Iowa Public Television


Senators Mike Gronstal and Bill Dix

posted on May 2, 2014

Are we there yet? During the past several weeks, like children on a road trip, many impatient Iowans questioning the Iowa General Assembly's length and productivity. We're getting republican and democratic perspectives on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Iowa's 85th General Assembly adjourned its 2014 session late this week, a few days later than most statehouse watchers were expecting. Opening in mid-January, the session looked almost streamlined, without divisive issues notorious for partisan roadblocks. But issues arising during the session have a way of diverting and lengthening legislators' agendas. This time the unanticipated involved questioning the executive branch's hiring and firing practices for state employees, permitting a marijuana derivative for health treatment and closing Toledo's Juvenile Women's Home. Seemingly non-controversial initiatives for penetrating broadband into rural Iowa and reigning in bullying didn't make it. Just after adjourning Friday morning, two Senate leaders are at our Iowa Press table. Council Bluffs Mike Gronstal leads the Senate's majority democrats. And Bill Dix of Shell Rock leads the republican minority. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press. And it must be a relief to have the gavel fall.

Gronstal: Yes it is.

Dix: Good to be here.

Borg: It used to be that corn planting time determined when the legislature adjourned. That is no longer the case. Across the Iowa Press table, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Gentlemen, first question about sort of a surprise issue of the session. Senator Gronstal, a bill that allows a cannabis oil to be used for the treatment of intractable epilepsy cleared the legislature. About a month ago no one had expected this. What happened?

Gronstal: Here's what happened. An intrepid group of mothers with very young children that has scores or hundreds of seizures a day came to the legislature with research, with information, with personal stories and convinced legislators that this derivative of marijuana, this oil that has little opportunity for abuse, the oil, essentially no opportunity to be used for intoxication, convinced legislators to take a look at that and legislators looked at it and their stories were so compelling that the legislature responded. And here's what I'd say, here was a great example of ordinary citizens coming to a legislature asking us to listen with a compelling story and no lobby for this, no PAC money behind it and this was all an intrepid group of mothers and I think it's great that the legislature responded to them.

Henderson: Senator Dix, not to get too far into the parliamentary weeds, but you had to use some authority to even allow this to be debated as the minority leader in the Senate. Why did you do that? And what are your thoughts in regards to this law?

Dix: Well, I know that subject had been discussed but at the end of the day it was a ways and means bill that came forward and worked through the process to get adopted. As I look at it, I think it's a shining example of how people in Iowa, as was indicated, young mothers and families came to the legislature, identified a problem, a solution to a problem and in a bipartisan effort found a way to move that solution forward and hopefully allow for the improvement in people's lives.

Henderson: Do you expect to be back next year making some changes to this proposal or maybe expanding it to be allowed for treatment of other diseases like Post Traumatic Stress, Senator Gronstal?

Gronstal: I think it's hard to tell what will happen next year. I think people will experiment through this. This group of mothers still have a certain set of hurdles to accomplishing this. None of this is produced in this state. They will have to find a way to get it in another state. So it isn't easy but I think that door is open. We're certainly willing to consider this but part of what made this happen was the compelling story of these young mothers.

Henderson: Senator Dix?

Dix: And also worthy to note is the proposal has a three-year sunset and so I think as we evaluate how this works we can learn some lessons from that and make evaluations about other issues in the future.

Obradovich: Senator Dix, you stayed an extra day in order to vote on a resolution that gives the Senate Government Oversight Committee subpoena powers and more authority to continue their investigation into essentially Governor Branstad's administration, secret settlements and other issues related to hiring and other things that the Governor's office does. Are you concerned that this issue will overshadow the accomplishments of the legislative session?

Dix: Well, I think first and foremost we should be doing everything that we can to ensure transparency and accountability in government and that's why we as republicans extended the hand of cooperation. We wanted to work throughout the entire session to make those investigations work to the benefit of the people of Iowa. Unfortunately, though, I think at this stage as you reflect on what has happened, the Senate democrats have chosen to launch Jack Hatch's campaign for governor from the floor of the Senate and Iowans really I think connect the dots for themselves. We've had 40, 50 days of grandstanding, talking about alleged activities, none of which have been illegal and at this point it's nothing more than democrats bowing to their union bosses who have given over $3 million in campaign donations and we're opposed to the efforts that we as republicans brought for full transparency.

Obradovich: Senator Gronstal, are you grandstanding? Are you bowing to your union bosses in pursuing this? And is it just about politics?

Gronstal: First of all, I would be very clear with people and I have said this many times, if people think this is just about politics, I've said this to the Governor's office, they are badly misjudging what is going on here because it's not about that. But let me say this, let me say this, 8 years ago, I don't know if you were in session on May 3rd 8 years ago, if you were at that session, the but Iowa House at 9:40 at night passed a resolution to give subpoena power to the Oversight Committee to investigate Iowa Workforce Development, did that 8 years ago. So this happens at times and it is a pretty big deal when you find out taxpayer dollars have been used to buy people's silence. And apparently -- I guess I can't believe you want to keep that secret, you want to walk away from this. Now, remember, the Governor put together his team of top people and said, we'll do an investigation. And on Monday several weeks ago he said, everything's fine, everything's fine, we're getting to the bottom of it and I'm issuing an executive order. The next day, after them doing their own internal investigation, the next day they found out that Director Carroll's name was on some of the documents doing these settlement agreements --

Borg: What do you anticipate is going to happen now in the interim with this subpoena power?

Gronstal: I think the committee is going to do the investigation just as they did 8 years ago in 2006 relative to Workforce Development and their oversight of CIETC. So that's what is going to happen, there's going to be an investigation. When the person that the Governor says is to blame, as he walks out of the building says, I'm not to blame, I did not lie to the committee and in fact other people in my office told me things and I depended on that. That is what Mike Carroll said. He said, I didn't lie.

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: Senator Dix, republicans in the House did ask some questions of the Governor's office related to this. Don't you and do your caucus have any questions about how this is being operated? And aren't you concerned as someone who is equally responsible for oversight, not just of your own branch of government, but also the other branches of government, that money is being spent the way you as a legislator intended?

Dix: Absolutely. And that is why we have been participating in the process, a lot of questions have been asked, as I said, over the last 40, 50 days. There have been nothing but questions in taking a look into these matters. But I think an even better question that needs to be asked is, why are the democrats, why are the unions opposed to a bill that also provides Iowans the whole story? Iowa taxpayers are paying the whole bill. They need to know, just as any other boss in an employee relationship, they need to know why someone is being fired.

Obradovich: So you're talking about personnel records, why someone has left state employment. The Governor has been calling for opening up these records. Senator Gronstal, why is that a bad idea?

Gronstal: Here's the deal. Management has all the power in the relationship. They have all of the power. So they can allege anything about your behavior or your behavior and the employee, under Iowa law, has no ability to negotiate or even talk about that or argue with it. So they can say, it's because you were always late and that's why I fired you. Or they can say, it's because you had inappropriate -- the employee doesn't have any ability to affect what the manager puts in the record.

Obradovich: But they can file a grievance.

Gronstal: So, they can't grieve or argue discipline or discharge. They can't. Under Iowa law they can't grieve that, they can't have a discussion with their employer about you're just making this up because you want to fire me. So, if the employee has no rights in the relationship and has no power, management can say whatever they want.

Obradovich: And is that something the legislature could change? Have you looked at opening some of these records? Is that something the legislature --

Gronstal: I would certainly be willing to explore something if I was able to defend myself against the charges of my boss that are inaccurate or made up. And they don't have that power now.

Borg: Well, we'll let the Oversight Committee determine that. Kay, go ahead.

Henderson: Finally, on this program last week, Doug Gross, who was the Governor's chief of staff as the Governor has notified us, 25 years ago, said that Governor Branstad is the world's greatest campaigner, I think he said the greatest in the history of Iowa, but he needs to improve his governance. Do you have advice, Senator Dix, for the Governor in terms of his management?

Dix: I think when you look at Governor Branstad has governed, he has a very positive record and the state had a $1 billion structural deficit when he came into office four years ago and we have now turned that into a situation where the state is now back on sound financial footing, jobs are being created, we continue to hear about new opportunities for Iowans each and every day. Can we do a better job? Absolutely. We should be challenging ourselves to do even better every day. But clearly, Governor, I believe has had a good handle on things and when problems came up he has acted swiftly and concisely to address those issues.

Borg: Senator Gronstal, I talked with you just after the Governor laid out his initiatives in the Condition of the State Address. You didn't have any problems at all with extending broadband into rural Iowa or the enhancement of the bullying restraints. But those seemingly non-controversial issues didn't make it. Why?

Gronstal: First of all, they are both complicated issues. And you're absolutely right, we didn't have any problem with that. As a matter of fact, towards the very end of the session we were offering the Governor kind of a what we called a skinnied down version of broadband. We passed a bill in the Senate. Unfortunately, it was straight partisan vote on anti-bullying efforts that we passed over to the House. So we tried to work through that legislation. So, we were interested in accomplishing those goals but some of those are fairly complicated. It's fairly complicated to figure out are we going to do incentives? And what are those incentives actually going to incent any new behavior? And where is it going to incent it? And if it's only going to incent it in a few places in the state of Iowa, legislators go it's got to be broader than that.

Borg: But it's complicated, Senator Dix, beyond the Senate's ability?

Dix: Yeah, exactly. I don't know exactly why resolution couldn't be developed. We, as the Senate republicans, are in the minority in the Iowa Senate. What I do know is we were very supportive of a proposal that we offered when we had that debate to include and protect students from bullying of any kind. I mean, one of the things that the Senate proposal really identified, really limited it to very certain sectors and certain individuals and really bullying shouldn't be acceptable for anyone.

Borg: And on the broadband, is this at all limiting and impeding development? We talk about economic development across Iowa. Does the lack of broadband impede that?

Dix: I think there are certain situations where new technology and higher speed, higher capacity -- one of the things I think that came out in this discussion that is favorable is within the world of agriculture today and producing food more efficiently and effectively for the people of our state and our country can be accomplished with some of this new technology out into even more rural areas. And we, as Senate republicans, are supportive of every effort that can possibly be made to encourage those new investments to be made and allow for those opportunities to happen.

Henderson: Senator Gronstal, the legislature essentially ratified a deal that was negotiated between the Iowa Greyhound Association and the two casinos which are currently operating greyhound racetracks. That deal will see the racetrack in Council Bluffs shuttered at the end of 2015. The Greyhound Association will start managing and running dog races in Dubuque. Was it a mistake not to just end dog racing? And how do you explain to Iowans who see this huge pot of money that the casinos are paying to greyhound owners, how do you explain that to people who see that as incongruous?

Gronstal: Well, let's be clear. None of that money was ours. None of that money you're talking about was ours. It was the --

Henderson: You mean state of Iowa taxpayers --

Gronstal: The state of Iowa taxpayer dollars, none of that was taxpayer dollars. That was profits that the casinos had in Council Bluffs and Dubuque and those profits were transferred, under the law they could only operate the casino because they had greyhound tracks. And so that was the law that was created many, many years ago. And so they came to us and said, end dog racing. And we said, we're concerned about the loss of jobs, we're concerned about the industry that depended on this law. So, why don't you guys go develop and agreement for the end of dog racing in the state of Iowa that respects the people that have been partners with you over the years. So we told them to go work out a deal. They went, they worked out the deal, we made a few modest changes to it in the Senate, the deal that they brought to us. We passed it, the House looked at it and, this doesn't happen very often, the House looked at a Senate passed bill and said, they did everything right and they sent it down to the Governor.

Henderson: So, Senator Dix, what is your advice to the Governor in regards to that? Should he sign it?

Dix: As the legislation came to us I supported it fully. I believe that there was a lot of very cooperative efforts that took place to address the multitude of issues related to that. And given our choices and options that appear to be available I think it's the best one that we had. It's why I voted for it. And I would hope that Governor Branstad signs it into law.

Obradovich: The Chairman of the Racing and Gaming Commission was here on this show right after the Commission decided not to allow a new license for a casino in Cedar Rapids. And the reason was because it would take business, too much business away from existing casinos. And he said, if that policy should be changed he wanted more guidance from the legislature and Governor Branstad. So, Senator Gronstal, should the legislature take a look at what level of competition is acceptable among casinos for the future?

Gronstal: I think one of the things that has worked well in Iowa is the fact that we have said, we're going to have limited venues for this and that we're going to help those venues become significant economic engines in their communities. So that is kind of what happened when we kind of read it a few years ago. We passed legislation to say, that kind of said there's still some underserved areas in Iowa that this might make sense and we ended up with a casino in Washington County, in Riverside and up in Emmetsburg and I can't remember the one the furthest --

Borg: Larchwood.

Gronstal: Larchwood. So, the legislature came in but we didn't specifically say to the Racing and Gaming Commission, you are to do X. We just kind of passed some legislation that opened that door. So it's something the legislature could look at but I do think there are tensions about expanding it. You also remember we had the touch play debacle where we had slot machines in every gas station and bar and grocery store in the state --

Obradovich: They looked like slot machines.

Gronstal: Yeah, and they looked exactly like slot machines and a lot of people in the public said, we don't really want it everywhere.

Borg: Senator Dix, sounds like hands off. Is that the way you feel too?

Dix: I think that the touch play debate really highlights where Iowans' hearts and minds or values are on this issue. For us to change the policy, and as Senator Gronstal said, we're always going to listen. But I'm not hearing from Iowans that they'd like to see us change our policy and have a casino --

Obradovich: Except maybe in Cedar Rapids.

Dix: Well --

Obradovich: And Ottumwa maybe. So a few places where they'd like to have casinos.

Dix: Again, beyond that, if we make those choices what it ends up being is we end up having casinos on every street corner and that's not what Iowans want.

Henderson: Talking about selling things in convenience stores, there are these newfangled things called electronic cigarettes and the legislature decided that minors shouldn't possess or buy them even if they don't contain nicotine. Apparently some of them have cherry flavors inside. Senator Dix, why shouldn't these things simply be regulated the same way rolled tobacco cigarettes are and taxed as such?

Dix: Well, as I listen to people from my district, citizens across Iowa, the most important thing that they're telling us is let's make sure that they're not available to minors, make sure that they have to be placed behind the counter and that is what the legislation really accomplished and I think we should view it as a well-placed victory for accomplishing that.

Henderson: Senator Gronstal, do you agree?

Gronstal: Of course I agree, I called the bill up for debate. What do you think?

Henderson: But do you have some concerns that this is a back door way for the tobacco industry to get a new product online that is not taxed?

Gronstal: I actually think that's a side argument, okay, because we could do nothing and that's what you'd end up with. I think there's still some dispute, the feds have rules out, FDA have proposed rules out, they're not rules until they're finalized. So we've got probably one, two, maybe even a three year process before the feds come down in terms of their policies. We can cross all of those bridges later but in the meantime, we in essence said, let's make sure we don't get kids hooked.

Obradovich: So, Senator Gronstal, the legislative session is over, the policy making time is over and now we're into the campaign season. So what message do you want voters to take out of the legislative session as they're considering your candidates and the candidates for Senate?

Gronstal: I hesitate because we haven't really even talked about our accomplishments. But what I would say to the voters is we were able to freeze tuition again for a year. We were able to cut taxes for working families in this state. We were able to invest in a skilled workforce, apprenticeship programs that are great jobs, great opportunities for kids. Iowa is coming out of the recession but many Iowans still feel like they're starting to fall out of the middle class, falling out of the middle class as expenses rise faster than their wages. So we're trying to recognize those things and do those things that will help Iowans have the skills necessary. I'd also say we're able to say to Iowans that for the first time in 25 years, the 25th anniversary of the program, the REAP program that protects Iowa outdoor resources, our natural resources, we're able for the first time to say $25 million we set aside for that.

Obradovich: So, the message is productive legislative session despite divided government?

Gronstal: That's right. That's right.

Obradovich: Mr. Dix, what is your message?

Dix: Sure. Well, I believe that we started off the session with high hopes and really started to move the ball in a very effective way. We, one of the early bills that came up for a vote was eliminating the income tax for military pension income. I believe that that was a good first step in the right direction. We also very supportive and pleased to see that the apprenticeship program that was adopted, that really helps Iowans better equip themselves for the workforce that is going to be necessary for tomorrow. But where we really fell short is, and Senate republicans we have been saying this over and over again, if we want to set Iowa apart, if we want to really and truly create a legacy of opportunity for Iowans, we need comprehensive income tax reform. That is where we reward people for making investments, reward higher paying career opportunities in our state and we really need to do that. And second, we need a budget that recognizes -- and democrats were pushing for more and more spending again this year -- the budget needs to reflect the Iowa budget and state budget this year grows at more than twice that rate. And third, we didn't do a photo ID for voting. That is really some simple, common sense practices.

Henderson: Senator Gronstal, Senate democrats, democrats in the United States Senate rather, failed in their effort to increase, pass a bill that would increase the national minimum wage. Will democrats on the campaign trail this fall promise Iowans that you'll raise the state minimum wage?

Gronstal: I think probably most will. I don't know that all will. But I think that is definitely an issue. But I've got to say, in terms of our budget and overspending, we spent $30 million less than the Governor spends in his budget. The increase in our budget, about half of it is because of tax relief we passed last year that we have to fund and if we don't fund it, local governments eat it and if local governments eat it property taxes go up. We did exactly that --

Borg: Kathie, we're coming up on adjourning this show.

Obradovich: Oh, okay. Well, so let's just talk about how do you break your message through? It's going to be a really political year. There are a lot of races up ballot. How are you as the managers of your campaigns, Senator Dix, going to break that message through?

Dix: I'm a strong believer in all politics are local and it really begins with good candidates who are understanding, the importance of listening to their constituents and bringing those values forward. And I believe that it really is going to hinge on a message of opportunity for Iowans. I am excited about the prospect. We have great people from many different aspects of life and we're going to come back in the majority.

Borg: Senator Gronstal, quickly.

Gronstal: Well, I feel exactly -- there's one we completely agree on. It's all about good candidates at the local level that connect well with their local folks and deliver a message that they want to hear. So we look forward to the fall campaigns.

Borg: That's great, we started the session in agreement, you had nothing to say negatively, Senator Gronstal. We finished it and I think that's an accomplishment in and of itself. Thanks so much for being with us today. Next week on Iowa Press, University of Iowa President Sally Mason. You'll see that conversation with President Mason at the usual times, that's 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: Bill Dix breeders cannabis cannabis oil Council Bluffs Democrats dog racing dogs government Governor of Iowa greyhounds Iowa Iowa legislature Jack Hatch marijauna Mike Gronstal news politics racing Terry Branstad