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Sen. Mike Gronstal and Sen. Jerry Behn

posted on November 17, 2011

Mapping strategy.  Iowa legislators looking ahead to January's new legislative session and next November's general election.  A conversation with two state senators, democratic majority leader Mike Gronstal and republican minority leader Jerry Behn on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: When Iowa's General Assembly reconvenes on January 9th there will be something old and something new.  The status quo is the democrat's two-seat majority and that was assured a little over a week ago with democrat Liz Mathis winning a special election in northern Linn County holding onto a seat being vacated by resigning democratic Senator Swati Dandekar.  So, while House republicans are flexing a 20-seat majority, Senate democrats are leveraging that two-seat edge to throttle any republican steamrolling.  But there are new Senate dynamics.  Boone Senator Jerry Behn is taking over and leading minority republicans this session replacing Chariton's Paul McKinley and guiding republican strategy for taking the majority in next November's election.  Council Bluffs' Mike Gronstal again leads the Senate's democratic majority hoping to hold that majority next election day.  Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Gronstal: Thanks for having us.

Behn: Thanks very much for having us, appreciate it.

Borg: We'll be talking about those dynamics.  Across the Iowa Press table Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, let's start with you.  The last session of the General Assembly gridlocked and lingered until the end of June.  The political dynamics are exactly the same in the next session of the legislature.  Why shouldn't we expect the same thing?

Gronstal: I think all of the leaders -- I met with Jerry the other day and met with Kraig Paulsen earlier this week -- I think all of the leaders are interested, let me put it this way, none of us has for the legislative session May or June on our calendars.  We are very interested in getting out on time.  We're looking at maybe moving the funnel up a week or so and this is the shorter session.  I think it's -- I think last year I think both sides to some degree had to test each other, the republican House, the democratic Senate.  I think we're happy that we were able to accomplish some good things, additional investments in education, hanging onto preschool, things like that.  So, we fought long and hard for things we thought are important for Iowa.  This next year to the extent we disagree I think it's kind of like, okay, that's what we disagree on, that will be one of the issues we talk about in our campaign.

Glover: Senator Behn, same question to you.  The legislature essentially gridlocked in the last session.  The numbers are exactly the same.  Why shouldn't we expect the same this year?  And why shouldn't we look for this being a do nothing session?

Behn: Well, I think everybody is excited to get jobs and job creation going for the state of Iowa and I think that is going to be the focal point of it.  We're going to work hard to pursue an agenda that does exactly that and what we really want is for the discussion to occur.  And so we're looking forward to the session.  I think everybody has an interest in getting out early.  We had considered moving the funnel up last year.  That didn't get done but this year it did.  I think it's a great idea to move it up.  That just makes everything speed up.  In the legislative process, as you're both well aware, that can just delay and delay and delay so getting it moved up is a good idea.

Glover: Why shouldn't we expect this to be a do nothing session?

Gronstal: Well, I think there are a couple things we really want to get done.  I think we want to continue to pass legislation.  We've got several bills that are sitting in the House on job creation in this state focused on small businesses.  We also passed a bill on red tape reduction that is languishing in the House.  I think there are some of those kinds of issues we can come back to and look for common ground.  I also think the Governor had a task force, a summer kind of session on education and there's going to be real interest in doing things to improve education in the state of Iowa.  So, I think we'll get some things done.  But to the extent, when you've got divided government, to the extent you can't find common ground, and there's a host of issues we can find common ground on, but to the extent we can't especially in an election year you kind of stake out your territory and in the fall campaign you tell Iowans why it is important to elect people of your party to pursue those issues.

Henderson: Senator Behn, let's put a finer point on this.  He says there are issues about which you agree.  Can you give us some specifics?

Behn: Well, job creation.  We're all interested in job creation.  The question is going to be how do you pursue that the best and what bills will actually do that the best?  One of the things that was brought up the last session was property tax relief.  I think that's a key.  We can't have property tax rates that rival New York City and expect our entrepreneurs to get started and get rolling in business.  So, I think property taxes are an essential, integral part of that.  We're going to be talking about it and one of the things that happened last session is there was a plan hatched by the Senate democrats, they talked about it but sent it over to the House.  The House had a plan, brought it over to the Senate.  We couldn't even discuss that bill and I think that's one of the things we would like to see at least happen this year is the discussion of all ideas in property tax relief so that we can get all classes of property tax relieved and help those small businesses.

Borg: That brought a smile from you, Senator Gronstal.  Why that grin?  Why that smirk?

Gronstal: I'm confident we can get something done on this subject.  We're ready to sit down and work on it, people are willing to compromise.  I'm feeling very positive that we'll be able to get something done about commercial property taxes next session.

Henderson: I did want to follow up on something you said earlier.  You said that republicans in the House and democrats in the Senate were sort of testing one another in the 2011 session to sort of find out where the boundaries were.  What was the test between legislators and Governor Branstad?  Do you now have a better working relationship with the Governor or one that is not as conducive to finding agreement?

Gronstal: Better one some things, worse on others.  The same we'd have if it was a democratic governor.  It's the nature of the institution, the executive branch against the legislative branch.  There are, when I say testing each other I think the republicans in the House and the Governor proposed doing away with the preschool program in the state of Iowa.  We fought long and hard to keep that from happening and in the end succeeded in preserving preschool in this state pretty much the way we have it, slight reduction on the amount of resources for each student but slight.  So, we were able to keep that.  Republicans wanted zero percent allowable growth for the next two years.  They say they care about education but they said no new resources for schools in the state. 

Borg: That's bringing agreeing from Senator Behn.

Gronstal: What I'm saying is the fact that we fought long and hard doesn't mean that we didn't accomplish something.  We did.  The House bill on community colleges, $25 million cut.  The House bill on Regents institutions, $40 million cut.  We were able to restore much of the money that goes to education in this state.

Borg: I want to know why he is grinning.

Behn: Well, I disagree and stuff hits me as funny I guess.  But reality is he is going back to his old talking points again on this doing away with preschool.  Nobody said they were going to do away with preschool.  It was a different way of funding for the preschool and so that is an important distinction.  Everybody understands that there is importance of brain research has shown development occurs K, or kindergarten, excuse me, zero to five years old.  Everybody understands that so that's not an issue.  Preschool does help some children, no question about that.  But then the question was, how is it going to get paid for and should people have to pay some themselves for it?  That was the question.  So, it wasn't an issue of doing away with preschool.  You asked me why I grinned, that's why I grinned.

Gronstal: And that simply isn't true.  In scores of school districts in the state of Iowa without the resources from the state for school operated preschool programs they would not have existed.  In small town Iowa there would be no preschool for kids.  It would have done away with it in scores of counties unless parents were willing to drive their kids 70 mile round trip, you know, maybe it would still work.

Borg: Senator Gronstal, let's take that off the table.  You can save that for January when the session opens.

Behn: You get a flavor of the discussion.

Borg: I've got it.  Let me ask you, Senator Behn, don't you have some problem in the GOP caucus, the republican caucus?  Is being dysfunctional too strong an analysis of the republican caucus in the House and in the Senate, dysfunctional?

Behn: Well, I don't even know how to answer that.  Dysfunctional.  I don't know what you mean by dysfunctional.

Henderson: After you were elected one of your republican colleagues came by the reporters sitting in the Iowa Senate and said, nothing has changed, the status quo has been maintained and he was unhappy that you were elected.  That doesn't seem to me to be everyone singing from the same hymnal.

Behn: All I can tell you is I visited with every single member of the caucus and we are 100% united for a pro-growth agenda, increasing jobs in this state and a laser vision on looking at the 2012 elections to illustrate the differences, that the ideas that the republicans have versus the obstruction that has been going on in the Senate.  That's what we're going to focus on and we are in 100% agreement.  So, to refer to that as dysfunctional I would take issue with that.  I would say, no, that's not accurate.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, the Governor has now, he came up with his teacher pay plan, a multi-tiered method of paying teachers linking their pay to performance in the classroom.  The Governor has now taken that off the table.  Does that mean that that issue is off the table for legislators, the whole notion of teacher pay?

Gronstal: I think it's pretty clear we don't yet have a blueprint from the Governor, we have an outline.  They talk about a blueprint but it's not really a blueprint, it is an outline and they are taking pieces of the outline off.  I still think there are some good things we can do in education and starting at preschool and going through college.  So, I think there are some real opportunities to make sure that our children in this state get a ticket to a better life.  So, I think we have to keep doing that.  I think what you're going to see is you're going to see some of the ideas of the Governor, you're going to see some ideas generated by legislators, both democratic and republican legislators.

Glover: But will there be a significant increase in teacher pay as part of whatever you do on education reform?

Gronstal: We obviously have to work with the different players and find common ground on that.  I think there should be an effort -- I think there should be an effort to do that.  I don't get to decide what Governor Branstad will sign or what the republican House will pass.

Glover: Senator Behn, same question to you.  The Governor has now taken his teacher pay plan off the table.  Does that effectively kill it in the legislature?

Behn: It all depends on the plan that comes out and as the legislature gets the discussion.  That is one of the things I have been so adamant about having is the discussion.  Let the House examine it, let the Senate examine it, let's talk about it, let's have a free and open discussion.  Let's don't kill bills before we've had a discussion and that is one of the things I'd like to talk about is all the bills that got killed.

Glover: Senator Gronstal ...

Gronstal: We like to talk about all the bills that democrats passed that got killed in the House.  We have the same gripe, Jerry.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, the question to you is if you do not do some kind of a significant overhaul of the way teachers are paid how can you call education a centerpiece of the next session of the legislature?

Gronstal: Mike, I think it is important on education for us to take a real look at the data.  I think all Iowans are concerned about the quality of school.  I think overall Iowa has a pretty good system of education.  I think we need a -- if there was anything we heard at the education summit it was there are no silver bullets, you don't pass one year a piece of legislation that says, okay, education is now fixed.  It's got to be a multi-year effort.  The states that have been successful have been a decade, two decades to move themselves up in those ranks.  So, I think we've got to take a long view on this and talk about what we can do to improve outcomes in education.  And it is certainly not all about money.  Some of it is about better parent involvement.  Some of it is about stronger leaders in schools.  So, I don't think it's all about money but I think we've got to take the long view and say we're going to continue to build on the strengths of Iowa's system.  Iowa is actually pretty good in some respects.  We don't have very many dropout factors in this state.  We graduate more kids than most schools in the country.  If that is a measure, kids actually getting a degree, a high school diploma, Iowa ranks pretty close to the top and that is good.  There are some challenges in terms of more challenging courses, more rigor in high school, those kinds of things and there is this assembling a decent preschool program on the other end of the spectrum.

Henderson: Let's shift gears.  Senator Behn, Governor Branstad assembled a blue ribbon task force, asked them to look at the state's transportation system.  They recommended an 8 to 10 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax.  The Governor has essentially killed that bill.  Would republicans have ever supported a gas tax increase?

Behn: I think it depends totally on the circumstances.  I think you really have to look at the situation of the roads, which the task force did, but then I also think you have to do exactly what the Governor is doing and I want to give him credit for doing that.  Frankly, he said we need to look at the Department of Transportation and be sure the administration is properly run and he is looking for reductions in that.  Iowa taxpayers have had to tighten their belts.  I think government should do no less and I think that is exactly what they're doing.  Also I think we need to examine exactly how every single penny is spent before we even consider a gas tax increase.  I think that is absolutely critical.  For example, there are sometimes strings attached to federal money and there is a possibility that we can get a waiver on some of those so that the money can go directly to the roads and fix the bridges and do the things it needs to do rather than sometimes you have things that are done just for looks and that sort of deal.  So, we want to be sure that every single penny is spent appropriately first and I think that's what you go to.  There have been a lot of discussion about the gas tax per say and the argument is that people from out of state pay it too, Iowans shouldn't be the only ones that have to pay for their roads.  We've heard the discussion.  But I think before Iowans even, before we should even come to Iowans and say they get a tax increase we better be sure every dime is spent appropriately.

Henderson: Senator Gronstal, is there $50 million in savings in the Iowa DOT's budget to shift to road and bridge construction and maintenance projects?

Gronstal: I seriously doubt there's $50 million in terms of the overall administration at DOT.  We actually went through an effort about ten years ago where we did pretty significantly change the way the DOT operated and pretty dramatically reduced their overall expenses.  I think it was to the tune of about $15 million about ten years ago.  So, $15 million in administrative savings.  So, I'm all for looking at those savings.  I personally, I kind of look at my community and I've talked to local business leaders in our community and they are concerned that our interstate system around Council Bluffs is going to be torn up at the current rate of reconstruction and maintenance, it's going to be torn up for ...

Borg: Senator Gronstal, are you going to press for a gas tax increase then?

Gronstal: It's going to be -- it will take 25 years to finish rebuilding the interstate around Council Bluffs.  I'll be 85 years old.  So, I personally -- that's the kind of issue this is.  It is a different issue in every district.  Some districts, hey, they've got adequate roads, they don't really particularly see the need for it.  So, I think there is going to be some that are for it, some that are against it but it is pretty clear the Governor has simply taken it off the table.

Henderson: So, democrats are not going to stick their ...

Gronstal: I don't know why we'd pursue something when the Governor has said publicly and been pressed on it, when the Governor has said publicly, no we're going to wait a year.  Why would we go down that road, so to speak?

Borg: Senator Behn, go ahead.

Behn: Well, just to see if we can find a savings too.  I think it's appropriate.  I think he did the right thing.

Borg: Taking that off the table, so you don't anticipate any discussion this session on gas tax increase?

Behn: Precisely.

Borg: What about education?  You made a pain here a few minutes ago here to correct Senator Gronstal on preschool funding and the interpretation of what was anticipated.  Do you think that that is off the table entirely during this session?

Behn: I don't think hardly anything is ever off the table.  One of the things I think Mike would even agree with me on is that there's hardly anything that is every dead in the legislature -- there are things that can be resurrected almost any time.  Not specifically on that necessarily, I just think the education, the whole education concept is going to be important.  We have slipped from first in the nation down to 25th.  One of the things we really need to concentrate on is student achievement and the way you measure that student achievement.  We talked earlier about graduation rates and all that sort of stuff but if you graduate and your diploma doesn't mean much that doesn't help much.  And so we need to consider exactly what our 12th graders are learning and when they graduate are they prepared for college and are they prepared to enter the working world.  I think that is a critical part of the education discussions.

Glover: Senator Behn, I'd like to go back to something you mentioned earlier -- you said you'd like to have property taxes as a big focus of debate during the upcoming session.  In the last session of the legislature there was an effort to lower commercial property taxes but there was no way you could find to lower commercial property taxes without shifting the burden to other classes of property.  How has that dynamic changed?

Behn: Well, that is, again, I want to point out that the discussion stopped.  That's what I want to have is the discussion so we can explore ways to look at that.  If you look -- if the complicated -- that property tax system you'll have to agree is one of the most convoluted ...

Glover: Of course it is but fundamentally how do you lower commercial property taxes without shifting the burden to residential and agriculture?

Behn: It depends on how you set it up.  What you're going to try to do is make it so you can either use general fund money or you can help reduce the cost in other places.  So, that is what we'll do.

Gronstal: Mike, that is exactly what the Senate version did, it provided the resources from the state to cover the losses to local government so that there was no tax shift and that is one of the reasons the Senate bill had I think 43 votes.  It had broad bipartisan support because it was a real property tax cut and it didn't provide any tax shifts.

Borg: Senator Behn.

Behn: But the whole idea in reducing property taxes is to encourage entrepreneurship and encourage job development.  Their plan had a trigger -- small businesses require a constant deal that they can take, I mean, they have to know what is coming up next year.  They can't take a plan to the bank that says, well, it depends on if the state revenue goes up by -- there was a trigger in there and I don't remember exactly what the trigger was -- but the point is there was a trigger on that, you had to go with a form and apply for it.  Those types of things are not anything that is going to make a difference to a business.  That is not going to create jobs.  That is the problem with it.  You have to have something that is going to be uniform and you don't try to pick winners and losers. 

Gronstal: If trigger is the problem we can solve that.  Get rid of the trigger.  We'll listen.  We are ready willing and able, we have offered repeated compromises on this.  We have had the discussion.  To suggest we haven't had a discussion on property taxes, we've had it.  We passed that bill in the Senate.  You guys got to offer amendments.  That discussion has been had, it was passed over to the House and the House wouldn't take up our version.  They ...

Borg: It looks like you achieved a compromise right here.  What else can we talk about?

Gronstal: Well, I actually think -- that is my point.  That is why I think we can accomplish something next session.  I appreciate the concerns about the trigger.  By the way, we picked a trigger that was lower than the Governor's estimates of what revenue will grow by.  We picked a trigger that was lower but I can appreciate if that is the concern, if the trigger is the concern ...

Behn: That's one concern with it.

Gronstal: ... I think there's actually a way we can find common ground on it.  But I'd also say if our efforts are to concentrate on giant Wall Street businesses as opposed to Main Street businesses in Iowa I think it's better to bet on Main Street businesses in Iowa.

Behn: That is precisely the point of the House plan, though, is it is not about picking winners and losers, it's not trying to establish degrees where this goes, it is broad-based so that it fits 60% to 70% of all businesses are small businesses.  You want something that is going to apply on a uniform basis, that they are going to have the ability to go to their banker and talk about rather than something that they just can not rely on.

Gronstal: And you can rely on it.  I don't get your objection unless you're more worried about Wall Street than Main Street.  Our version ...

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: One of the other tax issues that came up last year was income taxes.  The House came up with one plan, the Senate came up with something else.  Is there any prospect that Iowans will see their income taxes reduced, Senator Behn?

Behn: There's always prospects and that is where it comes up to discussion.

Henderson: Really?

Behn: Absolutely.  I think -- if you're going to do property tax reform you're going to actually address income tax reform ...

Behn: I think we should talk about it.  I think we should have the discussion.

Henderson: Action, will there be action?

Behn: I don't know, that's why you have the discussion.  You find out where there's common ground and if you can move forward you can.  That's why you have the discussion.  That's what I'm promoting.

Henderson: Senator Gronstal, do you see any common ground between those to disparate plans that were introduced last year?

Gronstal: Well, I do see one common ground that got vetoed by the Governor and that was the earned income tax credit for the lowest income Iowans.  We passed significant relief in income taxes for companies, for businesses, for farmers and in terms of coupling with federal tax code, significant steps there.  The Governor vetoed our bill on the earned income tax credit.  That is one that passed the House, the Senate twice and broad bipartisan support for it.  The lowest income Iowans getting a break on their income taxes, we think that made sense.  And we'll pursue that again.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, way too many issues and way too little time.  Last session you refused to allow debate on the issue of gay marriage.  Will you do so again in the next session?

Gronstal: Yes.

Glover: Senator Behn, is that a winner politically for republicans?  We just had a special Senate election ...

Behn: It's not so much an issue whether it's a winner or a loser politically.  The idea, the concept is should the debate be allowed.  And as I have stated previously on other issues I believe the debate should be allowed.  There are only 150 legislators and where we vote in the booth will not probably affect the outcome.  The question is should Iowans get to vote on it.  That is all we're discussing.  We're not discussing whether that constitutional amendment would pass or not pass, we're just discussing should Iowans get a vote on it.  My position is absolutely Iowans should get a vote on that and I think it is outrageous that he's going to say no.

Glover: Senator Gronstal ...

Gronstal: People's rights should not be put to a popular vote.  If I can put, if you can put my rights to a popular vote of the people then I can put your rights to a popular vote of the people and eventually, and eventually -- well, we didn’t put slavery to a vote of the people in Iowa, we didn't put the right to go to a school in your neighborhood to a vote of the people of Iowa, we didn't put public accommodations law to a vote of the people in Iowa.  The Supreme Court said certain inalienable rights -- you either -- when you say the Pledge of Allegiance, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all, you don't say for all except for gay people, you don't say that.  That is what this is about and you don't put ...

Behn: That's not what this is about.

Gronstal: ... yes it is.  And you don't put that up to a vote of the people ...

Behn: It's about Iowans being allowed to decide.

Gronstal: ... to a vote of the people.  Churches are not required to marry anybody.  I just think it's fundamentally wrong to put to a popular -- it's the whole principle ...

Borg: Kay has another hot button issue, Senator Gronstal.

Gronstal: ... to protect people's individual rights.  That is, the Constitution is to protect that.

Henderson: Senator Behn, there are people in the republican caucus who would like to see new abortion restrictions.  Will you press to have the Senate consider new abortion restrictions?

Behn: Well, if you're specifically talking about that crazy doctor over in Nebraska that wanted to come into Iowa, absolutely.  We should bar him from coming into this state, absolutely positively and we will do what we can in that regard.  Now, the Senate made, frankly, made it worse last year by bringing up the bill they talked about.  Instead of the ban that the House had they provided a blueprint for this guy to come in.  Now, obviously it is a little bit more of a complicated blueprint than what he had before but it is a blueprint nevertheless and if he follows it he can get, turn this place into the Mecca of late-term abortions.

Gronstal: That's actually nonsense.

Behn: No, it's accurate.

Gronstal: Jerry, it's nonsense.  The bill the House passed blatantly unconstitutional.  It would have been struck down by the court of appeals in hours after its passage.  We passed a bill in the Senate that would have effectively kept Carhart out of Iowa, he never would have come here.  If the House had passed that bill it would have happened.  I don't think Carhart was ever really coming to Iowa in the first place.  This is one of those issues that people like to drum up.  Let's talk about the reality.  Six women in 2009, the year for which we have statistics, most recent statistics, six women had late-term abortions.  They were all done at U of I Hospitals and Clinics.  They are not done, they are not done in clinics across the state.  They were all done in one place in Iowa and they were all for women that desperately wanted to be pregnant and something had gone tragically wrong with the pregnancy.

Borg: We're out of time and I just want to -- despite your disagreements here, which have been sharp, I sense a report here between the two of you that I haven't seen very often.  Is the new dynamic with Senator Behn, we've only got about ten seconds, going to be better this session?

Gronstal: They are going to be whatever they are going to be but we had a meeting just the day before yesterday ...

Behn: Yes, we did.

Gronstal: We had a good meeting.  I talked to him about changing the funnel, he said hey I think that's a good idea.  You know, 80% of what we deal with in the legislature is not partisan.  What we talk about on this show is probably 90% partisan.

Borg: Thanks so much for being with us today.

Behn: Thank you, appreciate it very much.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we're talking with incumbent fifth district Congressman Steve King.  Big issues facing him in Congress and back in western Iowa as he is running for re-election against democratic challenger Christie Vilsack.  Steve King next weekend at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: Democrats elections Iowa Iowa Senate Jerry Behn Mike Gronstal politics Republicans senators