught in this three-way bargaining. We're bargaining with the House, we're bargaining with the Governor. The executive branch finds a number of things the republicans did in their budget unacceptable. So, there are tens of millions of dollars they want to add back in and they want our help to add back in. We're trying to get a little assistance for K-12 education and we're talking to parents out there, parents that the demographic -- there's just a census bureau study this week about the population demographic we're losing, the 25-44 year old, the young workers in this state. That population group declined 60,000 people. While the rest of our population was growing modestly, we're losing that group. What message are we sending to those folks by saying, we're going to close down your preschools and when it's time for your kids to get an education they're not going to be able to afford it in Iowa schools? That is why we think republicans are making a mistake on education.
Henderson: Republicans in the House and Governor Branstad said this week it appears to them they're not going to close down preschool because it's too late to implement the changes that Branstad sought.
Gronstal: But that is still part of the budget negotiation for the republicans in the Iowa House. They cut something that cut about $40 million out of preschool. If we restore that they're saying we have to cut $40 million out of other things in state government and education is 60% of the state budget.
Borg: You're saying, Senator Gronstal, that part of the problem is not just agreeing on numbers for the budget, it's that the Governor, republican Governor and the republican dominated House can't get together themselves?
Gronstal: They get together until it's time for them to get apart. So, the Governor has serious disagreements, I'd say, in the neighborhood of $75 million with the republican's budget. None of that, by the way, in education. He's got other areas he thinks we need to add $75 million back. How do I do that without further cuts to education?
Henderson: Speaking of the Governor, he's due to go on a trade mission in June. Will you get this resolved before he leaves?
Gronstal: I don't control his schedule and I don't control this schedule.
Henderson: So, what is the pressure point in making this decision? July 1st, the start of the new state budgeting year? At what point do you folks have to say, we've got to make a decision now because this is the zero hour?
Gronstal: Let's be clear about one thing, if people would sit down and talk together and listen to Iowans I think they have folks talking to them about their concerns about this budget, local parents at schools, school districts, community colleges, people in higher education, they have got folks talking to them. If they'd listen we could sit down and we could work this out this afternoon.
Glover: Walk me through this impasse. How do you end it?
Gronstal: They have put in place a set of requirements where basically they want to tell us we need to short change education in the state of Iowa and that is where our caucus won't go.
Glover: I understand your arguments. What I'm asking for is the road map out of this impasse. You have split state government.
Gronstal: I'm going to continue to reach out. I've offered four or five different alternatives to them that would respect their stated principles, that would respect those stated principles and still adequately fund education in the state of Iowa and that is our biggest battle.
Borg: We're coming up to the start of June. When we come to the 1st of July there has to be a state budget. What are the options? Are you thinking there isn't going to be a new state budget starting July 1st?
Gronstal: I'm continuing to try and reach resolution, that's what I'm going to continue to do throughout this process.
Borg: What are the options if there isn't ...
Gronstal: I'm not going to spend a lot of time figuring out whether we can pass continuing resolutions. It behooves all of us to listen to Iowans -- at a time when the state treasurer has just identified a new $100 million you would think somebody would say, maybe we can afford to do $65 million. We're going to have $1 billion in the bank. We're asking for $65 million for K-12 education. I don't think that's unreasonable.
Glover: Let's go to the core argument. You want a two percent increase in basic state aid to local schools, they want a zero percent increase. Why can't you compromise one percent?
Gronstal: We have certainly talked about compromises. We're willing to do this. If people in good faith will sit down and we take the differences where we are on a host of things, higher education, community colleges, early childhood education and K-12, if people want to come to the table and kind of split the difference we can probably find a way out of this pretty quickly.
Glover: Are you saying they're not willing to split the difference?
Gronstal: Not by any indications I've seen.
Henderson: Let's talk about the two-year budget that Terry Branstad has been pushing for. The Governor has said that is non-negotiable. Are democrats in the legislature willing to advance a two-year budget plan?
Gronstal: Here's what I've tried to avoid. Everybody, you know, the House says $5.999 is non-negotiable, the Governor says two-year budget is non-negotiable. I've never once said any of these pieces are non-negotiable. I don't want to play that game. I think Iowans elected us to come in, listen to the concerns of Iowans and go out and listen to them. People in schools are, the parents in schools are saying, I don't know if my kids are going to have a preschool program this fall. So, I think if people listen and sit down and look for common ground, I think you can find it.
Borg: Last week on this program I suggested to House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a republican, that property tax reform, and you have not even talked about property tax reform here and so I suggest again to you, but when I suggested it to him that property tax reform is dead for this session, oh no, he said, we still have a great possibility for property tax reform. Do you feel the same way?
Gronstal: I think there's still a very serious opportunity to do something very significant on commercial property taxes, I do. I think if it's a plan that costs so much that we're looking at zero percent allowable growth for the next decade we're obviously not going to go along with that. We put together a plan that is about Main Street Iowa and small businesses. That is what it's focused on. The other plans we have seen are focused on Wall Street, not Main Street. And so if they'll recognize that the real place you build jobs in our state is on Main Street, not by convincing Wall Street to come by but, in fact, by growing our businesses locally, if they'll understand that we can get this property tax bill that the Senate passed, $200 million plan, maybe people would like it to be $300 million but why couldn't you grab a $200 million commercial property tax plan that targets small businesses and Main Street Iowa?
Glover: You mentioned the schools back home. Put yourself in the shoes of a school administrator. School funding has not been settled, it's June, you've got to approve budgets for next year. What is your advice to a school administrator back home assuming they're going to get zero percent allowable growth?
Gronstal: I think they have to -- I think responsibly they have to prepare a budget based on zero percent allowable growth. I think they should continue to advocate for what their schools need, for not having bigger class sizes, for not throwing preschool -- I think they've got to continue to advocate what they think is -- it's interesting this whole argument about early childhood education. It wasn't our idea, it was the Iowa Business Council that came to us and said, if you want a world class education system you're going to put in place the four-year-old preschool program. They're the folks that came to us and said we needed that. Most of the research says got to help parents become children's first and best teachers. The republicans actually cut programs that Governor Branstad created back in the '90s for early childhood education.
Borg: But that's not so ... early childhood education, preschool, is not going away, it's just going to be funded differently.
Gronstal: No, actually, Dean, you're wrong. In a whole bunch of communities in the state of Iowa it will no longer exist. Without the entity of the local school operating, it's great, I'll give you a voucher and tell you you've got to drive 75 miles to cash in your voucher for preschool, that simply doesn't work.
Henderson: But the voucher program is not going anywhere. The Governor conceded that that's not going to happen. What republicans now are advancing this past week is the idea of reducing the per pupil payment to schools for preschool, universal preschool from $3600 a student to something like $2500 a student. Is that something ...
Gronstal: Actually there's nothing like that in their budget and they have never advanced that in any of our negotiating sessions. Their budget, the House republican budget, cuts a $70 million program by $40 million, that is what the republicans have on the table.
Henderson: Let's also talk about something that the Senate did this week. It was a mental health reform bill that cleared the Senate. An extensive amendment was added to that bill which caused a lot of consternation among particularly the House people who had negotiated behind the scenes to draft that proposal. They said that heretofore it had been a bipartisan consensus moving forward and that Senator Jack Hatch, a democrat from Des Moines, had gone back on the deal and tried to advance ideas that were his own.
Gronstal: They added 35 pages to the bill. Senator Hatch made some technical changes, almost all of them technical, one of them was to put somebody from the State Association of Counties as a non-voting ex officio member on one of these working groups that is going to work through this over the next year and with all due respect the Iowa Senate passed it with 36 votes in a broadly, deeply bipartisan way. To suggest what happened in the Senate wasn't bipartisan -- this is part of the normal process. The House and Senate work through things and this is pretty easy, in my view, to work through. But really, the substance of those changes is fairly minor.
Glover: Throughout all this one of the things that we watch is that elections have consequences. Iowa elected a new Governor in November and Terry Branstad says there's a new sheriff in town and because they elected a new Governor things are going to change at the statehouse. What is wrong with that argument?
Gronstal: Well, first of all, I don't think braggadocio is a good approach to finding common ground between different people. If he wants to be the new sheriff, good for him, but I don't think that's particularly helpful in this scenario. Iowans also, in that election, elected democrats, kept us in the majority in the Iowa Senate. Who knows what the future holds but like it or not, whether we like it or not Terry Branstad is Governor. I got over that on election night. Whether he likes it or not democrats are in control of the Senate. It doesn't appear he's gotten over that yet. So, that is the reality. Iowans gave us a divided government, which they often do in this state, most of my career has been in divided government. So, the reality is it's people of good faith should sit down, talk together. The Governor, by the way, has significantly moved his numbers from his original budget.
Glover: As you mentioned, it's not unusual for Iowa government to be divided. It's been divided a lot. In the past, you've been able to work through some of these things. What is different this year?
Gronstal: I'm not sure what all is different. Like I say, I have studiously avoided drawing those lines in the sand, saying it's our way or the highway on anything. Those words have not come out of my mouth, I've been on this show several times, I don't think you've ever heard me say, this is something we will not compromise in any way whatsoever. I have even taken some criticism from our own members for not drawing lines in the sand. But I recognize our job is to find common ground. How do you make the argument, after you have just found out there's $100 million more than expected in our state treasury, how can you continue to say local schools, for the first time in the history of the school aid formula setting allowable growth at zero?
Henderson: Let's move on and talk about where there may be common ground on an issue that is important to people in Council Bluffs, a late-term abortion doctor plans to open a clinic there, the House has passed a bill that would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, the Senate has taken a different tactic. Is there common ground on that issue or will the legislature adjourn for the year without having taken any action?
Gronstal: I believe the surest way to keep Carhart out of Iowa is for the House to pass the bill the Senate passed.
Borg: Dr. Carhart, that is who you're talking about, the physician.
Gronstal: I believe that is the surest way to keep him out of Iowa through that certificate of need process without taking away a woman's control over her own destiny.
Glover: But the House is not going to do that. So, at the end of the day if the House carries through with what the leaders are telling us and doesn't do that, that means nothing happens and Leroy Carhart opens up in Council Bluffs.
Gronstal: I don't know that it means that. I don't know that Carhart is going to come to Council Bluffs. We've got a bill that I believe is the surest, quickest way, after much discussion with a lot of people in the Senate and in the Attorney General's office and a host of folks, after much discussion we've got a bill that we believe much more effectively than the House bill will keep Carhart out of Iowa. The House ought to pass it.
Henderson: But you've been around in the legislature for a while, you have to pass something. How do you resolve this?
Gronstal: If the House wants to keep Carhart out of Iowa they should pass the bill.
Henderson: The state of Indiana has a similar law now in that they ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy but that law also bans any state money from going to Planned Parenthood of Indiana. In talking with the Planned Parenthood officials in Indiana who are challenging that court, they're not challenging the 20 week ban, the 20th week of pregnancy ban, they're only challenging the part of the bill that deals with funding for Planned Parenthood. And when I asked them why, they said, because there are no abortions in Indiana happening after the 20th week of pregnancy. Is that the case in Iowa?
Gronstal: The statistics, the most recent statistics we have for 2009 is that there were six in the state of Iowa and that all six of those were women that desperately wanted to be pregnant but something had gone tragically wrong with the pregnancy.
Henderson: But wouldn't that bill's provision that allows abortions in cases when the life of the mother is at risk cover those particular cases?
Gronstal: No, not the way the House passed the bill.
Borg: Senator Gronstal ...
Gronstal: No, it would not. It said the women had to be in imminent danger of death, basically it says that unless the woman is hemorrhaging and about to die you can't do the abortion even if there's no way the baby can survive outside the womb.
Borg: Senator Gronstal, in listening to you today, Kraig Paulsen last week, the word comes up gridlock. As viewers look at the two of you on this program in two consecutive weeks they must be wondering what isn't getting done up there while these elected officials can't agree? What isn't getting done that should be accomplished this session?
Gronstal: Well, what isn't getting done right now is the budget. We got to the -- we effectively got to the end kind of the regular session, we're down to the budget and a few other items like mental health and a few other issues hanging out there on the calendar. But as we're working through these budget issues, we'll come back and there will be a few bills we'll clean up when it's all said and done. But the big challenge right now is the budget that's not getting done.
Glover: And you're gridlocked at the statehouse and there is political fallout from that. How does gridlock sell back home?
Gronstal: Like I say, I'm the guy that keeps saying I'm not drawing the lines in the sand, I'm not saying that there's nothing negotiable, that's the other side saying that, that's the message I got out of the House republicans, it's the message I get out of the Governor, these things that are non-negotiable. I'm ready, willing and able to sit down at any time with people and look for common ground and we're going to continue to do that until we find it.
Henderson: There are also a couple of other bills that are pending in the Senate. One of them would set the wheels in motion for financing of a new nuclear power plant in Iowa. Is that dead or are you still working on that?
Gronstal: I think there's still people working on that.
Henderson: So, that's a possibility.
Gronstal: It's a possibility.
Henderson: There's also a bill that would seek to prohibit people from secretly going into livestock confinements and videotaping the operations. Is that bill dead?
Gronstal: The most recent version I've seen of that has nothing to do with videotaping. So, there's still discussions about that, yes. And that is still possible.
Borg: Sorry to keep interrupting. We'll get a question in here. Was I right when I, just before I introduced you, that it's a very fine line that you're walking in your image as to being either defending Iowans as a populist or being an obstructionist? And I think that some might see you in that role as he has blocked same-sex marriage from coming up in the Senate, he is now, you're carrying that image into this session. Isn't that a danger for you personally?
Gronstal: Who knows. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. I try and do what is right. I think, you know, I listened to Iowans last fall. Two-thirds of them said don't have a constitutional convention. Two-thirds of Iowans voted against having a constitutional convention which would have been the surest, quickest way to get a constitutional amendment on gay marriage in this state. Two-thirds of Iowans said no. Polls earlier in the year, at the start of the session indicated most Iowans said don't take up this issue.
Borg: But the ultimate test is going to be next election.
Gronstal: The ultimate test for me is the next election every time, Dean. Every four years I go before the voters, I knock on a bunch of doors, some people like me, some people don't. I tell people I only agree with my wife 90% of the time. The other 10% I'm wrong.
Glover: So you're not worried politically, personally?
Gronstal: You know, I can spend some time if I want to and scratch my head and worry but then all I'm doing is looking backwards. I think this has got to be about the kind of Iowa we want to live in and so I don't think it's appropriate to put discrimination in the state constitution. I'm not going to do that. If that is the fundamental issue for my local constituents it will probably have some impact on my next election. I'm not going to worry about that.
Henderson: We have half a minute left. Is negotiating with Terry Branstad 5.0 different from negotiating with him in his previous tenure as Governor? Has he surprised you?
Gronstal: I don't remember him talking about himself as the new sheriff in town back in the '90s. So, yeah, I think some of his memories are perhaps a bit exaggerated, that nothing bad happened while he was Governor and nothing good happened while democrats were in the Governor's office. That's his memory, I don't think that's really very accurate but that's kind of his memory. So, yeah, he is different.
Borg: We have to make this program a memory right now because we're out of time. Thanks. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're looking for early indications on the presidential campaign trail. We'll be talking with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, currently in her third term representing suburban Minneapolis in Congress. She's spending a lot of time in Iowa right now and most political observers are expecting her to launch a run for the republican 2012 presidential nomination in Iowa's caucuses. You'll see our conversation with Congresswoman Bachmann at our usual Iowa Press times next week, that's 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.