Moving in. Iowa legislators converging on Des Moines this weekend convening 2012's General Assembly Monday morning. We're questioning House of Representatives leaders republican Linda Upmeyer and democrat Kevin McCarthy on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowans are enjoying a brief political respite this weekend. Presidential candidates moving out mid-week just in time for moving the spotlight to the Iowa State Capitol for reconvening Iowa's General Assembly. Governor Terry Branstad presenting his agenda in a combined Condition of the State and Budget Address Tuesday morning. Big issues are looming but so is November's general election so it's likely legislators will be doing all they can to avoid extending the session into the summer as they did last year. That means either avoiding highly contentious issues or striking compromises. We're getting insight from Garner republican Linda Upmeyer, she leads the republican majority and from Des Moines, democratic minority leader Kevin McCarthy. Welcome back to Iowa Press.
Upmeyer: Thank you.
McCarthy: Thank you very much.
Borg: And welcome back to a new session. We're going to be seeing a lot of you. And across the table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Representative Upmeyer, let's start with you. The Governor has trotted out his education proposal he is going to send to the legislature this year. They key elements of that are tougher standards for those who will become teachers and more testing for students to assure they are making progress throughout their educational career. Is that the direction that republicans want to go on education?
Upmeyer: Well, this has been a very good process. The Governor started with a summit on education early on and that was, the standards for teachers was absolutely one of the things that many of the speakers talked about. So, I would assume there's good reason to do that. And certainly we want our students to show that they have achieved, we want our students to be prepared for any opportunities anywhere and we need to know that they have accomplished what they need to in their education.
Glover: Representative McCarthy, the same question to you. Tougher standards for those who will become teachers, tougher testing for students as they go through the process. Without discussing details is that the direction democrats want to head on education?
McCarthy: We want to work in a bipartisan way but try to find a way to pass some things to make us more competitive. It gets very complicated on how you do it exactly but the Governor has gone about this thus far the right way. We've had a seat at the table and because of that we really want to work in a bipartisan way. Again, we have to figure out these things, are they research based? Do we have data to show that things are effective? But our intention is to try to work in a bipartisan way that would make us more competitive.
Glover: Representative Upmeyer, the Governor is also putting a $25 million price tag on this package of proposals he has got. Is that spending that the republicans can live with?
Upmeyer: Well, we'll have to look at the Governor's budget and see exactly where those dollars come from and understand what resources he believes are available. Absolutely republicans are, remain resolved that we will spend less than we take in. So, if it fits inside that then we'll be able to look at that.
Glover: Representative McCarthy, $25 million on schools. I presume that democrats can live with that. Democrats like to spend money.
McCarthy: Well, no we want to be efficient. I think the proposal is to allocate some existing resources, about $8 million, so then that would be about $17 million more dollars. I don't know if you could do a global reforming type proposal at $17 million with our education system, just to increase the school day, for example, by either a few hours or a day, one day would cost over $10 million, all the transportation needs and everything. So, $17 million for a major reform proposal I don't know that that's significant to be frank with you.
Henderson: In October when the Governor first advanced what he called a blueprint, it included a three tiered system for teacher pay and some significant proposals which he has now taken off the table. Representative Upmeyer, he is calling for the appointment of a task force to study this issue, yet another task force. Do you think at some point there will be changes in the way teachers are paid and how they advance professionally?
Upmeyer: Oh, I think there likely will be. The Governor took it off the table this year and we've got a lot of opportunity to work on very significant pieces of revitalization of the education system in Iowa. So, if he would prefer to do that next year we'll do that next year and focus on the rest of the education reform this year.
Henderson: But Representative McCarthy, by taking it off the table when there seemed to be a little bit of momentum building for an education reform package has he effectively killed this idea down the road because it's not going to be dealt with this year?
McCarthy: I think they are finding that the problems, or the issue is much more complex than just picking four tiers and I'll just tell a very brief story, but when I went to junior high back in the 1970s it was kind of a suburb within the city, new construction area and I had a teacher, the best teacher I ever had in my entire life, Ms. Kolchak was her name, my science teacher. After almost four decades of teaching she just retired this last summer. When I went back to the school for the kind of retirement, end of year celebration I think this is approximately right, about 75% of the students there were on free and reduced lunches, a great many English as a second language. I would bet you if you aggregate tested her students over the last 30 years there would probably be a decline in the average test score given the changing demographics at the school, the challenges they face. She is the best teacher I ever had. So, how do you pay her and how do you test -- we want teachers like her in schools like that. It is much more complex.
Henderson: What is the problem that can be resolved here -- you sort of have a divide with a very powerful teacher's union that resists changes that would affect advancement based on seniority. This proposal that the Governor is advancing this week would call for yearly evaluation of teachers. How do you bridge that divide that exists and actually make some changes in regards to the teaching profession?
Upmeyer: You know, I always find it puzzling that we are resistant to judging teachers and evaluating teachers on anything other than test scores because obviously, I'm a nurse, okay, and I think there's a lot of similarities between nurses and teachers. And I'm not judged on how many of my patients live or die. If all of my patients died they perhaps would call it into question. But I think there is a great way to evaluate teachers on other things than only test scores. Certainly that is a component but Representative McCarthy points out that there are other factors that go in. There absolutely are. So, I think we can absolutely move away from a pure seniority system to a merit system without tying it directly to test scores entirely.
Henderson: You hit upon, Representative McCarthy, one of the concerns that teachers raised in that if you're a good teacher, stay in the classroom and teach the kids whereas this proposal that Governor Branstad and his staff had advanced called for those people to be mentors and be counseling other teachers in how to teach. How do you, I guess, resolve all of those complex issues at one time in the next year?
McCarthy: Maybe the test scores is a good idea to study a little bit more. I don't see a big blockade from teacher's associations. There's room for compromise here. Teachers want to be better teachers, teachers like collaboration, the like partnership and some of the proposals call for mentoring teachers and so I think there's some real opportunity to improve the way we deliver our education in this state.
Borg: Ms. Upmeyer, just as evaluating teachers is being moved down the road by studying it, gas tax is something that has been studied and this past week there was legislation floated and I guess is going to be introduced to raise the gas tax even though the Governor said, no not this year. You control pretty much what comes up in the House of Representatives because of your sizeable majority there. Will you debate the gas tax?
Upmeyer: Well, the Governor is leaning on this, excuse me, the Governor is leaning on this and the first thing he found out when he traveled the state was that Iowans want us to go back and look for efficiencies and make sure that every tax dollar is being used wisely. That is what the Governor has asked the department to do and asked us to do and that is what we'll do first. He has said, you know, that is the way he wants to approach it. Senator Gronstal has said no. So, I guess anything that the House might do would be premature at this point.
Borg: Mr. McCarthy, how do you feel about that? Would you like to see an increase in the gas tax debated?
McCarthy: Nobody wants to raise taxes, I haven't met a legislator that wants to raise taxes. We did caucus on this issue and we believe that infrastructure, roads and bridges is vital, both for public safety and for economic development purposes and we have a shortfall and it's real and it's significant. Our intention would be as follows, because the gas tax has been off the table for so many years we have needed to put funding in our roads, we have been ramping up registration fees and license renewal fees and trailer fees and more and more Iowans are disproportionately paying for the burdens of maintaining our roads. If we were to enter into something it would have to be 50/50 bipartisan but it would be to try to reduce as a percentage what Iowans are paying on our roads, ramping up these registration fees and license fees and so I'd have a disagreement with the proposal that was thrown out the other day that called for some more registration fees. So, if you capture more money from the out-of-state driver, about 30% on average vehicles on our roads are coming from out-of-state, reduce some of the registration fees so that we are more equitable in that way.
Glover: Representative Upmeyer, last year in the legislature, the House in particular, spent a fair amount of time debating some pretty divisive social issues. They debated abortion extensively, they debated same-sex marriage extensively, passed a resolution calling for a vote on same-sex marriage. Are you going to debate those issues again this year or is that settled? Have you voted giving your members a record on those things?
Upmeyer: Those bills are over in the Senate and I would encourage that any Iowans that want those bills debated need to let their Senators know that they expect to have that done.
Glover: So, you expect to bring it up in the House?
Upmeyer: They're in the Senate.
Glover: Representative McCarthy, same to you, do you expect to see a debate on those issues this coming year?
McCarthy: We hope not. Last session frankly was a disaster from my perspective. It was one week after another. This time last year we were getting ready to talk about impeachment proceedings of justices and then we went into the total elimination of our public preschool system and then the end of collective bargaining and then disenfranchisement. We didn't get down to doing the work of balancing the budget so far down in the session, that's why we went three months longer. I will say that, I've been saying this this last week, I'm hopeful now that because the tone is so much different. We're having bipartisan work now in education and mental health redesign and other issues that we're working on and so at this point I feel hopeful that we can have a more productive session, a timely session and one that is bipartisan.
Henderson: The allegation from legislative leaders is that you all have been working on this commercial property tax relief package and that you're close to an agreement. Representative Upmeyer, I’m' sort of a cynic, I'll believe it when I see it. Is there really a deal imminent on commercial property tax or is this going to be something that will not be resolved?
Upmeyer: Well, I think there's a great deal of flexibility on what we can do on property taxes. There's three principles we have always have our requirements as we do that. It needs to be broad-based across property taxes or classes, it needs to be very significant and consequential relief and it should benefit everyone and we had those conversations last year, those conversations have continued during the interim and it is certainly my hope that we can get that achieved this year.
Henderson: Representative McCarthy, is it going to happen?
McCarthy: Things are looking better. Two anecdotal stories -- I've been working on this issue for several years and it has always collapsed politically under its own weight because somebody's ox is getting gored among the class of property tax payers. This year the local governments are kind of recognizing now, particularly for small businesses, that taxing commercial property at 100% valuation is not really competitive. So, there's a willingness to be sympathetic to that. And the conversely, I was at the Iowa Chamber Alliance and they put in their legislative proposals that we must recognize that we can't hurt local governments and police and fire so people have taken a step towards one another which means there's a chance for compromise. It may not be everything everybody wants but we can do something maybe modest.
Borg: Can you assure farmland owners and homeowners that if you do do property tax relief commercially that they aren't going to get shifted onto the burden?
Upmeyer: Well, that would be one of the criteria that my caucus would be looking at and we absolutely believe cities and counties will be at the table. This will be -- if we're able to achieve this goal it will be because we are able to work together. But our goal isn't to raise property taxes on one group of people to lower them on another. We believe that we can lower them on commercial property taxes but that everyone can benefit.
Glover: Representative McCarthy, there's been a lot of talk by prison guards that funding for the prisons is so short that they are in danger, that there's not enough guards, there are too many prisoners per guard. Are you going to do anything about prison funding this coming year?
McCarthy: I suspect, I don't call up the bill for debate anymore, but I suspect there will be a proposal from the Governor to call for a supplemental to hire more staff at the prisons. It would be something we would support.
Glover: Representative Upmeyer, same question to you. Will you do some extra spending in prisons to alleviate the concerns that guards have raised that they are putting themselves in danger because you have cut their staffing too much?
Upmeyer: I'm sure that will be discussed and the outcome will be, it will depend on if -- for one thing, we do believe we have given the Governor enough money to spend so hopefully if he does propose additional spending he is able to find it within the current budget. So, we'll have that discussion.
Henderson: One of the discussions legislators had last year that remains unresolved is whether utility customers in Iowa should be assessed an increase in their rates to finance construction of a nuclear power plant in Iowa. Representative Upmeyer, is that something that House republicans want to have on the Governor's desk by the end of this session?
Upmeyer: Well, we passed the energy bill out of the House last year. There was discussion last year that the Senate was going to make some amendment to that and send it back to us, it never happened. Certainly we think all forms of energy need to be considered in this state for our future energy needs as one of the big things that companies look at, job creators look at as they expand their businesses. And so that's something we want to be competitive, we want to have adequate energy and we think this is a component of it. So, we'll see if it comes back.
Henderson: Representative McCarthy, you don't speak for Senate democrats, you speak for House democrats but what does your crystal ball tell you on this particular issue?
McCarthy: My thought is that most people that are of reasonable mind that will look at this issue of energy and ask a question how do you deliver base load power in the future? Most people have come to this, I think, conclusion. We can not continue to have fossil fuels, coal, etc. be that base load source forever. This is not sustainable, it's not sustainable for our environment and it's not sustainable. So, nuclear seems to be the option that can deliver that base load power. The issue of whether the rate payers should bear the total burden or whether it should be the shareholders, that was very controversial last year, it's why AARP was very upset and that's why we don't have the bill passed yet. It is my prediction that the bill will be amended to be more consumer friendly and it will come back to the House and I predict we may have a bill.
Glover: Representative Upmeyer, let's talk a little bit about the state's budget. The Revenue Estimating Conference has said the state next year is going to collect about $6.2 billion, it's just a little over $200 million more than the current budget year. But spending already on the books would send state spending up by just over $300 million. You've got a budget problem.
Upmeyer: Well, we always point out that we think we could have budget problems and that is why we have been very judicious about the budgets that we have brought forward. While some people talk about surpluses we point out that we have issues that we need to make sure that we've got enough revenue sort of available to us to meet the needs of Iowans that we have committed. So, we are spending less than we take in and the budget projections I think are going to be adequate for us to do what we need to do.
Glover: Representative McCarthy, what areas, if you have to cut back, are democrats willing to look at?
McCarthy: Well, first of all, in response to your question, this kind of ties together, I think there is going to be a challenge to balance the budget this year. I think republicans in the House, let's hope we'll be working in a bipartisan way, will try to make sure we get it done. But let me just tell you globally, you're right. The December REC came in $250 million additional dollars. The Medicaid estimating conference, for lack of a better phrase, are recommending $100 million additional because they have over 37,000 more enrollees within the last year and there's purse string issues with the federal government, $100 million more dollars additional. Allowable growth we have to fund to $75 million additional, okay. The takeover of the mental health system at a minimum is $46, $47 million, at a minimum additional dollars. We're already well over $200 million right there, $25 million for the education proposal. We're above the money that the REC's are -- I think we continue, we led the effort, a bipartisan effort, we led the effort just three years ago of government reorganization and we did that to the tune of a quarter billion dollars. So, we are willing and we have a track record in that regard ...
Glover: But you haven't addressed the real question is you're going to have more spending on the books that you have money coming in the door. What areas are you going to look at to cut back?
McCarthy: Well, we did that three years ago, tax credits would be something we'd be willing to look at and have, we've got an interim committee that has been meeting for about two years formally and informally that is looking at these issues, we addressed some of them, put caps on others. All that adds up from the fiscal bureaus how you score the budget.
Borg: Ms. Upmeyer, as long as we're talking about money, you don't do appropriations until generally around about April. But the Regents are submitting budget requests and they have set tuition based on getting what they want from the legislature. Should students be nervous that you're not going to be able to appropriate what the Regents want and tuition might go up?
Upmeyer: Well, I think the budget has to be looked at as the whole picture. Representative McCarthy just laid out a whole list of areas where he's making assumptions that we're going to increase certain amounts. I think some of those things may, obviously are needs that will be increased, other places we will cut back.
Borg: Should students be nervous?
Upmeyer: Well, I guess that's up to the Board of Regents. But we will do what we need to do for the Board of Regents based on the evidence they put before us about their needs and we will ask hard questions and I'm sure they'll give us answers. But in the end we've got 85% of the budget and we've got 15% of the budget to work on yet and that's what we'll focus on.
Henderson: Doves were a bit more nervous flying over Iowa this past fall because you guys legalized a dove hunting season. But one of the unresolved issues is whether hunters who are shooting at those birds should use lead based shots or what they call non-toxic shock, shot rather. Representative Upmeyer, do you think the Iowa House will take up a dove hunting bill or do you not want to open up that can of worms again?
Upmeyer: Well, actually, Kay, I believe that would be a rule modification action and so we'll see what happens. I think the Senate is interested in doing that and perhaps there are members of the House interested as well.
Glover: Representative McCarthy, it's an election year, it's a short session, there's some pressure to shorten the session up even more. Tell me what this legislature is going to do that the average Iowan will feel?
McCarthy: I think the three big issues we'll be working on in a bipartisan way, they'll notice some changes to our education system which hopefully over time improve our educational standards. I think we'll have improvement to our mental health delivery system which is very important. Right now it is 99 hodge-podge situations moving to maybe fourteen or fifteen clusters, better delivery, more efficient. And I think we'll have some property tax relief. Our hope as democrats is that that's targeted more towards Main Street than Wall Street, not trying to be class warfare but I think Wal-Mart is doing okay. And if we do that and balance the budget I think we'll be a positive session.
Glover: Representative Upmeyer, same question to you. Look at the big picture. What are Iowans going to be influenced, affected by what happens this session?
Upmeyer: Well, we know that Iowans want to focus on jobs and the economy so we're going to focus on jobs throughout the session in every bill we do and, you know, we know that government doesn't create those jobs, that the private sector does and so you won't see a stimulus bill or an I-Jobs bill or anything like that. But what you will see is a focus on creating a healthier regulatory environment in this state which has to do with stability. Job creators can predict the regulatory environment they're going to be in, they can predict the tax environment they are going to be in, they can predict that the state is going to have a focused spending plan that lives within its means and that will help with job creation. And then additionally I agree with Representative McCarthy that we will work on the mental health bill, obviously we have to do that, we set up the previous bill so that will move forward and I think we'll do some things with education and property taxes as well.
Henderson: Representative McCarthy, republicans currently hold a 20-seat advantage in the Iowa House of Representatives. Have you recruited the right kind of candidate to erase that 20-seat majority?
McCarthy: Politics is local, particularly with House contests so you're right, it's having a good candidate that matches your district locally. We have the best recruiting class I've ever seen and it's getting better. In fact, we're maybe announcing somebody within the next 24 to 48 hours which ...
Henderson: You can go ahead and do that right now.
McCarthy: ... be on par with the best that we have right now. We have county supervisors, we have mayors, we have former representatives and senators, community leaders ...
Borg: You mean, as new candidates?
McCarthy: As new candidates. I think right now we had Steve Scheffler and Doug Gross were on this program just a couple of weeks ago, pretty conservative republicans and they were asked, is the House in play? And I found it fascinating they say, well, what they're supposed to say, the republicans will keep control but we think they're going to lose four or five seats. I'm paraphrasing but that is basically what they said. When they're saying that it makes my job a lot easier because there's no question we're going to pick up seats. They key is how many. I think we have a shot to get back control.
Henderson: Do you think they have a shot to get back control, Representative Upmeyer?
Upmeyer: Well, actually I was thinking how many we would grow the majority by so I guess we have a little different opinion about that. But I think the one thing that we've seen absolutely it at times like this when there are big issues facing the country and when there is unrest and a lot of energy out there we see that energy reflected in people in the communities, people engaging and stepping up and wanting to participate, wanting to run for office with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm and volunteers and I think it's just fabulous to have that kind of opportunity.
Glover: Representative Upmeyer, republicans just had a fairly intense and active caucus campaign. How much has that helped you by energizing the party's base?
Upmeyer: Well, I think it does engage people. I think any time you have people participating in the very grassroots kind of citizenship really that we have in Iowa it really does engage people and it creates a great deal of excitement.
Borg: We're happy to have engaged you here today and I'm sorry to dampen the energy but we're out of time. Thanks so much for being with us.
McCarthy: Thank you.
Borg: We're inviting you to tune in Tuesday for a special IPTV political programming, Governor Branstad's Condition of the State Address will be seen live Tuesday morning at 10 on IPTV World and then that night we'll rebroadcast the entire speech with reporter analysis included at 7. That will be on statewide Iowa Public Television that night. That is all on Tuesday, 10 in the morning and 7 that night. And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend but a very important time change there. 7:30 on Friday night still our regular time slot but on Sunday Iowa Press is moving to Noon making way for additional public affairs programming. So, we hope that you'll join us at the new time Sunday at Noon. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.