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Reporters Roundtable

posted on April 27, 2012

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Stalled.  Iowa's overtime General Assembly hits partisan roadblocks.  Adjournment and election campaigning still waiting.  Iowa political reporters providing analysis on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Sluggish is perhaps the best way to describe Iowa's General Assembly this past week -- at least from the outside looking in.  That's because key legislation revising property taxes, changing schools, to name a couple of issues, is at the point right now where legislative leaders are negotiating compromises while other legislators are, well, to put it bluntly, are trying to look busy.  That is why House Speaker Kraig Paulsen spent most of his republican majority home this past week, sent them home and democrats followed -- and that is probably okay for those running for re-election.  It gives them time to be out campaigning.  And speaking of campaigning, it wasn't officially a campaign visit but President Barack Obama stopped by the University of Iowa this past week for a little visit with students.  And a day earlier First Lady Michelle Obama spent a day in Des Moines.  Well, helping us to connect the dots on what is stalled, and what is coming and going, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich, James Lynch writing for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids, Associated Press Senior Political Reporter Mike Glover and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.  Jim Lynch, I used a couple of descriptors there.  I said, stalled for the Iowa legislature and I used the word roadblock.  And there's another one I might use too, that is impasse.  But they all have a little nuance of different.  Choose one that you say where we are in the legislature right now.

Lynch: If this was a test, Dean, I'd say, D, all of the above.  But I'm going to go with impasse and impasse as a negotiating tactic.  Both sides are using this failure to reach agreement as a way to signal what is important to them.  And they are letting their sound bytes sort of draw the lines here.  We have Mike Gronstal, the Senate Democratic Leader, saying I won't blink, we're fighting for Iowans.  And Kraig Paulsen is saying, ultimatums aren’t helpful but republicans have agreed to spend more than they should.  So there you have it.  It's a stalemate.  To use a wrestling term maybe we need somebody to blow the whistle and restart this.

Glover: And what they're doing is exactly what they did last year, Jim.  If you'll recall last year's session they went until the end of June.  I'm not predicting that will happen again this year.  But it's the same people, the same issues and each of the two political parties is playing to their political base.  Mike Gronstal, the democrats, are playing to the political base of teachers, schools, that is a constituency that is democratic.  Kraig Paulsen is playing to the republican base of taxpayer conservatives.

Borg: Mike, you mentioned the length of sessions.  We've got a little graphic here that we can bring up just to show you comparatively the length of the past session.  The last four years, for example, 2008 went 103 days.  The following session did the same in 2009.  In 2010, 79 days.  And 2011, 172 days just last year.  Kay, where are we going to end up this year?  If you were playing the lottery, which would you choose there?

Henderson: Well, back to your what words would you use.  I've heard some words used and I can't repeat them here for what is going on.  I'm fairly certain that a very many clichés will be used to describe the impasse, the train wreck that is going on at the Statehouse.  One of the disturbing trends of the past week is a discussion among republican legislators of just walking away and doing nothing in regards to the state budget because as you'll recall last year Governor Branstad insisted that they pass a two-year budget.  For the coming fiscal year which starts July 1st, state agencies have about 50% to operate in regards to comparing to what they have this year.  So you had some republicans in the legislature suggesting they just walk away and come back in January and make these budget decisions.

Obradovich: Well, and Dean, I think that's a very dangerous way to talk.  First of all, there's no guarantee that the legislature that comes back will have any similar ideas to the ones, the folks who were walking away.  The other thing is that Governor Branstad really does not want to see a situation where he has to govern -- govern the state agencies with this sort of sword hanging over them.  I expect him to be more involved in the negotiations as it goes on.  I realize that he and the Senate democrats are actually a lot closer together than he and the republicans in the House.  So it is a delicate position for him.

Henderson: The other thing is last year one of the deciding points was July 1st.  They had to come up with a budget plan by July 1st because that is when the state government began operating in a new fiscal year.  Again, that sort of sword is not hanging over their heads this year.

Glover: And the democrats will disagree with that.  They'll say the sword is still hanging over their heads.  But I think if we can summarize everything everybody has said into a sort of capsule they are not very close to a solution, they're not going to get a solution on Monday when they convene.  I don't know if they're going to get a solution this coming week or if they're going to drag on for several weeks after that.  Like I say, last year they went until the end of June.  I'm not predicting that again but it's the same group of people fighting about the same issues.

Borg: But you, at the beginning of this session, predicted that they would be out on time if not early.

Glover: And you know what, Dean, I was wrong. 

Obradovich: We all were --

Glover: I think that was the general conclusion and I think, as we occasionally do, we miss the big picture.  And the big picture is these are the same people in the same election cycle fighting about the same issues with the same people.  So why would we expect a different outcome?

Lynch: The good news, if there is any, is that Kraig Paulsen mentioned the other day that we asked him about this, you know, is this a repeat of 2011?  And he said, no, we're where we were last year in the second or third week of June.  So I guess they're six weeks ahead of schedule, if that's good news.

Borg: Let's take an issue, Kay.  Property tax revisions.  They're predicting, from what I hear, that there is going to be something that will come out of the negotiations going on right now.  Do you expect that?  Is that what you're reading?

Henderson: Well, you have three parties involved in this negotiation.  You have Terry Branstad, the republican Governor, who at this point is willing to throw everything and the kitchen sink in a deal to get a deal.  He has decided that he needs something to happen this year.  You have Senate democrats who are involved in these negotiations who have decided it is in their best interest politically to go out and tell people we did something on this regardless of what something is.  Then you have House republicans who at the beginning of this session seemed as if they were willing to sort of throw their hands up and do nothing this year.  So you have these interesting dynamics among the three negotiating entities.

Glover: If I had to bet, I would bet that a bill will emerge from this legislature that people will point to and say, that is property tax reform.  I think at the end of the day a lot of people won't feel very much from that bill.  I don't think it will do a lot to overhaul property taxes in part because we've fought about property taxes in this state for 30 years and you've got a divided state government, democratic Senate, republican House, republican Governor.  Sometimes that forces them to compromise but I don't get that sense.  I get the sense these people are girding themselves for the next election.

Borg: Would you characterize it watered down?

Glover: Very watered down.

Borg: Okay.  Jim?

Lynch: A signal of the difficulty here is that for about a week leaders have been saying that property tax bill is coming down soon, tomorrow, soon, we'll see it tomorrow or whenever and we haven't seen it yet.  So I think they're really having difficulty getting to the final area of agreement on that and they keep adding things and taking things out and I suspect it will be in the waning days of the legislature before we see anything.

Glover: And I would not rule out the possibility that at the end of the day the whole thing falls apart and nothing happens in part because I've had republicans in the legislature come to me and say that's a very effective issue.  They can point to democrats -- democrats have been the ones who have been standing up saying we don't want to do this property tax, we don't want to do this property tax thing.  Okay, let them kill it and then let's go kill them in November on that issue.

Obradovich: I mean democrats have an argument that they are all for property tax relief but they want to make sure that they're not gutting local governments in the process.  The problem that they face is the narrative that the voters recognize is that democrats stand in the way of tax cuts and it's much easier for republicans to make that argument on the campaign trail.  So I agree.  It's possible that nothing could happen.  However, I do think that the democrats are going to be motivated enough that they're going to give a little bit at the end.

Lynch: The problem that republicans have with that is that when democrats explain their plan it is much easier to understand than what republicans are proposing.  When you hear the two plans --

Glover: But the problem is on the campaign trail, Jim, and you know this as well as I do -- you don't explain things in the campaign trail, you campaign on slogans.  Republicans will say, we wanted to cut your taxes and democrats wouldn't let us.  And the democrats will say, well yeah, but they wanted to cut taxes for big businesses and we wanted to cut taxes for small businesses.  And they'll get about halfway through the big businesses and voters tune out.

Henderson: You know, the interesting thing is Stewart Iverson who was the republican leader in the Senate for many years, he is now a member of the House, he was the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, gave a farewell speech and one of the points he made was exactly that, it doesn't matter how you vote, it matters how you explain it.

Borg: I tried to get a question in edgewise here.  That was a great discussion.  But I asked Mike about watered down because that was the phrase that the Governor used about how the legislature was taking his recommendations on K-12 education reform.  But watered down property tax, Mike says, yes that is likely to evolve.  Same thing on education?

Obradovich: I would say watered down from what the Governor originally proposed.  I do think that they are closer to an agreement between what the Senate passed, which is what the Governor argued was watered down, it was very narrow and limited to sort of beefing up funding to help kids read at an earlier age.  The efforts dealing with testing, for example, assessment, a lot of that the Senate threw overboard.  Some of that will probably come back in the final version.  The Governor, again, this is his big deal so he's very motivated to get something out of this session even though he knows it's going to be a multi-year effort no matter what.

Borg: Kay, is that a big loss for the Governor?

Henderson: Well, it could be an even bigger loss for the Governor because the dynamic that was at work in the closing days of this past week was you had people like House Speaker Kraig Paulsen saying, this thing is in trouble and it could all fall apart.  You had democrats who were working on this group of republicans and democrats trying to forge a compromise saying we may end up doing nothing.  So this thing is in real trouble.

Glover: I think there's a very real possibility that nothing will happen because of that.  You don't have a lot of democratic momentum to support this thing because there's not a lot of support among the traditional democratic education interest groups and, again, you get back to a lot of republicans are looking to use this on the campaign trail.  A lot of people are starting -- they're slowly shifting from legislature mode to campaign mode and in some cases not so slowly shifting.

Henderson: And the other interesting dynamic is there is a group of republican legislators who have nothing good to say about public education.  And this, by the way, is a plan to improve public education.  They prefer Christian education, Catholic schools, those schools to educate their children and so they're not motivated to find common ground on it either.

Obradovich: That's exactly why the Governor is so motivated to get something done because he needs some help from democrats to get this through.  He has said that from the very beginning.  And if he comes back with an all republican legislature next year, he may actually get less done than he's getting this year.

Borg: Well, Kathie, are we going to see political campaigning and the Governor's office again going statewide trying to get support for education reform?  They've already done that with the current proposals.  Are we likely to see political campaigning and education reform campaigning?

Obradovich: The Governor has the ability to bring the legislature back but I think that his bigger club is the bully pulpit and he has effectively used that in the past where he's gone on the road, made his case to the public, tried to put pressure on legislators and when legislators are spending more time at home right now than at the Capitol he has a chance to make that case stick.

Lynch: There's also a danger for the legislators to go home having done nothing whether it's on property taxes or education or pick a subject, if they go home without doing anything.  They may see it as a strong political ploy.  But voters may look at it and say, you didn't do anything, why should we send you back?

Borg: I've got to switch to something else here and that is higher education and appropriations there.  But UNI trying to save money, Kay, was going to close a school, Malcolm Price Lab School and lay off some people there but also across the entire university, make some big changes.  Yesterday, that is on Thursday it would be, in the Iowa legislature, Bob Dvorsky made the announcement that the appropriations committee was going to put a hold on that.

Henderson: Right, the Senate democrats who sit on this appropriations committee have voted to allot $3 million to the University of Northern Iowa to keep the Malcolm Price Lab School open and to do a study about its future.

Borg: How did this get political?

Henderson: It is a strange political animal up there because you have the only legislator who is a graduate of the Price Lab School is a republican in the House who is trying to build a coalition of people over there to support this.  You have Senator Grassley who has a granddaughter who is a student at Malcolm Price Lab School.  So it's a very strange animal.  Dean, let me ask you a question.  You were at the Board of Regents' meeting, these are the people who decided a-ok, go ahead, do it, close it.  What was their reaction when they heard what the Senate did?

Borg: I was asking some people, as you suggest, and they didn't seem worried at all.  It was almost like, it's a fly.

Glover: Dean, that's because it's not going to happen.  It's going to go no further than the Senate appropriations committee and that is a bunch of college town democrats led by Bob Dvorsky who like college towns because they're fun college towns and they want to pour money into colleges because they are from college towns and that is a warning shot, a way to make political points back home and it will go no further.

Borg: Let me go a bit further here.  Education appropriations is a key issue.  And speaking in Iowa City this past week, President Barack Obama was playing to a college audience that is seeing increasing tuition bills.

President Barack Obama (April 25, 2012 - Iowa City, Iowa): Last year over 40 states cut their higher education spending.  Yeah, that's not good.  These budget cuts are one of the biggest reasons why tuition goes up at public colleges and have been over the last decade.  So we're challenging states: take responsibility.  If you can find new ways to bring down costs on college, make it easier for students to graduate then we'll help you do it at the federal level.

Borg: Kathie, who was that message to?  Iowa legislators?

Obradovich: No.  The President was speaking to students and faculty.  He is really trying in this effort to shore up the young voter who was really key to his election in 2008 and now polls show that they're not all necessarily with him this time.  And here in Iowa that is definitely the case.  The young voters that we polled in February were all for Ron Paul, not necessarily for Barack Obama.  So he's got to make a really strong pitch.  This student loan issue is one that resonates with college students and college graduates who are still paying off their loans.  I'm not so sure that message though resonates with young voters who are out in the job market looking for jobs.

Borg: Kay, the Obamas, I mentioned going into this discussion that President Obama in Iowa City, on Wednesday the day before that Michelle Obama was in Des Moines.  The Obama administration is being very, very neighborly here in Iowa.

Henderson: Exactly.  They want Iowans to vote for Barack Obama in November.  And Iowa is one of the states that is considered a swing state.  It is key to an Obama victory in the Electoral College even though Iowa's number of Electoral College votes have been reduced.  They are still an important part of that calculation.  In addition, polls here show, the Des Moines Register poll that Kathie mentioned, shows that President Obama's  approval rating is not what he might like to have as an incumbent President and it shows that republicans do fairly well when pitted on a head-to-head matchup with him.  The dynamic that we don't know yet about this race is whether Mitt Romney and his team will come to play, so to speak, in Iowa.

Borg: Mike, Mitt Romney not much spending some time, even before the caucuses didn't spend much time.  But the Obama administration putting so much emphasis here.  Romney is way behind in Iowa I would think in getting an advantage in campaigning for the fall election.

Glover: I would guess that Mitt Romney starts off behind in Iowa.  Mitt Romney did not have a heavy presence here during the Iowa precinct caucuses.  Mitt Romney more or less did a blow-by.  Mitt Romney has not spent a lot of time here.  And Mitt Romney is a polarizing figure within the Republican Party.  A lot of evangelical Christians who are an important part of the republican base are not very comfortable with Mitt Romney for a variety of factors.  And so Mitt Romney has not -- to beat Barack Obama in Iowa I would start off with the assumption that Barack Obama starts off as a favorite here.  He has got a longer history here, he's got a bigger organization here, he's got more going for him than Mitt Romney does.  Now, Mitt Romney can somehow turn that around by energizing republicans against Barack Obama but they're not there yet.  Republicans are still divided, still split and not united.

Henderson: The other dynamic here is that if you look back to 1996, April was the month when President Clinton just went ballistic against Robert Dole who had sewed up the nomination then.  If you look back to 2004, John Kerry came back to Iowa in April to try to shore up democratic forces and President Bush came here in April.  So April is a traditional kickoff campaign month for a swing state like Iowa.

Borg: Talk about kickoffs, Kathie -- the caucuses kicks off everything except it never ends so I don't know if you can call it a kickoff.  But the Iowa republicans really looking introspectively at the caucuses now.

Obradovich: Yes.  The Iowa republicans have started their review of the caucus process which you may remember, Dean, was roundly criticized on caucus night because the winner on caucus night who was declared was Mitt Romney by about eight votes.  And when they canvassed or certified that vote two weeks later it was actually Rick Santorum who won by less than 30 votes.  It was like twenty-thousandth of a percent.

Borg: Do you look for big changes?

Obradovich: I think that they're going to tweak.  I don't see big changes.  What I see is some suggestions on how they can make the count faster, more accurate and how they're going to have a better paper trail.  They are going to want to make that argument to the national parties that Iowa caucuses are transparent, that they are fair and that they're bringing people out.

Borg: Have we seen the end of the straw poll?

Glover: I think we've seen the end of the straw poll, yeah.  There is widespread dissatisfaction amongst a lot of republicans.  The straw poll is seen as a way for the Republican Party to embarrass its candidates, raise money, extort money from them.  The real significant question will be the outcome of this election, who wins.  If Barack Obama wins a second term, in four years there will be a wide open presidential race in both parties and Iowa's caucuses I suspect will be first in line.  If Mitt Romney somehow overcomes a shaky performance in Iowa and wins the presidency I think a lot of potential democrats will say, you know that Iowa, maybe we can get around it.  So I think we'll have to wait and see how this election comes out before -- that will have a lot to say about the role of the caucuses in four years.

Lynch: Regardless of how that election -- I think Mike is right -- but I think regardless of how the election turns out the republican party has to shore up their image, if nothing else, because Iowa has always been a place where people could get a fair start, everybody had a chance and the results this last time really called that into question.  It's like, do they really know what they're doing?  And so I think the Iowa Republican Party has to fix that to be taken seriously in four years.

Obradovich: It's not just Iowa.  There were problems in caucuses in other states and I think that adds to the narrative of not just, why Iowa, which we have to deal with every four years, but why caucuses.  Why not just go to a primary?  Well, for Iowa the reason is very clear.  If we go to a primary we will no longer be first in the nation.

Borg: Because New Hampshire has that.

Obradovich: Exactly.

Borg: Kay, you had a comment.

Henderson: The other interesting dynamic here is the idea that on caucus night delegates to the national convention were determined.  That's not the case.  If you looked at the results of the district conventions that republicans had this past weekend it looks like Ron Paul is in pretty good position to win a huge slate of delegates to the national convention.

Glover: Democrats and republicans used to go about things differently.  Republicans basically hold a straw poll on caucus night.  Democrats actually begin the process of electing delegates who will eventually, after they go through a whole bunch of phases and steps and all that kind of stuff, will eventually be their delegation at the national convention.  Republicans -- democrats kind of started it and republicans said, well we'd like to get in on this too and have a lot of people pay attention to us on caucus night but we don't want to do all that, let's just do a straw poll.  I think republicans have to -- and they are in the process of taking a hard look and a review of all that because this time dealt a huge black eye to the party and the state's role in the process.

Borg: Mike, what you're just saying reminds me of all the experience and insight that you have accumulated over --

Glover: Is that a way of saying I'm real old, Dean?

Borg: Well, I'm saying this because you're retiring at the end of April from the Associated Press.  And how have presidential campaigns -- and your coverage because you have traveled nationally with the candidates -- how have they changed in just the years 2000 on?

Glover: Troubling ways to me.  There are fewer people who follow candidates.  There are fewer news organizations that are willing to spend the kind of resources it takes to cover a campaign.  So when you see a national presidential campaign these days you see a pretty small contention of reporters with them so you don't get that broad array of voices coming out of a presidential campaign that you used to.

Obradovich: And that is true at the Statehouse isn't it, Mike?  The press corp is smaller.

Glover: Oh sure.  From a Statehouse perspective, when I started at the Statehouse when the Earth was beginning to cool, there was a pretty hefty contention of reporters who were assigned to cover not just the legislature but state government.  That number has dropped significantly and a lot of news organizations have cut back the space and time they deliver.

Obradovich: I just want to say those who are there, I think you had a big hand in teaching them.  I remember when I started in 1993 at the Statehouse and knew hardly anyone and barely anything and you really were a big help to me and I know that you had that role over the years with a lot of new Statehouse reporters so I appreciate that.  I think the people of Iowa should understand that.

Glover: Everybody is saying I'm just real old. 

Lynch: I remember 12 or 13 sessions ago, my first session at the Capitol, we were suffering through a late night debate over who knows what and Mike looked at the window from the Capitol at Sec Taylor stadium and said, you know, there's about 10,000 people over there drinking beer, eating hot dogs, watching a ballgame and having a good time and they couldn't care what's going on here.

Glover: The lowest moment at the Iowa legislature is looking out the window at Sec Taylor and seeing all those thousands of people who just don't care this amendment gets adopted or not.

Henderson: Well, we all wish you to be there and wherever you may want to be in your retirement and I think on behalf of us all we have appreciated working alongside you all these years.  I won't say how many I've done that.  You are the dean, sorry Dean, you are the dean of the Iowa Press corp and we appreciate you.

Borg: Thanks for all your insights today.  We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press, same times next weekend, 7:30 Friday night, second chance to see the program Sunday at noon.  I am Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

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