Iowa Politics Roundup: Branstad Sworn in as Governor, Calls for Less Government and Taxes Print
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 14 January 2011 15:52

Republican Terry Branstad was sworn into office as Iowa’s 41st governor Friday and used his inaugural address to issue calls for service, less government, more integrity and transparency, a reduced and simplified tax system, and a renewed commitment to education.

“It is time for a new covenant between Iowans and their government,” Branstad said. “It is a covenant that is founded upon principles of limited government, service above self, transparency and integrity, world-class schools, and celebrating the success of Iowans. These are the principles that will guide my days as your governor.”

Branstad, a Boone Republican who previously served four terms as governor from 1983 to 1999, returned to office with a swearing-in ceremony at Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines decorated simply with a large American flag and set up for 2,000 people, although several hundred seats were empty.

The day marked Iowa Republicans’ return to power. Democrats have held the governor’s office for the past 12 years. Tom Vilsack of Mount Pleasant served for two terms, while Chet Culver of Des Moines served for one.

“We must be rid of the yoke of government which taxes us too much, spends too much, and regulates us too much,” Branstad said. “Government must, as Abraham Lincoln once said, do only that which the people cannot do for themselves. That is new-covenant principle number one: We have too much government – state, county, city, school, local – and it must be reduced.”

Branstad campaigned on reducing government by 15 percent – a proposal that drew criticism from Democrats for being short on details. In his speech, Branstad renewed that call for cuts.

“Our auditor tells us that at least 15 percent must be permanently eliminated from government to make our books balance once and for all,” he said. “And I aim to make sure we do it and do it now. We will all share in the sacrifice, while protecting those who need our help. But we will remove the lead boots of excess government from our economy. And without that burden, we will be able to run like the wind in the race to prosperity.”

Branstad also talked about the need for tax reform.

“Our tax system, whether it be property or income taxes, punishes those who create the jobs we need,” he said. “That will change. Both will be reduced and simplified. The job creators will be rewarded; they are welcome here, and it is about time our tax system reflects that fact.”

Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, an Osceola Republican and former state senator, also took the oath of office. Her speech followed Branstad’s themes: “Together, we will redefine the role and structure of government – a limited, transparent, smaller government, which focuses on essential services, infrastructure, safety, and quality education. A partner rather than an obstacle in reaching our goals. My focus will be on creating an environment where business owners choose to invest in our workforce and our communities, where good jobs can be found all across Iowa.”

Culver Touts Progress with Programs Targeted for Elimination

In his final Condition of the State address, Governor Culver touted progress that his administration has made over the past four years, especially with several programs now on the chopping block in the new Republican administration: the Iowa Power Fund and state-funded preschool.

“We now generate 20 percent of our power from renewable sources, up from just 5 percent four years ago,” Culver said on Tuesday. “One of the tools we used to accomplish this goal is the Iowa Power Fund. It has allowed Iowa to become the ‘Silicon Prairie’ of the Midwest.”

The Iowa Power Fund is one of the programs that would be eliminated under a bill proposed by House Republicans that would cut $500 million over three years.

Culver also said Iowa is leading the nation in expanding access to preschool. “During the last three years alone, 23,000 additional children have been enrolled in early-childhood-education programs,” he said. “As a result, 90 percent of four-year-olds now have the opportunity to attend a quality preschool program, up from just 5 percent a few years ago.”

Republicans did not applaud when Culver talked about preschool. Iowa’s state-funded voluntary-preschool program is also on the chopping block under the new Republican leadership. The program would be eliminated in House Study Bill 1. House Appropriations Chair Scott Raecker (R-Urbandale) on Monday said the state simply can’t afford to send all four-year-olds to school. Branstad also advocated for its elimination during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) said Republicans do not plan to change their minds about state programs advocated by Culver that are now targeted for elimination. “Many of those decisions and things he highlighted, many of them are decisions that were made long ago,” Paulsen said. “There are things we campaigned on. There are promises we made to Iowans.”

The House speaker called the speech a good closing note for Culver: “He came in, he delivered a very serious, thoughtful speech; I thought he delivered it well.”

But Paulsen said much still needs to be done, including finding jobs for the 110,000 unemployed, improving the economy, and getting the state budget under control.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) indicated that Democrats would work to protect some of Culver’s landmark programs targeted in the $500 million in budget cuts proposed by House Republicans. He specifically noted the importance of renewable energy and access to early-childhood education.

“We will certainly look at those proposals; we will try and protect the ones that we think are the most important,” Gronstal said. “We recognize that there’s a new majority in the House and a Republican in the governor’s office. And we’ll have to work with them so we’re pragmatists about that. But walking away from the effort to make Iowa energy-independent we think would be foolish. That sounds like the course the Republicans want to pursue, so obviously we’ll put up some fight on that.”


Late Budget Cuts from Culver Impact Community Colleges, Human Services

Culver stood firm and refused to change the implementation of $83.7 million in “efficiency savings” he announced on January 3, despite being asked by a number of parties to change the cuts slated for human services and community colleges.

“We have every confidence that the legislature, working with the incoming administration, will work together to formulate changes they may determine are necessary,” Culver said. “Fortunately, with our large ending balance and reserve funds, they will have any resources they will need to make those adjustments. Our decisions regarding the savings were not easy ones, but we believe they were the right ones.”

Culver noted that he was leaving office with an estimated general-fund ending balance of more than $514 million this fiscal year, which he said provides adequate resources for supplemental appropriations for community colleges and other programs.

The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) would eliminate 188 full-time positions between now and June, including 136 that are currently filled, under one option for cutting $27.3 million ordered by Culver under the state’s government-reorganization and -efficiency efforts.

“It’s unfortunate that my tenure comes to a close with news like this,” outgoing DHS Director Charlie Krogmeier said in a memo to his staff.

The department was expecting to have to come up with $14 million in savings, but found out that its share is actually $27.3 million – about 9 percent of its budget.

The plan for cuts would “decimate” rural communities, said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61.

“I cannot stress enough how extremely disappointed we are with the Department of Human Services’ plan to eliminate hundreds of full-time positions at our state’s DHS institutions,” Homan said. “These proposed cuts would decimate our rural communities, as well as services to our seniors, kids, and mentally disabled.”

Krogmeier outlined what he called sobering and painful options for making the cuts with DHS workers, the Iowa Council on Human Services, and incoming Director Chuck Palmer.

“We have been anticipating a reduction and have been managing to live within what we knew would be fewer resources,” he said. “The general strategy has been to delay filling approved positions, as many of you with growing caseloads can painfully attest. The size of the DHS reduction exceeded our estimates. Finding these additional savings in already-reduced budgets is all the more challenging with just five months remaining in the fiscal year. But the money has already been removed from our budget, and we are required to take additional action.”

An unexpected $6 million will be cut from Iowa’s community colleges this fiscal year under reductions ordered by Culver.

News of the reduction came Wednesday, just hours after Senate President Jack Kibbie and Senate Majority Leader Gronstal outlined their plan to create jobs by adding more resources for Iowa’s community colleges.

House Advances Budget-Cutting Bill as Democrats Rally for State-Funded Preschool

The bill cutting $544.7 million from the state budget over three years cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday evening when the House Appropriations Committee approved the bill on a party-line 15-10 vote.

“This puts the taxpayer first,” said Representative Nick Wagner (R-Marion), the bill’s floor manager. “This is the first step in aligning spending with revenues.”

Efforts by Democrats to prevent the elimination of the state-funded voluntary-preschool program for four-year-olds as well as smoking-cessation efforts such as Just Eliminate Lies and Quitline Iowa failed Wednesday evening on 15-10, party-line votes.

Representative Cindy Winckler (D-Davenport), an educational consultant, said 21,354 four-year-olds are enrolled this fall in 326 state-funded preschool programs with licensed teachers.

“This is not babysitting,” Winckler said. “This is a preschool program that prepares our children and gives them an idea of what it is like to be ready for kindergarten and first grade.”

But Wagner said this bill does not eliminate preschools; it just removes state funding and creates a voucher program for tuition assistance.

“But it will actually cost the state a lot more in the long run,” argued Representative Tyler Olson (D-Cedar Rapids), who talked about the value of investing in preschool and the danger of wiping out the current system. “I think it’s dangerous, and it really sends the wrong message.”

Cady Defends Role of Courts in Condition-of-Judiciary Speech

Interim Chief Justice Mark Cady defended the role of the courts and Iowa’s merit-selection method of choosing justices.

Cady, the author of the unanimous decision that legalized same-sex marriages, emphasized in his Condition of the Judiciary speech that partisan politics is never a part of the merit-selection system of judges. His speech often met with applause from Democrats and looks of disdain from Republicans.

“I understand the nonpartisan nature of the state commission has been questioned at times, most notably when the political makeup of the membership shifts to a majority of Democrats, or a majority of Republicans,” Cady said. “The more important point is that the political affiliation of a commissioner as a Democrat or Republican does not compromise the ability of that person to be dedicated and conscientious about selecting the best and most-qualified individuals to serve as judges in our state.”

While Cady did not elaborate on his personal beliefs, he defended the actions of the Supreme Court when it ruled that the prohibition of same-sex marriage violated gays’ constitutional rights. “In our government, courts are legal institutions – not political institutions,” he said. “Unlike our political institutions, courts serve the law, not the interests of constituents.”

Three Supreme Court justices were ousted from the bench last November. At least two freshman House Republicans remain unswayed from their efforts to impeach four remaining Iowa Supreme Court Justices, despite the speech by Cady.

“It’s not we the courts; it’s we the people,” said Representative Tom Shaw (R-Laurens).

Representative Glen Massie (R-Des Moines) also intends to join an effort by Shaw and Representative Kim Pearson (R-Des Moines) to impeach the justices. He said Republicans will respond to Cady at the appropriate time. “I think it’s clear we still have a difference of opinion,” Massie said.

But the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee said Thursday that he isn’t inclined at this point to advance legislation that would impeach four Iowa Supreme Court Justices.

“The constitutional standard is characterized as misdemeanor or malfeasance,” said state Representative Richard Anderson (R-Clarinda). “My gut reaction is a ruling by a judicial officer on a contested case that’s before them likely does not rise to the standard required for impeachment. ... If the standard isn’t met, then impeachment will not proceed.”

Anderson said he has not surveyed his Republican colleagues on the issue. “But ... there is not likely a majority of Republican members who would support impeachment at this time,” he said.

61 Applicants File for Supreme Court Openings

Sixty-one Iowans have applied with the State Judicial Nominating Commission to fill the three vacancies on the Iowa Supreme Court.

The vacancies occurred when the terms of Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, Justice Michael Streit, and Justice David Baker ended December 31 after they were ousted in the November election.

The commission, led by Justice David Wiggins, will begin meeting the morning of January 24 in the Iowa Supreme Court Courtroom to interview the applicants. The public is invited to observe the interviews in the courtroom. The interviews will also be available for viewing over the Internet. It is anticipated the interviews will take several days to complete.

Immediately following the interviews, the commission will begin deliberations to select a consolidated slate of nine nominees from the group of applicants. Once the commission selects its slate of nominees, the commission will forward those names to the governor. The governor will then have 30 days to appoint three new justices.

Branstad has said that he doesn’t intend to ask applicants about their positions on specific issues such as gay marriage, but he will ask the potential justices about their philosophy on the separation of powers between the branches of government and about restoring public support for the judicial system.

Applicants include 42 attorneys, 16 judges and magistrates, and three others.

This weekly summary comes from IowaPolitics.com, an online government and politics news service. Reporter Andrew Duffelmeyer and other correspondents contributed to this report.