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Reporters Roundtable: Budget Standoff at the Iowa Legislative Session of 2011

posted on June 23, 2011

Deadline looming.  July 1st begins a new fiscal year for Iowa's state government and Iowa's partisan hobbled general assembly is working overtime to adopt a new state budget for the new year.  Iowa political reporters providing their perspectives on this edition of Iowa Press.

Reporters Roundtable: Budget Standoff at the Iowa Legislative Session of 2011

Borg: The struggle to get a new state budget in place before next Friday, July 1st is providing nail-biting tension for some people, those depending on state services specifically.  The budget is more than a spending plan, it appropriates the money, the life blood, if you will, to run state government -- everything from paying state troopers to prison guards, from mowing state parks to caring for children in foster care, not to mention schools.  Various indications of compromise among the principles in this fight and that is the republican controlled House, Senate democrats and Governor Branstad, have been coming and going this past week.  So, today we're convening Iowa journalists watching the negotiations.  Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and statehouse reporter James Lynch with the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids. 

Borg: Kathie, how did we get in this dilemma?  What is the chronology here?

Obradovich: It's been a long, strange trip, Dean.  I think it starts with the fact that we really have a lot of new leadership involved in the legislature, we've got new leadership in the Iowa House and a new republican majority, a new governor, although of course he has been governor before and a different dynamic in the Senate with almost a 50/50 split between democrats and republicans.  The very first time they made a deal Governor Branstad vetoed out some of the democratic priorities right after the House and Senate finally, laboriously reached a deal.  So, I think it has been really a very lengthy process of trial and error to get to the point where they can start making some agreements.

Glover: ...blame those darn voters -- those darn voters elected a government that is so evenly divided that it's almost at a paralysis level.  You have an overwhelming republican majority in the House, a narrowly democratically controlled Senate and a philosophical split in the Senate that is even worse than the narrow democratic majority and a republican governor who is a far different republican governor than the one I covered back then.  He is a much more conservative governor than he was and a much less willing to deal governor than he was back then.

Lynch: I think another factor here is that for a lot of people in the base of each party and a number of members of the legislature compromise is overrated and they would rather stand and fight, even if they know they're going to lose, as we saw on that battle over adjournment the other night.  I mean, the numbers clearly were in the democrat's favor but republicans wanted to stay and block adjournment for three hours.  They're not willing to compromise.

Borg: That tells me, Jim, that people are just getting tired and stubborn.

Lynch: I think there's a fair amount of that too.  And I think at the same time you have some people who just want to get done and they're clashing, I mean, those dynamics are clashing.

Henderson: I also think there are people who arrived stubborn in January.  I don't think the passage of time has made them stubborn, I believe that was their modus operandi when they arrived in Des Moines at the legislature.

Borg: Is this only the tip of the iceberg though, Kay?  Is there something more at work here long-range than just getting a budget in place this year?

Henderson: Well, there is an assertion on the part of republican Governor Terry Branstad to be, in his words, the new sheriff in town.  He wants to impress upon the legislature that he is a powerful executive.  You also have the specter of the 2012 election which has been looming throughout the entire year of 2011 because this has become a perpetual campaign in Iowa.  Every decision they make is about the next campaign, it's not about governing, it's about winning elections.

Obradovich: And Governor Branstad is not just trying to consolidate his authority for this session.  He really has pushed hard for legislators to enact a two-year budget which, in fact, could consolidate his authority and power now into the next legislative session.  That is part of what a lot of this argument has been over, Dean, is talking about how to get through one budget year in a very difficult political situation and at the same time try to negotiate a second year budget that doesn't completely scoop the legs out from under the legislature next year.

Glover: I would argue that it even goes further than that.  This is the first year of Terry Branstad's new tenure as governor.  I think what he's trying to do is establish the relationship with the legislature with him as the dominant force for the next four years.  I think he's trying to say, when he did that new sheriff remark, what he's trying to say is I'm in charge here and I'm going to be in charge not this year, not next year but for the next four years. 

Borg: And democrats are, go ahead Kay.

Henderson: Well, and I think he's going to run again. 

Glover: I wouldn't doubt that at all.

Henderson: I mean, if he runs again he becomes the longest serving governor in U.S. history and I think that's what he is playing along for.

Borg: So, Jim, there's a lot of plostering here not just this year but the two-year budget, as Kathie says, means that democrats, if they would agree to a two-year budget that has any substance to it, are really conceding next year's debate?

Lynch: Yeah, and they have this plan to fund basically 85% of next year's budget and then come in and fill it in next year.  So, they would still have some decision-making power next year.  But, yeah, they are conceding sort of the Governor's spending plan and they're reluctant to do that and it's not only democrats but republicans as well are reluctant to see that appropriation authority to the Governor.

Borg: Mike, have you been seeing, though, this sort of stubbornness, to use my word again, throughout the entire session or has it been now since the legislature was scheduled to adjourn in late April and now with this looming deadline and some legislators taking time off and leadership doing the negotiation?  My basic question is, why didn't we see really the hard-nosed negotiating working for compromise earlier in the session?

Glover: Well, the whole thing started November 2nd, the evening of November 2nd when voters rendered their judgment and it was a split judgment and I think people came into it with the notion, even before the legislature started, that there's going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser and I'm going to be the winner.  So, that was the attitude that everybody started with -- they came in, in January with and remained and it hasn't changed, it has really hardened as time goes on.

Borg: And who stands to win, Kathie?  That is, in the different scenarios that might come out of these negotiations who stands to win, who stands to lose and what is the prize?

Obradovich: Well, I would start with Governor Branstad because historically speaking governors get most of what they want out of a legislative session and certainly new governors tend to do pretty well with their first legislative agenda.  Branstad has a mixed bag here.  He is not going to get everything he wants.  He asked for, in fact, an increase in casino taxes, for example.  He's not going to get that, that was taken off the table fairly early.  He is not going to probably get a big increase in, or decrease in corporate income taxes.  But he is going to get a lot of what he asked for.  It's probably not going to be a clean sweep for him.

Lynch: I think that he wins in the sense that it's not about getting what you want but wanting what you get and I think what he's going to end up getting is closer to what he wants than what legislators wanted going into this session.

Glover: And I think, governors always win these fights, that is a given but as we wind through the session if you look at what is remaining to be decided, the things that are remaining to be decided are what we're going to do about property taxes -- and what did he come into this session wanting to debate?  Some kind of a cut in property taxes.  Well, there's going to be some kind of a cut in property taxes.  It probably won't be exactly what he wanted but there will be a cut in property taxes.  And there will be some kind of an increase in funding for elementary and secondary education.  There will be some kind of a decrease in funding for preschool programs which is what he wanted.  He wanted a modern, modest increase in elementary and secondary education funding.  He'll get it.  They're still bickering about details.  He wanted to reduce spending in the preschool programs.  They'll cut it.  They're still bickering about details.  The point being the items that he wanted on the debate agenda are on the debate agenda as this legislature winds down because that is the power the governors have, they can set the agenda.

Henderson: One brief point -- I think we have been on a slippery slope here, to use an overused cliché, but I think if you wanted to see Iowa government and its political class operate almost the way that Congress and the Senate have operated you're getting your wish.  What we're seeing play out at the statehouse in Des Moines is nearly identical to the kind of head banging that has been going in Washington, D.C. so what has been going on at the nation's capitol has really percolated and kind of influenced the way the debate is carried out.

Borg: I'm glad you mentioned that because not only in Washington but other states are going through the same thing, Minnesota, for example, New Jersey, Wisconsin we saw earlier the demonstrations there.  My basic question, though, is, is there, Kathie, a basic synergy that this is going out elsewhere, we can't let down the fight here in Iowa?

Obradovich: I think so.  In fact, if you look at most of the other states where they're having big budget arguments you're hearing a lot of the same sort of rhetoric.  The difference here in Iowa is that Iowa has actually excess revenues coming in and yet we're still having the same fight over cutting the budget and really reducing state government all along.  It's a philosophical battle here as opposed to one driven by dollars and cents.

Glover: I would go back to dollars and cents, I think it's all about dollars and cents.  I think it's about campaign dollars and cents.  I'm glad you made the comparison to Congress because it was pointed out to me a few years ago as legislative races get more expensive you can no longer, it used to be if I ran for the Iowa House a couple, three thousand dollars, I could raise it in my neighborhood and run for the House, now it's $15,000, $20,000, $50,000, $100,000, I've got to go to the interest groups to get my money and as you become reliant on those interest groups you become reliant on their agenda and so you become a mini Congress and that is what this legislature has become and I think it is because of campaign money.

Henderson: Well, and I will insert this point about Terry Branstad, yes, he is acting like a conservative but it's a fiscal conservative.  Social conservatives in his party are not very happy because one of the requirements for adjourning this session is not the abortion related proposal that would keep a Nebraska doctor who performs late-term abortions out of Iowa.  Branstad has merely said he would sign it, he has not said, you must pass this bill before you adjourn.  And social conservatives will tell you they are sort of mystified as to why his line in the sand is a two-year budget whereas you see governors in other states advancing social causes.  Why he didn't draw the line on gay marriage they are also confused.

Obradovich: Terry Branstad did not campaign on gay marriage or on abortion.  What he campaigned on was cutting taxes and creating jobs.  And, you know, a lot of the social discussion that democrats and republicans have been engaged in during the first part of the legislative session, I think you can really argue that that has taken the spotlight away from really coming together on something major aimed at creating jobs.  That is going to be the democrat rhetoric at the end of the legislative session, that they argued about abortion instead of creating jobs.

Lynch: Terry Branstad is also very practical and if you don't have the votes to get a late-term abortion bill or some of those other pieces of social legislation you don't want to expend too much political capital fighting that battle and then say, well, I guess we didn't get what we wanted.  So, I think it's a political practical standpoint for him.

Borg: Jim, while you're speaking, what do you sense?  I said there's some nail-biting going on in state departments wondering what is the new budget going to be because there isn't a new budget and we're just days away from when it would take effect if it were there.  Is there nail-biting or is there just a resignation of well, cest la vie?

Lynch: I think there's probably some nail-biting.  Anytime you're in that situation where you're unsure about your next paycheck or about what you're going to be doing come July, the first week in July, whether you have a job or whether you're going to be reporting to your job, sure there's some nail-biting.  I talked to a lot of folks in state government a couple of weeks ago for a story on this subject and they were saying oh, it's water cooler chatter at this time.  But we're getting close.  Dave Roederer from the Department of Management said at least for the first week in July everybody is going to get paid because that is part of the fiscal 2011 budget so they're going to get paid for that week.  After that, you know, although the Governor assures us that the full array of state government services will continue, if I was working in state government I would want something more substantial as an answer.

Glover: I have a different take -- I talked with my favorite democratic budget expert on the legislative staff and there is no question that state government will not shut down on July 1st.  In fact, state government will continue indefinitely.  In fact, one of the things that I've heard democrats talk about with kind of a glee is if they don't come to a budget agreement after July 1st state spending will continue at this year's levels which is a lot higher than next year.  So, some democrats -- why don't we negotiate it all year and keep state spending going?

Henderson: There's also a new conspiracy theory out there among union folks in that they accuse Governor Branstad of pushing this thing to the brink so that the budget, the pay and benefit deal that the unions negotiated with state managers wouldn't go into effect for the next year because legislators hadn't acted to essentially ratify that by appropriating money by June 30th.

Borg: Do you sense that the public is concerned, Kay?

Henderson: No.  I think people are concerned about their own home budget right now and the security of their own job, they're really not worried that much about state government.

Glover: One of the most depressing sights you can find is to walk to the window in the Iowa House chamber at night and look down to the Iowa Cubs stadium, you'll see the lights on and thousands of people down there having a great time and not caring a wit about what is going on in that room and I think that is the sense I get from the public, they just don't care.

Lynch: People are going on vacation, they're having family reunions, their kids are playing baseball and soccer and stuff, if they are aware that their legislature is in session they'd probably say, I thought they were going to be done in April, what is going on?

Obradovich: I think there's also a sense that a lot of this talk about shut down has been just bluster, you know, that there's no -- people realize there's no real good reason to shut down the state government and furthermore most folks feel like they can get along just fine even if it were shut down for a little while.

Borg: Kay, let's switch for a moment to the presidential caucus campaigning and the republicans have the contest this time, it's pretty much given/  President Obama will be back in Iowa for maybe campaign, a lot of business over at the Alcoa plant on Monday.  But the republicans are criss-crossing Iowa but not like they did in 2008.  What has happened?  We were off to a slow start and it seems that we're still sluggish.

Henderson: Well, two perspectives on this.  A lot of republicans are still sitting around waiting for the big name to get in.  We have the Sarah Palins of the world who are still flirting with the idea that she might insert herself into the race at some point.  You have Rick Perry now, the Governor of Texas, making sounds as if he is going to enter the race.  So, I think in some respects the reason that we haven't seen the fervor yet is that the field in many person's eyes is not set completely.  But I would like to harken back to June of 1999.  George W. Bush had made exactly one trip to Iowa in that campaign cycle.  He had gone to the Amana Colonies and to the Cedar Rapids area.  So, the idea that you compare Mitt Romney, who is a well known name, with George W. Bush who at this point in the cycle had made one trip to Iowa they're sort of on an even par.

Glover: Get back to history -- each campaign sets the tactics for the next campaign.  John McCain essentially skipped Iowa in the last election cycle and got the republican nomination.  A lot of people looked at that and said, Iowa is a tricky state, you have to spend a lot of time there, a lot of effort, republican electorate, the caucus going electorate is funny, maybe I can do a drive by and start my campaign somewhere else and I think it's what we've seen a lot of people do.  Governor Rick Perry, should he get into it, I don't think Rick Perry is going to open a campaign office and hire 500 staffers and come to Iowa for 400 days in a row.  I think Rick Perry will do a drive by.  Mitt Romney already has said he'll do a drive by.  Sarah Palin would do a drive by.  Those are the people that are likely to be nominees and they're likely to skip.

Borg: And that is being picked up, that sort of decision making is influencing, the two debates been held among republicans to my count, maybe there have been more, but not one of them in Iowa yet.

Lynch: On the other hand, next week the President will be in Iowa.  Michele Bachmann will be in Iowa to officially announce his candidacy.  Newt Gingrich will be in Iowa with the Tea Party bus.  And Sarah Palin's movie apparently will be premiering here in Iowa.  So, there is some energy.  I think one thing that we might overlook is that in 2008 was races in both parties, Huckabee wasn't running against Hillary but he had to be here as often, he had to be as energetic, as active so the two campaigns, the two races drove each other.  Now you just have one race and you have Mitt Romney is well known, he doesn't have to introduce himself this year.

Borg: Is that right, Kathie, are we remembering too much about 2008 and the intensity of that base and we're comparing it now to something that is more timid?

Obradovich: I mean, it's natural -- the democrats have always been here more and more active in Iowa and even in 2008, we're not really remembering this but, in fact, the democrats had a much more robust caucus campaign in Iowa than the republicans did.  But, you know, I think that one thing that has happened and Mitt Romney is certainly driving this, is that people have sort of realized that the expectations game in Iowa is a lot more difficult to win than the caucuses themselves.  And so even if a candidate like Mitt Romney thinks he comes in as a national leader and he has a chance to actually win the caucuses he's not going to make it look too easy, that is what stung him in 2008 that he came here, he spent a lot of time here, built an expensive campaign and then got stung by somebody who hadn't done as much or hadn't spent as much money.  Somebody like Mitt Romney could come in late in Iowa, start doing his campaign late and still do pretty well in the caucuses without having built up all those expectations.

Borg: With that being said, of what value then is the straw poll up in Ames in August?  That is, is it losing, Mike, some of its significance?

Glover: It is.  Well, it's never meant a lot because it's always been very symbolic but it is losing some of that symbolism this year simply because some people aren't playing.

Borg: Well, you said it has never meant a lot.  Some candidates have dropped out after the straw poll.

Glover: They dropped out because the campaign wasn't working, they knew it and the straw poll showing was an excuse to get out.

Borg: I see. 

Glover: But it has gotten attention, I think it's a little bit less this year but it is not the sort of fanatic event that it has been in the past just like the caucuses I think are going to be less of a wow than they were in the past.

Borg: Is anyone willing right now at this table to say there's a front runner in the Iowa caucuses given the fact that some of the poll leading republicans aren't going to play in Iowa, Mitt Romney to be one of them?  So, what meaning will the Iowa caucus have then?  Jim?

Lynch: It's the first stop on the nomination tour.  It will still be the first test of these candidates.  Whoever wins Iowa will get a bump.  Whoever beats expectations will get a bump.  And I think Mitt Romney could come out of Iowa a winner even by doing a drive by if he beats expectations in Iowa and then goes into New Hampshire strong.  I think a John Huntsman probably underestimates the value of coming to Iowa.

Borg: Former Utah Governor.

Lynch: Right, and he is coming for the debate before the straw poll but, you know, there is a room in Iowa for a moderate candidate or two and they could do well, they won't win but they could do well and I think maybe that shows either they don't understand the Iowa caucus process or they are out of touch with Iowa.

Obradovich: You mentioned polls, Dean, and the first Des Moines Register poll of republican caucus goers comes out, we'll have numbers up on on Saturday night and the story is in the paper on Sunday.  So, the only thing I would say about front runners, since I know who is leading that poll, is that it is still really, really early in this cycle.  People who are front runners in May or June of 2007 didn't necessarily go on to win the caucuses.

Henderson: We have yet to see whether republicans will revert to form and give the nomination to the person whose turn it is.  If that is the case then Mitt Romney gets a little bit of bump from folks who say it's his turn.  Also republicans in 1999 were hungry for a candidate who had the financial muscle to compete and that was one of the main reasons that people recruited George W. Bush to win.  Mitt Romney fits that profile too so he could gain from being a guy who can raise a lot of money and being the good soldier who waited his turn.  But we don't know if the republicans who turn out at the caucuses will be more interested in someone who feeds their social conservative desires and if that's the case I think Michele Bachmann could be the real surprise of the Iowa caucuses.

Glover: And I think that that issue is settled because republican caucus goers do not endorse the guy who is next in line.  Republican caucus goers tend to be fairly ideologically driven and so I think that argument from the Mitt Romney people will not sell terribly well. 

Obradovich: But the winner of the last four or five caucuses has been either a Bush or a Dole so, I mean, people do reward candidates who have run before, they almost always do better in the caucuses than they have done ...

Lynch: Four years ago Rudy Giuliani was leading the national polls for the republican nomination.

Borg: You know, if I had a hot dog stand and had laid in a supply of hot dogs anticipating fervor in this campaign I'd be nail-biting right now that I had too many hot dogs on hand.

Lynch: Keep them in the freezer.

Borg: But what are the economic -- my real point here is what is the economic impact for Iowa in a slower campaign, Mike?

Glover: Well, the caucuses are always a big economic impact for Iowa, a lot of people come here, a lot of people spend a lot of money here, a lot of people in the recent campaigns have spent a lot of money on TV and there will be a lesser impact this time as the campaign boils along at a lesser pace than it has in past years but I don't think it's going to throw the state into a recession.

Borg: Kay, the impact for the caucuses in entirety?

Henderson: Well, I think the most important thing about the timing of the Iowa caucuses is who the President is.  If Barack Obama is re-elected president the caucuses in 2016 will be the first test because he likes the caucuses and he will control the party apparatus for setting the calendar in 2016.  If a republican wins and they don't like the caucuses then it is fruit basket upset for 2016.  It is who is in the White House and who controls the party apparatus because whatever one party does, the party of the President, the other party goes along and sets the calendar at the same pace.

Borg: With that I'll let you have the last word because we're out of time but thank you so much for your insights today.  Well, we'll be back next weekend, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning and we hope we have a legislative adjournment by that time, perhaps.  I hope you'll watch next weekend.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: budgets campaign 2012 governors Iowa Iowa legislature politics Terry Branstad