GOP Gubernatorial Hopefuls Sound Off in Debate Print
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Tuesday, 28 May 2002 18:00
In a televised debate on Saturday, May 25, at St. Ambrose University’s Galvin Fine Arts Center, the three Republican candidates for Iowa governor took plenty of shots at incumbent Tom Vilsack, but they frequently failed to establish specifics on their own agendas.

Only Doug Gross, a chief of staff for former Governor Terry Branstad, consistently took positions on questions asked by the three panelists (which included me).

Gross (of Des Moines), Iowa state Representative Steve Sukup (of Dougherty), and businessman Bob Vander Plaats (of Sioux City) will face off in the June 4 primary.

Much of the discussion in the early part of the debate concerned the state budget, which faces deficits of more than $200 million in both the current and the next fiscal year. While the legislature tapped into a variety of funds to bridge the budget gap this year, it’s estimated that the state will begin its 2004 fiscal year with a deficit of nearly $1 billion.

All three candidates faulted Vilsack’s handling of the budget – saying that his spendthrift ways took the state from a surplus of nearly $1 billion to the current deficit – but only Gross offered an answer when asked three specific departments he’d cut and three areas of state spending he’d protect beyond what’s already been done or proposed.

Gross said he’d freeze public-employee salaries, cut Medicaid (which is severely over-budget), and institute “rolling sunsets” of all state agencies that would force departments to justify their existences and their budgets. He said he’d protect education, public-safety, and economic-development funding under any circumstances.

Vander Plaats said he’d cut the Department of Human Services (DHS) and protect education and “services to our most vulnerable,” but he didn’t go beyond that. When Gross asked him the same question later, Vander Plaats remained vague, repeating cutting DHS and saying he would reorganize state employees and implement a “complete systems change.”

Sukup was more specific but still didn’t fully answer the question. He said he’d protect education and cut DHS. He also said he’d create a Program Elimination Commission to look at all state spending. The commission would have seven members, and its recommendations would have to be voted on by the legislature without amendment.

Vander Plaats differentiated himself from his opponents by saying that he doesn’t have the baggage they do, and he sounded a refrain on leadership. “I believe everything rises and falls on leadership,” he said.

Vander Plaats said Sukup doesn’t have results to show for his eight years in the legislature. “You’ve been in the legislature for eight years,” he said. “Now all of a sudden it’s important to say, ‘Now let’s reduce our taxes on our senior citizens.’ What happened in the eight years you were in the legislature?”

Vander Plaats also criticized Gross, an attorney, for representing corporate hog facilities. “I believe I’m the only candidate who can win against Tom Vilsack,” he said. Yet Vander Plaats, who calls his leadership record “exemplary,” doesn’t mention that he doesn’t have a public-sector history to pick apart.

On education, although the candidates each invoked local control, they offered different platforms.

“We’ve separated the funding streams at the state level back to local school districts,” Vander Plaats said. “We need to reimburse on a per-student-served basis and let the local leaders reach the expectations for the children.”

Sukup suggested statewide reading programs and reading goals, while Gross said the state shouldn’t be telling school districts what to do. He said the state should require that school districts adopt measurable goals for their improvement plans, and the state should ensure those are being met. “The state’s responsibility is to fund and examine, but not to dictate,” he said.

On taxes and economic development, Sukup suggested that Iowa cut its capital-gains-tax rate and said the state should focus on small business.

Gross said the state should reduce taxes and regulation on the biotechnology industry to create a higher-wage job climate. He also supported research-and-development and investment tax credits, and allowing businesses to carry net-operating losses for a longer period of time.

Vander Plaats advocated a “competitive tax structure” and said the state shouldn’t be deciding which types of businesses it wants to attract.

All three candidates supporting reforming the Department of Human Services. Vander Plaats and Sukup said they would support removing Director Jessie Rasmussen. Vander Plaats also recommended a public-private partnership to reform the agency. Sukup and Gross, on the other hand, voiced their support for a measure that would trigger an on-site evaluation by DHS whenever a live-in partner moves in with a family.

Bob Vander Plaats’ campaign Web site is located at (

Steve Sukup’s campaign Web site can be found at (

Doug Gross’ Web site is located at (

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