DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa’s 2013 legislative landscape is getting marred by partisan lines being drawn in the sand at the Statehouse.
The 85th Iowa General Assembly has gotten off to a rocky start with Gov. Terry Branstad trading demands with members of the split-control Legislature in hopes of getting the political result that each side wants.
Branstad, a five-term Republican, opened this year’s session by proposing a package of education reforms and then telling lawmakers they must resolve that priority “before we spend one minute discussing additional resources to support our existing educational system.”
The governor’s program also called for scrapping a K-12 forward-funding law that he promoted and signed in 1995 after threatening to veto the money appropriated for schools unless lawmakers accepted the new approach of giving educators adequate lead time by setting state aid at least 15 months in advance.
“He’s back-pedaling,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a retired teacher who was in the Legislature when Branstad pushed the forward-funding idea.
“I don’t understand why he’s been such a proponent of that and now he’s totally reneging on it,” she said. “It’s a puzzlement to me, especially because he believes in a two-year budget. This legislative process takes time and it’s deliberative for a reason, and so it’s unrealistic to think we would have the reform done before even the April 15 deadline that districts have to have their budgets certified.”
Meanwhile, legislative Democrats have made their own power moves with majority Senate Democrats saying any tax relief package that lands on the governor’s desk must boost the earned income tax credit for working families, and Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, has vowed the 2013 session will not end until the Legislature and governor agree to expand Medicaid coverage in Iowa as provided under federal health reforms.
During a meeting with The Gazette’s editorial board Friday, Hatch – co-leader of the House-Senate human services budget subcommittee and a possible 2014 gubernatorial candidate — blamed the governor for the atmosphere of confrontation, posturing and ultimatums that is building at the Statehouse as Democrats who hold a 26-24 Senate edge and Republicans with their 53-47 House majority settle in for their scheduled 110-day work session.
“I think the governor has just been so narrow in his vision, and so resistant to any other strategy to get his proposals through that it’s put us in a pretty defensive position,” Hatch told editorial board members.
“So when the governor, who is the leader of our state, and who sets the agenda and atmosphere of discussions and dialogue, refuses to let us in, then the lines become drawn. I certainly would negotiate. But I’m not going to negotiate to an empty chair,” Hatch added. “No, it’s not the best way to run a railroad. But that’s the leadership he’s providing, I think, that’s creating this mess.”
Branstad insisted last week that he is “not one that puts out ultimatums” but he said he wanted to impress upon lawmakers – who often put off major decisions to the end of each session – that he is serious about the education reforms he has proposed and believes they can address them by the end of February if they put the proper focus on a limited set of priorities.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he has made it “abundantly” clear to the governor that the Senate plans to take up his reform proposals on a parallel track with K-12 funding and approve what is appropriate policy to improve student performance. He did not think that would all be accomplished in the next five weeks, however.
“Is that physically possible? Certainly,” Gronstal said of Branstad’s February timeline. “Is it likely in terms of differences that we will find between the House and the Senate on that subject? I do think it’s unlikely.”
Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor who has been a Statehouse watcher for 43 years, said the escalating rhetoric is not necessarily new as everybody tries to squeeze their favorite policy or project into the legislative hopper at the start of a session. He said the governor is right to push lawmakers for quick action but he warned there is a risk of “poisoning the water” if Branstad elicits strong push back in swinging the money hammer.
“The best way, I think, is they have to go out for lunch and not go down to where the media is and stand in front of a TV camera and state their ultimatum,” Schmidt said.
“We all want lots of time and we want another study committee and we want to push it down the road and we want to kick the can because we don’t want to make a decision now. Maybe that used to work at a time when everything was slower, we were a slower country. But our problems are big and urgent and they need a little faster pace,” he added. “They’re going to have to start moving at Internet speed instead of buggy speed.”
Mascher noted that the kinds of comprehensive reform to Iowa’s education system that Branstad envisions require a deliberative approach to avoid mistakes or unintended consequences that should not be rushed. Nor should the state “pull the rug out from under districts and expect them to give you buy-in for your plan when you’re not giving them anything in terms of the support they need for ongoing expenses,” she said.
While sessions often get combatant but end in a group hug once all the compromises get resolved, Schmidt said he has seen a continual drift toward political saber rattling and brinksmanship both in Washington, D.C., and Des Moines that is disconcerting.
“Watching this for 43 years, there’s a lot more harshness, tension, bitterness, hard language, more distance between the different players than I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Schmidt noted. Oftentimes, differences get resolved, but when they don’t, he said, “then they walk away madder than hell and ready to lock and load, and the problem just festers and continues.”
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