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House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal

posted on May 11, 2012

Unfinished business.  Leaders closing Iowa's 84th General Assembly leaving some goals in the "to do" box for future legislatures.  We're questioning House Speaker republican Kraig Paulsen and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Michael Gronstal on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: The agreement allowing Iowa's legislature to close this year's session was really agreeing to disagree.  That means two major goals among others, revising Iowa's property taxes and strengthening K-12 public schools, are still goals.  That's not to say legislators didn't try.  On cutting commercial property tax, for example, republican and democratic leaders were huddling with Governor Terry Branstad late Wednesday afternoon -- right up to adjournment time.  But it was long past time to get home and ramp up re-election campaigning.  Governor Branstad's assessment is that this general assembly will be remembered more for what wasn't accomplished.  We're getting assessments now from House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, republican from Hiawatha and Council Bluffs democrat Mike Gronstal who leads the Senate's democratic majority.  Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.  Congratulations on the session and getting it adjourned.

Borg: And also at the Iowa Press table, former Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, let's start with you.  Dean mentioned in his opening that this legislature will be remembered more for what it didn’t do than what it did do.  How do you respond to that?

Gronstal: Well, I'd say there are some things we're pretty proud of being able to accomplish.  We did some things on job creation in this state on making sure that the resources are there to provide for education and training of employees in this state to match the skills to the jobs that are out there and get thousands of Iowans back to work.  So I'm pretty excited about some of the things we did for higher education and in particular community colleges.  There are disappointments, there are disappointments in every session.  I would have really loved to have gotten something done on commercial property taxes in this state.  In the end we felt the plan that the Governor was advancing was one that would shift taxes to homeowners and we couldn't go along with that.

Glover: Speaker Paulsen, same question to you.  How do you respond to Dean's suggestion that this legislature will be remembered more for what it didn't do than what it did do?

Paulsen: I don't know in a global sense.  I know this -- we're very disappointed we weren't able to come to a conclusion on a property tax bill and pass it.  We sent four different proposals over to the Senate.  They all still sit there including the original proposal which we amended and sent back to them.  And just like Senator Gronstal mentioned, House republicans were also very concerned about a transfer to homeowners, which if you read the fiscal note on the republican plan it says all classifications will receive tax relief under this proposal.  The one thing we do know, Mike, though, is that doing nothing is going to cause a problem for those homeowners, it's going to be about $2.3 billion over the next ten years.

Glover: Is that what this legislature is going to be remembered for?

Paulsen: Well, I think we talked about it enough.  Yes.  To some degree I hope it is remembered so that we keep the pressure on to get it done.  We need to get it done soon.  We did do a lot.  I think Senator Gronstal mentioned, we did make some great progress on mental health reform, we made some strong progress on education reform, we walked in and there was a $900 million shortfall in the budget, we're now walking out with $1 billion in reserves.  So we made great progress in the budget but property taxes will continue to be a disappointment.

Glover: Well, for an election year in the legislature isn't that not a bad record?

Paulsen: I'll let you be the judge of that.

Henderson: Just to remind viewers, in the Iowa House there are 60 republicans and 40 democrats right now and over in the Senate there are 26 democrats and 24 republicans.  Talking about the 2012 campaign -- Senator Gronstal, when you go talk to voters, what do you tell them about what did and didn't happen and the reason for re-electing democrats?

Gronstal: As I said, I think we kept, we tried to keep our focus on job creation in this state and I think we did a number of things.  I think there are things that the Senate passed over, we tried to pass a bill to give Iowa businesses first crack at state contracts, we tried to pass a bill that encouraged buy American in terms of construction projects in this state.  So we looked at a couple of efforts to both help put Iowans back to work and we have bills languishing in the House.  The House feels like they have some bills languishing in the Senate.  We have some bills we feel pretty strongly about languishing in the House as well.  That is the nature of divided government.  You've got democrats in control of one chamber, republicans in control of the other and we think we had some pretty good ideas on renewable energy, on health insurance, helping small businesses afford health insurance that died in the House.  We think that is unfortunate.

Henderson: Speaker Paulsen, on the last day of the legislative session you basically said republicans in the fall will go out and promise Iowans a tax relief of at least $390 million.  Is that indeed what you will be promising voters?

Paulsen: We'll be putting together an agenda as we move through the fall here and we'll be talking to Iowans and making sure that what we're talking about is what they want to be talking about.  But absolutely I think tax relief is part of that.  We believe that money is owed back to them.  It is their money to begin with.  So yes.

Henderson: In what form?  An income tax cut?  A property tax cut?  A combination thereof?

Paulsen: I think you'll see us coming back with proposals on both of those fronts.  We sent a 20% income tax over to the Senate.  Again, the property tax bills, we did those.  We think there's some combination there and we're looking forward to working on that.

Borg: Senator Gronstal, the legislature hadn't been adjourned but just a few hours and Governor Branstad was holding out the possibility of calling you back for a special session but if you had the votes in the Senate to pass what he wants on commercial property tax reductions and revisions.  Is it likely it will be a special session?

Gronstal: We are completely open to working with the Governor and I'm happy to meet with the Governor.  The last meeting we had what I asked the Governor for was a guarantee on the commercial property tax that the reimbursement of $140 million would continue forever.

Borg: That is to cities and towns?

Gronstal: And he made, he said no thank you basically.  He would not guarantee that.  And what that means is that $140 million ends up being picked up by homeowners.  We thought that was a mistake.  You can talk about property tax relief but over time the mechanism he proposed was a massive tax increase for homeowners in the state of Iowa and we were not going to go along with that.  And that was the last piece I said to him, Governor, we've got room to talk if you'll commit to ongoing funding of what we're going to take away from local governments so that that doesn't get shifted to homeowners.

Henderson: Mr. Speaker, was this a surprise that this thing fell apart in the end?

Paulsen: It was a disappointment.

Henderson: But it wasn't a surprise, was it?

Paulsen: Well, I mean, it was very clear we were struggling to work through it.  But I want to be clear, the proposal that the House sent over, there is no tax shift to residential.  The tax shift that is going to take place is going to take place because the Senate didn't send us a bill that we could work on, get it to conference, whatever.  Doing nothing is the biggest tax shift.

Gronstal: Here's the interesting part of that.  A bill last year, the $200 million tax relief for commercial property in the state of Iowa that we passed last year 46-4 in the Senate, this year we couldn't find a single republican vote to support something much closer to what the Speaker is talking about.  That is one of the reasons we couldn't move forward, there wasn't a single republican in the Iowa Senate that would go along with a 25% cut, a $350 million cut in commercial property taxes in the state of Iowa, not a single republican would vote for that.  That is why in the end we failed to get anything done.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, a lot of people looked at this legislature and saw gridlock.  They saw a legislature that was unable to accomplish -- although you have pointed to some accomplishments -- the big pieces, the top priorities didn't get done.  Is there political fallout from that gridlock?  One of the things that voters say is they want politicians to agree to something.

Gronstal: And I think if you look at -- last year we asked the Department of Human Services and Chuck Palmer to assemble a group of people and come back to us with a set of recommendations on mental health.  We have a fractured mental health delivery system in this state.  County by county, 99 different counties, 99 different systems, different levels of service, inequity in the taxes that support those services.  We asked Chuck Palmer to come back and make some recommendations to us.  He came back to us this year, we worked through it in the legislature, a democrat in the Senate, a republican in the House and people worked through their differences on that.  That is a pretty good model for having taken real, very significant steps forward in terms of reforming a system that has been a challenge for 100 years in the state of Iowa.  So I think there are places where we worked through that in an effective way.  We said when it came to commercial property taxes that it was important to focus on small and medium businesses and that is what we tried to work through.

Glover: Speaker Paulsen, you will hear a lot of voters say that they saw gridlock at the statehouse.  Is there a political price for that?

Paulsen: I suppose there could be among some.  I will tell you that unquestionably we are struggling with the property tax proposal. That is indisputable.  But I think -- first of all, every bill that got to the Governor had bipartisan support so at some level it had to be there.  But I think there were three big issues that we walked into -- education reform, mental health reform and property tax reform.  I think probably arguably the most important to all of us, or at least to republicans, was reforming the property tax system and providing some relief there.  We didn't quite get over that threshold.  We're still going to keep working on that.  I don't know exactly what that means.  But we did get some substantive education reform done, we did get substantive mental health reform done.  Still more to do in both of those areas.

Glover: Kay mentioned earlier you have a very broad republican majority in the House and narrow democratic majority in the Senate.  A lot of people think that one of the things republicans were doing is building the case to do all this stuff after the November election when they think you'll have control of both chambers.

Paulsen: I think both of us have made this comment -- as long as we can work on good public policy that is exactly what we're going to do and I think we stayed committed on that to the end.  That is what we are paid to do is public policy.

Henderson: You raised the topic of education reform as did Dean in the introduction.  The education reform plan that cleared Senator Gronstal was not as bold, Governor Branstad would argue, as he proposed.  He proposed a $25 million plan.  I think what passed was $2 million.  Will it actually change K-12 education, what cleared the Iowa legislature?

Gronstal: I certainly think there is some good things in there in terms of focus on early literacy skills in the early elementary grades.  So more evaluation of teachers, annual evaluation of teachers, more assessments of where students are.  I think there are some good things in that but I'd say we're disappointed as well that in the end we couldn't get more resources for education in the state of Iowa.  We think it is important for kids to have better options when they lag in those reading skills, early literacy skills.  So after school programs and helping fund summer school programs and mentoring and a whole bunch of things could have happened and people walked away from any willingness to invest any real dollars in those.  I mean, the Governor proposed $25 million but it wasn't really $25, he scooped some of that from other sources and we weren't going to rob Peter to pay Paul.  The House budget, the original House budget robbed money away from class size reduction efforts to fund some of these things.

Henderson: Speaker Paulsen, do you share that view?

Paulsen: Not all of it, no.  I think the competency based assessments on behalf of students, it has the potential to -- I don't know if I want to quite say a game changer -- but if it's not a game changer it's pretty darn close.  So I think that particular piece within the education reform is a big deal.  But I want to be clear -- when it comes to the budget we looked at state government and in particular the bureaucracies and a lot of the work that is done in Des Moines and we found opportunities to save money such that we have one of the largest increases in the history for community colleges, provided them more than they asked for.  Regent's institutions -- we gave them -- they asked for $20 and I think we increased them by $22, $23 million.  And K-12 over the last two years is the largest increase in the history of Iowa, it is in excess of $200 million.  We found opportunities among state government to make sure we protected a priority of Iowans.

Gronstal: I just have to do a little fact check here.  The Regents asked for $40 million, the Governor recommended $20 and we did $23.  When it comes to K-12 education, for only the second time in history, in 40 years of the school aid formula we're at zero new money for schools in fiscal '14, zero new dollars.  That is only the second time in history that this state has been at zero for schools.

Paulsen: But that is because we had to backfill the underfunding from the previous year which was levied against the property tax --

Gronstal: That was last year but this year we could have set allowable growth at four percent for the '13-'14 school year.

Borg: What persuaded you, Speaker Paulsen, to increase the Regents' funding?  You said on this program a few weeks ago that you'd have to be shown in order to increase Regents' funding.  They got $23 million more than they had this year.  What convinced you?

Paulsen: That is a longer discussion than we probably want to go into right now and I will just tell you when the Regents, actual Regents members spoke to me what they asked for was $20 million and we got that.  But they justified that added expense, we think it was the right thing to do and I also have commitments that they are going to continue to look for opportunities among their operations as well to look for greater efficiencies.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, if you look back at the two years of this general assembly there wasn't a lot of discussion this year about social issues.  I'm thinking gay marriage, abortion rights.  There was a little dust up in the last session but not much this year.  Why?

Gronstal: I think people in the end recognized that there were kind of deep divides between the House and the Senate on those issues and there wasn't a lot of point in revisiting them.

Glover: Does it take an election to settle that issue?

Gronstal: When it comes to gay marriage I'm not going to put discrimination in the constitution.  I think that is the direction that society is moving in terms of overall attitudes and the issue of abortion has vexed our society for 40 years.

Glover: Speaker Paulsen, why didn't republicans in the House raise those issues more?  And do you agree with Senator Gronstal that society is moving towards accepting gay marriage?

Paulsen: When we sent, I can't remember, a couple of different bills over last year and we were unsuccessful in that --

Glover: No sense in doing it again?

Paulsen: Well, I mean, it is awful hard to go fight a fight that the fight isn't even there.  So that's where that came -- make no mistake, the House republican caucus is a pro-life caucus.

Glover: And on gay marriage, do you agree with Senator Gronstal that society is moving towards accepting gay marriage?

Paulsen: Well, you wouldn't say that based on the votes that take place across the country.  What I know is the code of Iowa says one thing, we have a court decision that says something different.  It seems to me that Iowans ought to be able to arbitrate that dispute.

Henderson: This past week at the end of the week Governor Branstad used his executive authority to essentially allow dove hunters in September to use lead shot.  He said it was just something the Senate forgot to do to pass what in essence was a resolution to take care of that issue.  Did the Senate just forget to do that?  Or did you want non-toxic shot to be used during dove hunting season?

Gronstal: I think Senate democrats were deeply divided on that issue and I chose not to bring it up.  Governor Branstad told the chair of the Natural Resources Commission last year, go ahead with the rule.  I guess the Governor was for lead shot, was for non-toxic shot before he was against it because he changed his mind yesterday.  The Governor could have, if he believes he has this power, he could have taken that action at any point in the last year.  But he told the Natural Resources Commissioners, go ahead and outlaw lead shot.  So I suspect there's a little election year politics being played on this issue.

Glover: Speaker Paulsen, you've been around Iowa politics for a while.  Tell me a little bit about your take on what the political climate is this year.  What is driving voters?

Paulsen: I don't think a whole lot has changed over the course of these last two years.  There is still -- I think at its base there is an underlying distrust of government at all levels which is one of the reasons why I thought it was very important to be precise in what we said and follow through on those actions.  And I think that is true for both parties.  I think that in government officials that is important that we be particularly straight right now.  But it's jobs, the economy, spending, taxes.  I think in Iowa, largely because of Governor Branstad's attention to education, I think education becomes part of that dialogue.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, same question to you.  What is your take on what is driving voters in your district and across the state?

Gronstal: I think in my district, across the state and all across the country citizens are tired of legislators fighting.  They think we ought to work together like we did on mental health reform.  They think we ought to find where the common ground is and not go after the battles that divide us and I think the Speaker is right, it's about jobs and the economy and putting people back to work.  And that is what our focus was this session.  But I think in the end they expect us to work together.  I think you saw us this year probably do a better job of not trying to negotiate through press releases, a little less of that, kept our rhetoric down during the session over our differences and look for common ground on these issues and that is what we found.

Glover: What are you going to say to critics who say, but in the end you did gridlock on the top issues you faced?

Gronstal: I think on most issues we had some real success.  And even though we didn't get big things done on property taxes we both agreed on $27.5 million to increase the homestead and ag land tax credits in the state of Iowa.  We didn't -- it wasn't complete gridlock but it was a modest step and a real and a significant step that we found it pretty easy to go along with.

Glover: A little bit of gridlock.

Gronstal: Well, it's not completely gridlock if you actually accomplish something and for a million homeowners in the state of Iowa we actually accomplished something.

Henderson: Do you have a rebuttal to that?

Paulsen: No, I would say that was obviously critical for House republicans in the budget that we got that $27.5 million.  We appreciated Governor Branstad being supportive of that and we appreciated the Senate democrats passing that as well.  That was a very, very important piece to us.

Henderson: This is a redistricting year so some incumbents are introducing themselves to people they have never represented before as your colleagues go out and campaign for re-election.  You also have the prospect in neighboring Wisconsin where a governor is up for a recall.  You have a long-time U.S. Senator in Indiana who lost.  Is there an anti-incumbent mood among voters, Speaker Paulsen?

Paulsen: I don't know that there's an anti-incumbent mood other than I would go back to there is a general distrust of government and I think it's really important for elected officials right now to be very straight with the electorate.

Glover: Senator Gronstal, give me your assessment.  You're a prominent democrat.  What is the health of your party?

Gronstal: I think our party is in pretty good shape in the state of Iowa.  I think we're going to have a competitive presidential race in the state of Iowa.  I think we've got a great -- we have recruited great candidates.  I tell you, as we were recruiting candidates it seemed to me there was a high level of interest on the democratic side -- as we're recruiting candidates in open seats there were people that were really interested in being a part of helping shape the future of this state.  That isn't always true and I was actually a little bit worried that things like gridlock and high partisanship would maybe say to some people, I'm not sure I want to run for office.  We actually had great success recruiting candidates, found people well connected to their communities, natural leaders in their communities so I am encouraged by --

Glover: President Obama recently came out in favor of gay marriage.  Did he hurt himself in Iowa?  He carried Iowa in the last election.

Gronstal: I think President Obama has got a great shot at carrying Iowa and I do think it is a competitive race.  I think either side could win and so I think we're all going to run the best campaigns we can.

Glover: Speaker Paulsen, did President Obama injure himself in Iowa with his gay marriage stance?

Paulsen: Time will tell on that.  Don't be confused though -- first of all, I disagree with his position, but that wasn't about his position on marriage, that was about distracting attention off of his failure to manage the nation's economy correctly.  It is absolutely he wants to get off this economy that he is responsible for.

Henderson: Mr. Paulsen, the Iowa Republican Party is now largely managed by people who supported Ron Paul's candidacy.  Are you working in concert with the folks at your party, many of whom have left, to run an effective legislative campaign in the fall?

Paulsen: I am excited about where the party is right now.  I'm having good conversations with the chairman, I think he is doing a fine job.  I have not had a chance to meet all the new central committee members yet but I look forward to doing that.  The energy in the Republican Party is great.  We have now surpassed -- there's more Iowans registered as republicans right now than there are as democrats.  It hasn't been that way for a long, long time.  We had a great recruitment year.  There's more republicans running for the Iowa Statehouse than there are democrats running for the Iowa Statehouse.  All that is good stuff.

Borg: It's time for us to go too, just like you had to adjourn this week.  Thanks for being with us.  Next week on Iowa Press a conversation with Governor Terry Branstad.  You'll see it at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night, second chance to see us questioning the Governor Sunday at noon.  Before we go, we'd like to acknowledge the enormous contributions of longtime Iowa Press panelist Mike Glover.  Mike recently retired from the Associated Press after many years and this is his final appearance on the Iowa Press role where over the decades we have always admired his penetrating questions and enlightening comments.  I think you'll see what I mean in this compilation.

Glover: It wouldn't be an official Iowa Press show if we didn't spend a little time talking about politics and that time has come.

Glover (1987): Politically if we come back to this tax bill, the Association of Business and Industry, they urge you to veto it.  The National Federation of Small Businesses have urged you to veto it.  A popular former Governor Bob Ray, arguably the best politician in this state's history has urged you to veto it.  Politically can you sign that bill and live?

Terry Branstad (1987): Well, I think we have to look at all the options that are available and what makes the most sense.

Glover (1992): One of the solutions that your party offered earlier was finance by sales tax increase.  Will that come back on the table?  Is it back on the table?

Gronstal (1992): Our goal remains very simple --

Glover (1992): The question is sales tax, Senator Gronstal.

Gronstal (1992): And the answer is our goal is simple, we did not go into these meetings to try and get a sales tax.

Borg (1992): We call for the insights of Mike Glover of the Associated Press and Eric Woolson of the Waterloo Courier.

Glover (1992): Eric, the sale of WOI television has nothing to do with broadcasting and everything to do with politics and that is probably as good a reason as any why it ought to be sold. 

Glover (1991): And you need to find some way to make that political establishment treat you seriously.  The question is, how do you do it?

Jerry Brown (1991): Well, by speaking as honestly and as clearly --

Glover (1991): Do you need to win an election to do it?

Jerry Brown (1991): Oh yeah, of course.

Glover (1996): Obviously you think America is ready for a third party.  Why is America ready for a third party?

Ross Perot (1996): Well, 93% of people think the government wastes their money.

Glover (1996): Do you think the American people have seen the real Bob Dole?

Bob Dole (1996): I don't think so.

Glover (1996): What do you have to do to get them to see the real Bob Dole?

Bob Dole (1996): Well, you have to talk about yourself and I find that difficult to do.

Glover (1999): Has this contest forced you to move to the left?

Al Gore (1999): No.  In fact, I have been very careful to fit every proposal I've made within a balanced budget.  And you can find my proposals within a balanced budget on the Internet at algore2000.com.  In case you didn't hear that, let me repeat that -- algore2000.com.

Glover (1999): You've been involved in campaigns in the past including your father's where there have been some pretty hard high ones.  How are you going to react if they get thrown at you and will you throw back?

George Bush (1999): Well, Mike, politics doesn't have to be the high hard one, as you said.  And I'm going to do my level best to elevate the discourse.

Glover (2007): If in fact you are successful in winning the White House aren't you going to have to make some deeply difficult and unpopular decisions pretty early on?

Barack Obama (2007): Yes.  I think that -- well let me say I think they will be difficult.  If they are explained properly they may not be unpopular.

Glover: What are you going to do with that, are you going to sign it?

Glover: Why can't you sit down and resolve some type of compromise?

Glover: Stepping back, what do you hope to accomplish?

Glover: Does that come as a surprise to you?

Glover: That does not sound to me like this is a job you're getting ready to walk away from.

Glover: Well, it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press show if we didn't ask a little speculation going forward.

Glover: It wouldn't be an official Iowa Press if we didn't ask you this -- are you running again?

Glover: What is your future?  Are you planning on running for another term?

Glover: I'm Mike Glover of the Associated Press and that is our insight.

Borg: Well, Mike, that shows -- it's just a sampling of the many state and national leaders who have been at this table over the years and you have been a big part in that.  We're going to miss your voice in that conversation and your incisive questioning.  Thanks so much for many, many years, more than 30 I think it is, of being at this table with incisive questions and sharing your talent with us.

Glover: A journey worth taking, Dean.

Borg: Thank you.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thank you for joining us today.


Tags: Iowa Kraig Paulsen legislature Mike Glover Mike Gronstal politics