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Iowa Senate President Jack Kibbie (D-Emmetsburg)

posted on April 13, 2012

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Final gavel.  Senate President Jack Kibbie concluding his legislative career when the General Assembly adjourns.  A conversation with the Emmetsburg democrat on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: A few days ago exhorting fellow legislators to move pending legislation, Iowa Senate President Jack Kibbie said, it's time to plant corn.  That seasonal reference documents Jack Kibbie's legislative tenure because a few decades ago when rural legislators dominated the General Assembly corn planting was the time and the only incentive needed for reconciling philosophical differences and adjourning.  Jack Kibbie remembers that era coming to the state legislature in 1961, a little over 50 years ago, serving four years in the House of Representatives and then another four in the Senate and after a 20 year break returning in 1989 now serving as the Senate's president.  He's particularly known for nurturing Iowa's community college system.  In fact, he's often called the father of community colleges.  Senator Kibbie, welcome back to Iowa Press.  I saw you chuckle at the corn planting reference.  Corn planting time a little early this year though.

Kibbie: Thanks, Dean.

Borg: Nice to have you back.  Also at the Iowa Press table Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Senator, let's start with something that Dean mentioned in his open.  You are often called the father of the community college system.  You were deeply involved in the community college founding.  Did you envision it would become the behemoth it has become when you were talking about founding it?

Kibbie: Well, hardly.  It has grown much faster than we anticipated because the need was there.  People were so hungry for this type of education.  When Harold Hughes got elected governor he went in and campaigned on having four state-owned, state-operated voc tech schools.  We had 16 junior colleges out there at that time that were operated by K-12 schools, very little state aid, they were a financial burden to them.  My goal as chair of the education committee in 1965 was to do something to broaden the tax base for those junior colleges and save them.  And with marrying, that's my term, voc tech and arts and science together we come with this merged area school system which is now known as the community college system.  It started out with 9,000 students.  We probably have 109,000 students today full-time.  So it has been a great accomplishment for this state.  And Iowans rely on, their economy relies on what community colleges do and offer.

Glover: Where is that system headed?  Is it going to become part of the overall higher education system?  Where is it going?  Where do you envision it being?

Kibbie: I envision that it is going to continue to grow where it is.  Funding, of course, is the big setback there.  The community college students are paying over 60% of the cost to operate the community colleges.  It was never intended that way.  In the original law it was written that the state general fund would be the primary funders of these institutions.  The small amount of property tax, 20.25 cents for operating these schools, that was settled in 1967, it has never changed since.  So the schools have got three sources of income to operate the schools.  They've got the 20.25 cents property tax, they've got tuition and state general aid.  And the only flexible dollar they've got is tuition.  So the big negative to rely on tuition is in my opinion they can't offer a lot of expensive technical programs because they don't have the funding.  And they can't pay the salaries that is required to get qualified teachers in technical areas and so ...

Borg: That's not going to change is it?  You don't see that changing any time soon?

Kibbie: Well, it should change this session.  Hopefully in the conference committee between the House and the Senate on funding for community colleges that we can address that.  The Governor recommended $4 million more in general aid but he didn't recommend any training dollars.  And so I have offered a bill on skilled workforce training.  It is the number one issue in Iowa and whether it is the Association of Business and Industry, whether it is the large corporations of this state, they'll tell you that is their biggest challenge today in Iowa is to find a skilled employee.  And so we've had a lot of conversation and you may want to talk about ed reform -- ed reform is important but we've been doing ed reform since I've been here.  But if we'd rely on this skilled workforce shortage and fund it we would move this state forward.  Ag is thriving in this state.  We need to continue that and we're not going to be able to do that without a skilled workforce.

Henderson: Community colleges now have more full-time students than the three public universities in Iowa, isn't that correct?

Kibbie: That is correct.

Henderson: And as such they are now in many ways a precursor.  You take your first two years at the community college and then you go on to school in Ames, Cedar Falls or Iowa City.  Should not that system be governed by one board and elevated and regulated in that manner?

Kibbie: That is a possibility.  We had that discussion in 1965.  I would hope that the state board that it is in now under the leadership of Jason Glass ...

Henderson: The director of the Department of Education.

Kibbie: The director of the Department of Education -- I haven't heard him mention the word community college as the head of that organization which he is the head of.  And so we need to wake up there.  I have a grandson that is going to go to Iowa State next year, that's been in Emmetsburg taking ag transfer courses for the last two years and the same books and the same criteria that he's going to walk right -- that's just what you mentioned.

Borg: Senator, has the political process gotten too involved in higher education?

Kibbie: No, I don't think so.  Higher education -- all education it seems to me since 2010 election has been a target on funding no matter whether it is preschool, K-12, community colleges, the funding is starving those institutions.

Borg: But in your career you have seen the Board of Regents be a buffer between the legislature and higher education and the state universities.  It doesn't seem that way anymore.  It seems like the legislature takes actions that really impact and run the universities.

Kibbie: Well, the legislature should not try to micromanage the Regents.  We've tried that over the years.  Go back to 1967 -- we had to legislate that Iowa and Iowa State play football.  I don't think it ever went to the governor but that is where the conversation started -- Bill Reichardt from Des Moines was serving in the Iowa Senate, a former football player at the University of Iowa.  But the Regents they do a good job but, you know, they need to not get involved in the politics in the state and they need to be concerned about those three universities an dhow they are going to educate Iowans.  In rural Iowa ...

Glover: Senator, let me ask you this -- you mentioned politicization of the Regents.  Have the Regents become too political?  Have they dived into politics in too deep a fashion?

Kibbie: Well, regardless of party it just seems to me if you write a big enough check in the governor's campaign you can be rewarded by getting onto the Regents.  And I don't know that that's the right way to go.

Glover: Is that what is happening?

Kibbie: It's happened in some cases, yes.

Glover: Let's step back just a second and look back at your career.  You've been around the Iowa Statehouse for a good long time, a number of decades.  Think back and tell us about your best moment and think back and tell us a little bit about your lowest moment.

Kibbie: I really haven't had any bad moments and I've had a lot of good moments.  Community colleges of course have been the highlight for being there in the 60s and see them grow.  But I did a lot of work in the 90s -- nobody does anything by themselves over there but for public employees and their pensions -- all Iowans need to respect and appreciate public employees.  They teach your kids, they keep us safe, they are fire departments, they are Highway Patrol those folks.  There's nothing like, in my opinion, a good education and a good job and a retirement program and that is what the legislature should be all about.  Education, health and safety.

Henderson: Another perspective question -- over the past decade the Iowa legislature has passed a number of bills directly targeting veteran’s issues.  You are a Korean War veteran, you're also a farmer.  There are far fewer farmers and veterans serving in the legislature today than there were in the 1960s.  How has that changed the debate and the conversation?

Kibbie: Well, it has changed it somewhat.  I first came to the legislature I would guess that the average age was probably 15, 20 years older than today and lots of retired farmers.  Not that that's bad, that's what I am now.  But when I came there I was about 31 years old but I looked younger than that and they even got me confused for the pages in House.  But the demographics of Iowa has changed and so we need people in the legislature from all walks of life and that is what we have.  We're a citizen legislature.  In the early days up until recently and back in the early days we didn't have all the staff we have there today and we relied on -- we had enough attorneys in the legislature to have an attorney on every committee.

Borg: As you were talking and remembering those years I just made some quick notes here that you've seen in your career many collective bargaining enacted.  Liquor by the drink under the Hughes administration, the Lottery --

Kibbie: The seal of the death penalty, that was huge.  We're one of the first states to do that and that was one of the best things that Iowa has done.

Borg: Not only that, you only met every two years when you first came in.

Kibbie: In the 60s we met every two years.  That never started until in the 70s.  They talk about the president senate seats, we've only had presidents of the Senate since the early 90s.

Borg: And as President of the Senate that requires some on-the-spot extemporaneous judgments, Senator, guiding debate.  And we have a clip of a particularly contentious exchange this past week in which you had to get involved.

Iowa Senate Debate - April 12, 2012: Senator Jack Hatch: "Are you willing to take over a billion and a half dollars of federal dollars away from the health and safety of every woman, every child, every family involved in Medicaid throughout the state?"

Iowa Senate Debate - April 12, 2012: Senator Kent Sorenson: "Senator Hatch, I'm just curious, how many babies are you willing to slaughter, dismember, and throw in a garbage can for a billion dollars."

Iowa Senate Debate - April 12, 2012: Senator Jack Kibbie: "Point of order.  The question is out of order ... asking one of our members ridiculous question that is not in order -- it's not in order in this chamber, Senator."

Iowa Senate Debate - April 12, 2012: Senator Kent Sorenson: "Mr. President, I think it's pretty ridiculous to claim that we can't save unborn babies for a billion dollars."

Borg: Mike Glover, you were there for that exchange.

Glover: Senator, what does that say about the tenor of the Iowa legislature this days?  Is the tenor that divided, that split, that nasty?

Kibbie: Sure, the tenor is, it's more partisan than it was, than it used to be.  It seems to be getting more partisan, negative campaigns have something to do with that.  I think this conversation is kind of related to the national election.  We've heard a lot about those social issues.  We've got rules in the Senate that our members need to follow and they do by and large.  But tempers -- I was trying to control the situation and that is my job and we just need to be more respectful to one another.

Glover: Is it all tied back to the change in campaign?  Campaigns have gotten more expensive, campaigns have gotten more negative.  Has that resulted in a tenor after the election that is more sharply partisan, more negative?

Kibbie: I think that is part of it but people come in here with the idea that they're going to run over the rules, they're going to make something happen regardless of what the rules say.  The leadership -- the proper leadership in both parties should have a lot to do with that but that is what we have caucuses for, that is what we have committee meetings for, that is what this process is all about is respectful of one another.  It is --

Borg: You're saying we've lost civility that we used to have in the Iowa Senate, in the legislature?

Kibbie: Very little but when it happens it gets attention today more than it used to.  But we just need to work together and -- it used to be we'd all socialize together --

Borg: Let's go to some current issues, Kay?

Henderson: Speaking of working together, do you think there is common ground to reach an accord on property tax reform?  And if so what shape would that deal be in?

Kibbie: I think there's -- I feel very good about that.  I think there's conversation going on between both parties in the executive branch to reach a compromise in that area.  That is one thing the democrat caucus has been concerned about is shifting that tax from commercial to residential and counties and cities not being able to provide the services that they need to provide.  They are the ones that provide most of the services out there in the state and so when we inhibit that they don't have the resources to do that then shame on us.  But if we educate people right and get them a good job and standard of living and quality of life, taxes is not as big a deal.

Borg: You said a moment ago you have been doing education reform your entire tenure.  There's education -- a major education reform proposal up there from Governor Branstad, the House has done one thing, the Senate is I think not going along with everything.  Where is that going to end up?

Kibbie: I think we'll probably do an education reform bill --

Borg: Is that going to be meaningful?  You've said we've been doing this for years.

Kibbie: It will be -- continue what we've been doing and it won't be negative to third graders or to people that want to pass onto college and have certain grade points.  I don't think that is going to happen.  This whole discussion on education -- it's just like recently, and this is not your question, but on the scholarships, Regents -- it's a headline in the paper today ...

Borg: Tuition set-aside.

Kibbie: A certain amount of tuition goes for scholarships for other people.  I think that is worth talking about.  But if we're going to do that let's have our own scholarship program.  We started that with Harold Hughes and Bob Ray having a state scholarship program for public institutions.  If we'd fund that they wouldn't need to shift these dollars.  The haves need to take care of the have-nots in all areas and that is what you see at the universities and so the state should be doing that obligation and setting that whether it is $144 million or whatever it is and put that through the Iowa tuition and student aid commission and do it on a need basis.  We can afford -- Iowa is a very well-to-do state.  There's only two states in the nation that are better off than we are today and that is North Dakota and they've got oil and Wyoming has got coal and Iowa has got ethanol.

Glover: So you don't have a problem with the universities using some of that tuition money to help out other students?  You think that is a worthwhile thing to do?

Kibbie: If they are to have a diverse population in their institutions I think they've got to do something like that.

Glover: And you'd be willing to augment it by other stuff from the state?

Kibbie: Absolutely. 

Glover: Then let's look at -- you've listed a number of issues -- you've got a little bit of time left.  Next Tuesday is supposed to be the end of this session.  I don't think anybody is realistically thinking that is going to happen.  Give us a road map for solving these divisive, large issues and ending this year's session.

Kibbie: I don't think there will be an answer to this tuition thing at the Regents but we ought to -- if we want to change that those same people that are bringing that to our attention ought to be offering a scholarship program that is paid for by all Iowans, not just the parents of those students in my opinion.  It's probably too late in this session but to get -- we've got seven budgets now in conference.  There's one left and that is the health and human services which is the fastest growing budget in state government and that is taking care of the elderly, poor, Medicaid and young poor and mothers and so that is a very important budget.  Medicaid budget is 38 cents state, balance is federal.  We've got to spend the state dollars first.

Henderson: You mentioned ethanol.  You have long sought to have an ethanol mandate in Iowa.  Is that one of your regrets that you never got that done?

Kibbie: That is a regret that I never got that passed.  Iowa produces more ethanol than any other state.  Many states use more ethanol on miles traveled or the total number of gasoline used in their state than Iowa does.

Borg: But increasingly people are saying, that can stand on its own merits, ethanol has to compete along with the other fuels.

Kibbie: It can compete fine if they get a fair shot.  But renewable fuel lobby in the federal level and at the state level compared to the big oil lobby it's like Emmetsburg Community College playing in the NFL.  These guys, they own the tax code and they're talking about -- while I've got a chance to say this -- they're talking about pipelines in the United States and we ought to be building a pipeline and all the workers we're going to get together on that.  That's fine.  But those pipelines are not for renewable fuels.  They're for big oil.  We ought to be building a pipeline to get to each coast with renewable fuel.

Henderson: What about building roads?  You are also in favor of increasing the state gas tax.

Kibbie: We're making a very big mistake on letting our infrastructure go to pot.  We should have done it when Time 21 first come on -- we had a study, we put Time 21 on, we needed $2 million to bring our roads up to snuff, that is six, seven years ago.  That is when we should have done it.  Many groups that support the gas tax increase today wasn't for it then.  The way our ag economy is today and then the road systems are today we've got to keep our infrastructure up if we’re going to have jobs and it is all related.  And sure with gas tax, gas going up it's hard to pass a gas tax but it should never be called a gas tax, it is a user fee.  Most of the people that I hear complaining about the gas tax drive less than 10,000 miles a year.  They only spend two dinners out, even at McDonald's will pay that tax for them for that year.

Glover: Senator, I'd like you to step back one more time and reflect on your thoughts as you prepare to leave the Iowa legislature after you've been around here for half a century.  What are your thoughts as you leave? 

Kibbie: You do anything, I assume, for 32 years it is part of your life, you're going to miss it.  I enjoyed it.  I certainly wouldn't have stayed here.  I don't love campaigns and I don't love raising money.  Some people do.  But we'd like to see Iowa be a better place and I think in my own mind I left the state better than I found it and so that is what we all need to do.

Glover: Is politics better or worse now than when you started?

Kibbie: I think -- I think it's better but where it isn't better is in the negative campaigning and the partisanship.  But as far as people out in the country whether it is county offices, they are really where the politics really is in the courthouses, a lot of people more interested in who is their sheriff than who is their governor and so the main thing is, I've talked to a lot of school kids and college kids, the main thing is encourage these young people to get registered to vote and vote every time you get a chance.

Henderson: What is your advice to somebody who might approach you and say, Senator, I'm thinking about running for office?

Kibbie: I would encourage that.  Get your nomination papers out, go talk to some friends, try to put an organization together and do it.

Henderson: Why?

Kibbie: Because that is what we all ought to be interested in our government and primaries don't hurt a thing.  Give people a choice.  Get people active.

Glover: Are people as involved in politics as they used to be, ordinary people?

Kibbie: I believe they are.  My mother is the one who got me involved in politics and one thing about the Obama administration and the '08 election there was more people involved in that election than any time in my lifetime and we need to continue that.  There's too many people saying my vote won't count, won't make any difference, don't matter what party you are.  That is not the case.

Borg: One thing that is the case right here, we've come to an end just like your end to your career in the legislature.  Congratulations on many, many years of service.

Kibbie: Thank you.  I'm going to join Mike.

Borg: It was nice to have you back.  And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press at the same times next weekend, that's 7:30 Friday night and a second chance to see the program Sunday at noon.  And also a viewing reminder, Iowa Public Television will be bringing you coverage of political analyst Mark Shields at Simpson College's Culver Public Policy Center.  That will be Wednesday evening, April 18th at 7:00.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

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