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Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal

posted on February 9, 2012

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The majority minority.  Democrats holding a razor thin majority in Iowa's State Senate and Council Bluffs' Senator Mike Gronstal leads and leverages it.  We're questioning Senator Gronstal on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: There's no denying that Senator Mike Gronstal is a political lightening rod.  Two reasons for that. One, he is leading the democrat's slim two-seat Iowa Senate majority.  And the second reason is the democrats see those two votes as their firewall against the House of Representatives where republicans are holding a 20-seat edge and against the executive branch where republican Terry Branstad is back in office after twelve years of democratic governors.  So, Senator Gronstal gets a lot of attention in leveraging those two democratic votes in some very high profile legislation.  Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Gronstal: Thanks.

Borg: And across the table, two people that you see daily, Senator Gronstal, up at the statehouse, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, let's start with the edge of the news if we could.  The Governor and legislative republicans have trotted out a proposal to cut property taxes, commercial property taxes by 40%.  Democrats in the Senate have come up with a sharply different approach to property tax reduction dealing with property taxes.  Doesn't that, in fact, lead to the possibility that nothing is going to happen this year?

Gronstal: Well, I'm certainly hopeful that that isn't the result but I'd also say a side effect of both the Governor's plan and the House republicans' plan is a $310 million shift to homeowners in the state of Iowa.  Their tax bill creates a tax shift.  You lower commercial and residential comes up.  So, effectively their bill is the biggest tax increase on property taxes for homeowners in the history of the state.

Glover: And that is going to the merits of the issue and I didn't really want to go there.  I mean, you have two sharply different approaches.  Isn't the likelihood then that nothing much is going to happen in this?

Gronstal: Here is what I keep saying to folks -- you guys want us to focus on where we disagree ...

Glover: You disagree on the basics.

Gronstal: I want to focus on where we agree.  We both think, to the tune of hundreds of millions, we can make a difference in commercial property taxes in this state.  We've got a $200 million plan on the table, we can probably make that a $250 million plan.  They have got -- the Governor's commercial property tax plan was about a $560 million plan.  We have agreed, everybody has agreed we need to do something about it and everybody is willing to -- we're willing to put some real money on the table to do that.

Borg: It's likely that nothing is going to happen.

Gronstal: So, I put $250 million out there on the table and we can't figure out a way to compromise with each other on the principles?

Glover: Apparently you can't.

Gronstal: But our principle is pretty simple, it really is.  Our principle is there shouldn't be a tax shift to homeowners and implicit in both of the republicans' plans is a tax shift.  They cut commercial property taxes to the tune of about $560 million and in the end they only reimburse to the tune of about $240 million of $250 million.

Glover: Let's go past this deadlock then.  What is the politics if nothing happens on property taxes?

Gronstal: I think it is bad for both of us.  I think we ought to figure out a way to work together and find common ground.  Like I said, I think the common ground is at least $200 million on the table to lower commercial property taxes.

Glover: But there is no sign of any kind of agreement across the table on that.

Gronstal: There is agreement of $200 million.  Let's grab that.  Often around here in our institution people say it should be better than what you're doing.  Hey, often around here the best approach is to take one step.  One step usually leads to a second step and a third step.  So let's take a step this year on the pieces we agree on and then we can figure out how that works and decide whether it is working the way we want to and we can change it next year.  We aren't Moses and the Ten Commandments.  We're not casting these things in stone.  We're passing one year an effort to relieve commercial property taxes and everybody agrees.  People all have to give up something in that equation.

Henderson: How much will Iowans have to give up to put gas in their tank in the future?  There is a three member panel on the Iowa Senate which has endorsed the concept of raising the gas tax by a dime over the next two years.  Is that going to advance further?

Gronstal: Well, I think it is likely that it will -- it passed the subcommittee, it's likely it will pass the full committee.  My understanding is on the House side their chair, Tjepkes ...

Henderson: Of the House transportation committee.

Gronstal: ... of the House transportation committee, is taking up a subcommittee on Monday.  So, I think on both sides there is real interest.  Whether we get to the consensus we need to make that happen I don't know yet.  I'm from a community that nobody wants to see taxes go up, any kind of taxes.  The other challenge is if you don't have the infrastructure there, if you tell businesses in Council Bluffs that for the next 25 years the interstate system around our community is going to be torn up they're a little less inclined to expand or to come to our community.  So I think there's a lot of people that have strong feelings on this.  If it's going to happen it has to be done in a broadly, deeply bipartisan way.

Henderson: Is that likely?

Gronstal: I think it is 50/50 right now.

Glover: Has anybody had any conversations with the Governor?  You need his name at the bottom of this thing if you pass it.

Gronstal: I'm confident that before we come to a final vote in either chamber we will have the assurance that it will be passed and it will be signed.

Borg: You said we like to concentrate on disagreement.  Well, I'm not concentrating on disagreement but you raise the disagreements.  The Senate passed a four percent increase in school funding, K-12 school funding for the school year starting in 2013.  Republicans say in the House that's not even going to be brought up because it is premature because we are going into school reform right now and we don't know how much they should have in school funding for the fall of 2013.  What was your thinking?

Gronstal: It's actually the fall of 2014.  Yeah, it's the fall of 2013, the year after this fall.  What was I thinking?  Our thinking was we should obey state law that requires us within 30 days to set an allowable growth number for school districts one year out.  That is what state law says.  We followed the law.  They can certainly say we think four percent is too much, we're going to do it a year later but  for the moment we're going to set it at zero.  They can certainly do that and pass the bill back to us and then they have abided by the law.  But at this point they have just basically said we don't care what the law is.

Henderson: It is not unprecedented that legislators have not set this level of state aid in advance.  It has been not set in the past.  So legislators in the past have sort of violated this law.

Gronstal: Actually legislators in the past several years, there was a year that the education community came to us and said at the depth of this economy we're fearful that if you set the number today that number will be set so low and that a year from now we'll have a better chance and so we changed the law.  We passed a law that says not withstanding the law for this particular year because of the bad economic conditions we're going to delay for a year setting that allowable growth.

Henderson: But what about the Governor's contention that we need to delay this decision until we decide what the breadth of education reform is going to be?

Gronstal: I encouraged the Governor to put in his bill to change the timeline but that is the law today.

Glover: There is another issue floating around ...

Gronstal: I got a speeding ticket once for going 70 before they raised the speed but eventually we raised the speed limit to 70.  I didn't come back and say, hey, can we make that retroactive so I can get off.  You have to wait until they change the law.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, there's another bill that is floating around that has an impact in your home community and that is a bill that would eliminate greyhound racing effectively.  What is the future of that bill?  And will you support it?

Gronstal: I don't know.  I don't know.  I would tell you I'm very concerned about the jobs that that may do away with in our community.  I think people are divided on the issue so we'll wait and see what moves forward.

Glover: And in your position as a leader you have an influence on that.  What role are you going to play?

Gronstal: As I said we'll wait and see what moves forward, what form it is in, what the final passage looks like whether it -- if it comes out of committee on our side and what the House passes.  We'll wait and see.

Borg: So you're undecided on that matter?

Gronstal: That's correct.

Borg: Undecided?

Gronstal: Yes.

Henderson: There are two competing proposals, one of which would have casinos pay the state a huge sum of money, $70 million in order for the pleasure of not having greyhound races at their institutions.  But another competing proposal would essentially end the purse supplements that those casinos have and in some way help the greyhound industry in some ways financially survive.  Are either one of those more amenable to you?

Gronstal: Like I say, I'm going to let the process work, the committees work, the two chambers work and see what they produce.

Henderson: Another gambling related issue, online gambling, going online and playing poker.  Don't give us that poker face.  Are you going to actually do something on this issue?  It has been percolating for a few years.  Will there actually be action in the legislature on online gambling this year?

Gronstal: I think it's hard to tell.  It is a complicated issue.  And what makes it complicated is the fact that many Iowans right now are playing online poker.  They doing it offshore over the Internet.  We could actually create something in this state where -- and by the way, they're doing it on credit cards, they're doing it in ways that wouldn't be legal under state law -- so we have this messy circumstance where there is this grey market or black market online poker business going on.  We could come up with a legal system where people could go into a casino, deposit cash, create some safeguards that keep it quite difficult for underage gamblers to be able to do it.  We could probably come up with a system that would help pull that back from offshore entities.  So, I think it is something worth exploring.  Whether we get a consensus -- I always tell people there's a thousand ways to kill a bill and only one way to pass it, 26-51 and the Governor's signature.  And so I think there's a lot of potential sidetracks for this bill to go down.  But I think it probably makes sense for us to try and regulate this industry that is already going on.

Glover: There's another issue that is percolating out there and that is a whole set of proposals that would deal with gun rights and the ability of gun owners to avoid state regulation.  What is the future of that?  Are you going to stand in the way of it?

Gronstal: I'm not going to stand in the way.  We'll see what they pass on the House side.

Glover: But what do you favor?

Gronstal: I'd say I'm open to considering any of those bills.

Glover: And you have been, you have said ...

Gronstal: Let me also say a couple of years ago we passed what the NRA described as the most significant change in gun laws in the state of Iowa in nearly a century.  So we have worked with them on their issues and tried to be respectful of the second amendment and we're going continue to try and do that.

Glover: You said on a couple of issues you're going to not allow debate on some things that are fairly controversial.  I'm thinking gay rights, abortion, things like that. 

Gronstal: I don't think I ever actually said it on abortion.

Glover: Well, you've said it on a couple of issues that are fairly controversial.  Are you going to pay a political price for that, either in the Senate or back home?

Gronstal: Everything we do has a political price pro and con.  Every single thing, every vote we take up there somebody figures out a reason they like it and somebody else figures out a reason they don't like it.

Borg: Some more profound than others though and I think that's what Mike is asking.

Gronstal: Is this more profound than others?  I don't know.  I'm going to run a good campaign.  I'm going to knock on thousands of doors.  I'm going to stand on people's doorsteps and tell them what I stand for and one of the things I stand for is not putting discrimination in the state constitution.

Glover: And you're comfortable politically with that both in your district and statewide?

Gronstal: I'm completely comfortable with that.

Henderson: In Georgia they have started construction on the first nuclear, new nuclear power facility in the country since the Three Mile Island disaster.  There is a bill pending at the statehouse which would assist the utility MidAmerican in planning and financing a new nuclear facility here.  What are the prospects for that legislation?

Gronstal: I'd say it is 50/50.  I think there's a real chance the legislature will take it up.  I think clearly the version the House passed has essentially no protection for consumers whatsoever.  So, on the Senate side we're working on it.  Whether we get enough that we've got a consensus to pass it remains to be seen but we're working on things that make sure consumers are protected if it comes to that.

Glover: I'd like you to step back for a second.  We've talked about a number of issues where there seems to be something emerging from the republican House.  There seems to be something sharply different emerging from the democratic Senate and something sharply different from the republican Governor.  Doesn't that spell the recipe for gridlock this year?  Aren't we looking at a fairly short session that is going to end and not do a lot?

Gronstal: That is certainly possible.  That isn't my desire.  I think looking for common ground is the thing -- I think if we can't take big steps we ought to try and take small steps.  So, that set of things we're going to continue to work on.  But we think the session should be about jobs, putting Iowans back to work. 

Henderson: Back to the nuclear power ball.  The AARP is one of the groups that was adamantly opposed to the bill as it currently exists because they say that consumers will be left holding the bag for financing this thing.  In what way could you change that bill to assuage those fears?

Gronstal: We have already made some changes to it and we're reviewing other changes to it.  It is the normal legislative process.  A bill goes through debate, people give input, the public gives input.  One of the major concerns last year by AARP was the intent language in the bill that left it in their view impossible for the utility board to say no.  We struck the intent language.  We're listening.  We're working through that and we're looking for ways to make sure consumers don't end up holding the bag.  So that is what the Senate is doing.  Whether we get that job done and there is a consensus to pass the bill, like I said, it's probably 50/50.

Borg: One of the major pieces of legislation going through the legislature this session is school reform.  And like property taxes would you say there that the legislature may not eat the whole apple but may take some small bites this time?  And which components of education reform do you think have the best chances of passing?

Gronstal: I think the focus on early reading skills, I think there is strong consensus amongst everybody that that's important to deal with.  And there's some controversy around social promotion and failing kids in the third grade.  What happens if you've got a kid that is a brilliant mathematician, does great in all the math subjects but is lagging in reading and doesn't quite meet the cutoff and we make them repeat the third grade?  That doesn't necessarily make sense.  But the idea of that every kid by the end of third grade ought to be able to read is something that we all need to focus on, identify those kids not just in the third grade, all the way back, frankly all the way back to birth.  When kids are born if parents don't read to them they are permanently at a disadvantage so make sure we figure out where kids are at, what skills they are lacking and try and make the number that can't read by the end of third grade incredibly small.

Borg: That is one part.  What other components might pass?

Gronstal: I think there's some stuff we can do on teacher preparation.  I think people have moved to the view that the core curriculum makes some sense.  I think we'll probably be willing to go along with the Governor on his ideas on core curriculum going to other subjects.  I think there's some real room there.  But I think the early reading stuff and making sure we have after school programs and summer school programs and tutoring programs and mentoring programs and older students teaching younger students, those kinds of things to help make sure that every third grader can read.  I think a robust recovery effort for those kids that are lacking skills is incredibly important.  I think there could be good consensus on that.

Glover: Another tough issue you're facing is dealing with health care, the soaring costs of health care, the soaring availability of health care.  What is going to end up with that?  There's some pretty sharp differences up there about health care reform.

Gronstal: The health care reform, probably the piece we're dealing with this year is a state run exchange program, health insurance exchange program.  Obviously some differences about where that should go or what it should do.  Some people say let's walk away from it and we let the feds run it.  I think that is a lousy solution for a state like Iowa to just let the feds run it.

Borg: And that is where people can come in and buy health insurance in a form set up by the state?

Gronstal: That's correct.  That is correct.  So, I think we'll work through that.  I'm not positive we'll reach consensus on it but even some fairly conservative groups have said, states ought to craft their own fate, not just let the feds step in and run it.

Glover: Your prediction is at the end of the day you're going to do something there.

Gronstal: I'm thinking it is leaning that way but I think the Senate can do it, I'm not positive the House can.

Henderson: As a politician from Council Bluffs you have a unique perspective on a game of chicken between the states of Iowa and Nebraska in regards to some sort of Google like development.  What can you tell us about that?  And is the state of Iowa ready to up the ante to get that project?

Gronstal: I think we're certainly willing to do things within reason.  We created a law a few years ago that made Google possible, we also made changes to that law a couple of years later that related to enable kind of project specific and the incentives that we developed for Google were in essence the same incentives that we would give to a manufacturer only Google isn't a manufacturer.  So we didn't try and give them anything special over and above what we'd give to a manufacturer but we tried to give them the same set of things.  I think we're certainly willing to look at those incentives if the make sense.  But I'd also tell you -- those are great jobs to get.  We're glad to have them and we'll work with any company that needs us to work with them on those kinds of things.  I also think you have to grow an economy from the bottom up.  I think you have to work on Main Street businesses, small businesses.  We have a set of six or seven bills that are in the House that are about smaller businesses.  One to help them with health insurance, one is a small business loan program, just a host of different efforts ...

Henderson: A broader question about economic development.  Governor Branstad wants to spend $25 million on a fund that would be given to, as direct grants to businesses to encourage them to expand or move here.  House republicans don't want to do that.  They don't like picking winners and losers.  There are even some republicans who voted against a proposal this past week to extend a special tax credit to a development around the Field of Dreams near Dyersville.  Is there a tension here that is about ready to break between republicans and democrats and the republican Governor on economic development policy?

Gronstal: In one sense I don't think any of us particularly like picking winners and losers.  So we don't.  And democrats have talked about trying to figure out a way to work with other states and come up with a compact so it isn't just this kind of race to the bottom in terms of what happens in states when businesses kind of get to play us against each other.  So, there is some sympathy for what the republicans in the House said.  There is also I think in our caucus the recognition that there's 49 other states that have incentive funds that figure out a way to attract businesses and make the difference and when they can make that difference count on the margins, you know, here's the company, here's what they're getting over there, here's what they could get  and on the margins we could make a difference in a location decision for some high quality jobs -- if everybody else would disarm we'd go okay, maybe we should disarm as well.  But if they don't I think it is foolish to walk away from that effort.

Glover: And it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press program if we didn't talk a little bit of politics.  The republicans control the House with a 60 to 40 margin, not a lot of people think that democrats are going to grab control of that chamber in this year's election.  On the other hand, democrats control the Senate by a 26 to 24 margin and you're losing one senator, Senate President Jack Kibbie is not running again.  Where do you keep control?  What seats do you win?  And what are the odds you have control next year?

Gronstal: Well, with all due respect, Mike, I'm not going to tell you which seats we win, I'm just going to tell you we have recruited really good candidates out there all across the state and some opportunities in a few areas that maybe we didn't expect six months ago.  The key to winning state senate seats, it's finding people that are well connected to their communities, that are already leaders in their community.  So, we go out and we talk to local folks and ask them who they think would be best and we have got a great crop of candidates, we have got a small business owner, we've got a former city manager, we've got a firefighter.  We have some great candidates that are really well connected to their communities.  Those are the folks that win these races.  The Republican Party approach is to come in from the outside and reach in and say here's the person we want and try and hand pick their candidates from Des Moines.  That is what happened in Cedar Rapids.  They tried to hand pick their candidate in Des Moines.  The democrats found their own candidate locally.  They came to consensus on who would be the best and convinced that person to run.

Glover: But you are center stage in this year's election.  If you look around, the House is not in play, there are not a lot of really hot congressional races, there's no statewide election on the ballot this year.  You're it, right?

Gronstal: I think there's some congressional races that are going to attract a little bit of attention in the state of Iowa.  I think Steve King is in for the race of his life.  So I think there's other places as well.  But like I say, it doesn't have to do with what the folks in Des Moines decide the targets are or where they're going to send the money.  What matters is who you recruit as candidates.  We have people that are well connected with their community.  They thought they had the hand picked race in Cedar Rapids, a moderate district means republican, they thought they had the hand picked race.  We won it.

Borg: Senator, we're out of time.  Thanks so much for being with us today.  Next week on Iowa Press we're focusing on the Iowa Board of Regents' new leaders, President Craig Lang and the Board's President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter.  You'll see the Regents' leaders at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night repeating at 12:00 noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

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