May 29, 2015

‘Significant gap’ remains between Republicans, Democrats in state budget negotiations

CapitolA key legislator says all the “tweaking” that can be done has been done and state budget negotiations are nearing an impasse. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs is among the handful of legislative leaders who’ve been meeting privately for weeks, trying to bridge the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

“I would say we have significantly closed the gap,” Gronstal told reporters this morning. “We closed it a little more yesterday, but I would say there’s still a significant gap.”

Gronstal, who is the top-ranking Democrat in the legislature, said that spending gap is less than $100 million and the “biggest sticking points” remain. Democrats want to spend more on public schools than do Republicans and Democrats are pressing for more spending on government health care programs.

“To the extent we underfund, don’t provide enough resources for health care, we raise all the rest of Iowans health care plans because of uncompensated care in hospitals and doctor’s offices and other health care providers across the state,” Gronstal said.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha, the legislature’s top Republican, said negotiators have “made progress,” but it’s difficult to bridge the gap.

“Iowans picked a Democratically-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House. That’s not necessarily a recipe for a quick resolution,” Paulsen told reporters. “It doesn’t mean we’re not committed to finding it.”

Republicans are insisting on a $7.1 billion overall spending plan for the state budgeting year that begins July 1. Democrats and Republican Governor Terry Branstad favor an overall spending level that’s about $200 million higher. Paulsen said Republicans in the House have proposed a budget that fits with the amount of taxes the state is expected to collect next year.

“Let’s remember that the ongoing revenue is $180 million, roughly, more than we had last year,” Paulsen said. “I mean, only in government is $180 million of new spending a cut.”

For the past several weeks, the discussion among legislative leaders has centered on ways to use some of the state’s billion dollar surplus on some one-time projects or programs. Paulsen says Republicans are willing to do some of that, but Gronstal suggests that well has been tapped out.

“We are nearing the end of our ability to tweak things any further,” Gronstal said shortly after 9 a.m. this morning.

The next state budgeting year starts July 1st and Gronstal gave this answer when asked how this budget dilemma might get resolved: “I’m not making any predictions on that, but in a timely way. We will not engage in a game of shutdown.”

Gronstal, Paulsen and a handful of other legislators plan to meet late this morning to resume budget negotiations. There are a few policy matters involved as well. Senate Democrats, for instance, stuck anti-bullying policies for schools into a catch-all budget bill. Paulsen, who talked with reporters shortly after 10 a.m., gave this answer when asked if House Republicans might accept that approach to making those policies state law: “I didn’t show up this morning prepared to say no to a whole host of things, so we’ll just roll with it.”

It’s unlikely either the full House or Senate will meet for votes on Thursday or Friday.

Congressman Loebsack criticizes process for Trans-Pacific trade deal

Congressman Dave Loebsack.

Congressman Dave Loebsack.

The lone Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation is criticizing the way the Obama Administration is presenting a pending trade deal to congress. Congressman Dave Loebsack, a Democrat from Iowa City, says forcing members of congress to go into a “secret room” to look at the proposal Trans-Pacific Partnership is the wrong approach.

“That’s not the way to create a public policy in America that affects so many folks and potentially could do great good, could do great harm as well,” Loebsack says. Members of congress are not allowed to take notes while reading the proposed trade deal involving the United States, Japan and 10 other countries.

Loebsack says he and his congressional colleagues must turn in their cell phones and other electronic devices, too, while viewing the documents. “The agreement isn’t finished yet. We’ll see what it looks like in the end,” Loebsack says. “But, for now, I think it’s really important that folks know this isn’t being exposed to the light of day, in that sense.”

The U.S. Senate voted last week to give President Obama “fast track” authority so congress cannot press for amendments to trade deals, but must merely accept or reject the package. Loebsack says he has a “lot of concerns” about that.[capDLtrade3] :23 :for the deal.”

“I’m a member of congress who represents 770,000 in 24 counties and this trade deal is going to affect a lot of people very differently,” Loebsack says. “…I have a difficult time buying the argument that I should just turn over my authority to the president of either party so the president can negotiate a deal and then come back and ask me, ‘Yes or no,’ — whether I’m for the deal.”

The U.S. House will vote on “fast track” authority for the president in June and Loebsack, at this point, sounds like a no. “At the moment, I’m having a lot of difficulty with the trade promotion authority, the fast trade authority,” Loebsack says. “I’m not tending in that direction by any means.” Both of Iowa’s Republican senators voted for the bill, arguing expanded trade is important to Iowa’s economy.

Many of the countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations — including Australia, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand — have been reluctant to conclude the trade talks without the guarantee that the U.S. congress wouldn’t try to make changes in the deal.


Governor hoping for a budget ‘breakthrough’ soon

State Capitol

State Capitol

Iowa lawmakers got an extra early start to this Memorial Day weekend. Senators have not met to debate at all this week and most of the 100 members of the Iowa House gathered for just one day to vote on bills. However, legislative leaders have been holding countless private meetings this week with Governor Terry Branstad’s top staff, to try to draft a spending plan for state government operations.

“Hopefully there will be a breakthrough and things will come together,” Branstad told reporters during an interview at the statehouse Thursday.

Lawmakers face a looming deadline of July 1, 2015. That’s the first day of the next fiscal year and there’s no budget plan in place. The main problem is Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the House, plus the governor is a Republicans, so any spending plan must bridge partisan differences. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal said after weeks of closed-door meetings, there is an “understanding” between the two sides, but no deal.

“They’ve shown an openness to working with us,” Gronstal told reporters Thursday.

The largest stumbling block? Legislators can’t agree on how much general state aid to send to Iowa’s public schools for the academic year that begins in August. The governor is urging legislators to make that spending decision for each of the next two academic years.

“I just talked to a constituent whose daughter wants to move back from out-of-state. She’s a teacher, but she’s been told by the school systems that until this budget gets resolved, we’re not going to be able to make decisions on hiring,” Branstad said. “Well, that’s not a good situation.”

A legislative insider said “little tiny steps” are being taken to span the distance that separates Republicans and Democrats as they seek to agree on an overall spending plan for state government operations. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, said there is a “real possibility” a budget deal might be struck next week.

“I think people are working in good faith,” Paulsen told reporters Thursday. “We’ll continue to have conversations.”

House Republicans have proposed an overall spending target that is $166 million less than what Republican Governor Terry Branstad and Senate Demorats have proposed. Branstad said he will ensure the final budget plan is “workable and sustainable for the long-term” rather than some kind of a “political deal that doesn’t meet the needs to Iowans.”

“As the chief executive, ultimately, you know, the buck stops with me to be able to deliver the services,” Branstad said Thursday. “I want to be sure we can do that.”

In 2011, legislators waited ’til June 30 to get a final state budget draft done, voted upon and sent to the governor’s desk for his review.

Petitioners object to MHI closures in Clarinda, Mt Pleasant

Matt Sinovic

Matt Sinovic

Opponents of Governor Branstad’s push to close the two state-run Mental Health Institutes in southern Iowa delivered 2500 petitions signatures to the governor’s office this morning. Matt Sinovic is executive director of Progress Iowa, the group that organized the online petition drive.

“This happened over the last week or so, so it’s been a very quick turn-around for these signers and we expect more to sign,” Sinovic told reporters. “But we saw Governor Branstad was signing this proclamation today and thought this would be an appropriate time to make these voices heard.”

Branstad held a brief midday ceremony to sign a “Mental Health Month” proclamation.

“Frankly, the governor signing this proclamation is laughable,” Sinovic said. “He’s putting these policies in place that hurts Iowans and now he’s taking a curtain call, pretending to be in favor of quality mental health care. I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

Sinovic said there is currently no plan in place to care for the acutely ill Iowans who depend upon the state-run Mental Health Institutes for care they cannot get elsewhere at privately-run facilities. According to Branstad, his critics just want to “protect the status quo.”

“What we’re doing in Iowa is really long overdue,” Branstad told reporters during a statehouse interview. “Many other states have done it before.”

Branstad’s state budget plan released in January did not include any operating funds to keep the Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant open past June 30. Legislators are still wrangling over budget details, but it’s unlikely Branstad will accept any plan that keeps the two facilities open indefinitely.

Huckabee undecided on 2015 Iowa Straw Poll participation

Mike Huckabee on the gun range.

Mike Huckabee on the gun range.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee visited an indoor shooting range in suburban Des Moines this afternoon and he targeted Hillary Clinton during his remarks there.

“I would ask her why didn’t she answer the call of Chris Stevens four times when he was begging for help in Benghazi,” Huckabee said. “When an American is laying on the ground and in danger and Americans are being shot at and being threatened with death, it is the absolute duty of America to come to their aid.”

Huckabee used three different weapons at the firing range before speaking to the crowd and answering questions. Tom Hudson, the general manager of Crossroads Shooting Sports, held up the target Huckabee had been shooting at — showing the shots hit center.

“If you want somebody that you think might be on target, no pun intended here, with where we want to go with this country,” Hudson suggested, as the crowd cheered and applauded.

Huckabee told reporters after the event that he has not decided whether he’ll participate in the Iowa Republican Party’s Straw Poll this summer.

“Every campaign will have to determine how important it is to that campaign’s strategy,” Huckabee said.

Huckabee did participate in the 2007 Straw Poll during his first campaign for the White House.

“We did well. We came in second the last time and it was almost like coming in first,” Huckabee said smiling. “We’ll certainly determine whether it’s the best use of resources, but that’s the big question. You spend an enormous level of resources to participate.”

While Iowa GOP officials have decided the party will foot the bill for renting party tent space for each of the candidates and paying for all the electricity used at the Straw Poll site, campaigns will still have to consider buying the $30 tickets for their supporters, as well as providing food, beverages and entertainment to lure them to there.

Clinton reserving judgment on TPP until deal is final

Hillary Clinton at an appearance in Mason City Monday.

Hillary Clinton at an appearance in Mason City Monday.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took questions from the media today after hosting a small business forum in Cedar Falls. One of the questions is the same one posed to Republican candidates — is Iraq better off without Saddam Hussein in power? Clinton was in the U.S. Senate in 2002 and voted to authorize the war in Iraq.

“I’ve made it very clear that I made a mistake,” Clinton said. “…What we now see is a very different and very dangerous situation. The United States is doing what it can, but ultimately this has to be a struggle that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people are determined to win for themselves. We can provide support, but they’re going to have to do it.”

Clinton had answered about a dozen questions from media outlets during the past month and reporters in Cedar Falls scrambled to quiz her on topics ranging from income inequality to the public release of emails she sent during her tenure as secretary of state. Clinton said she wants the State Department to “expedite the process” and release the emails as soon as possible.

“I want the American people to learn as much as we can about the work that I did with our diplomats and our development experts because I think it will show how hard we worked and what we did,” Clinton said.

Clinton also defended accepting memos about the security situation in Libya from a long-time Clinton confidant who reportedly was working on behalf of businesses hoping to land contracts with the new government in Libya.

“When you’re in the public eye, when you’re in an official position, I think you do have to work to make sure you’re not caught in a bubble and you only hear from a certain, small group of people,” Clinton told reporters in Cedar Falls, “and I’m going to keep talking to my old friends, whoever they are.”

Clinton talked earlier with a group of small business leaders and community bankers at a bike shop in Cedar Falls. One participant pressed her to comment on U.S. trade policy, specifically the Trans Pacific Partnership involving a dozen nations. Clinton said she wants to wait and see what’s in the final deal, but she generally favors trade pacts that improve U.S. competitiveness internationally and boost jobs and wages at home.

“Unless the American family and the American worker is strong, everything we want to see happen for our country is going to be much more difficult,” Clinton said.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has been campaigning in Iowa today as well. During an early morning event in Cedar Falls, Huckabee criticized Clinton for evading questions from the media. Huckabee is visiting a central Iowa shooting range this afternoon.

Fallon stages pipeline protest in governor’s office

Former legislator Ed Fallon being escorted from the state capitol.

Former legislator Ed Fallon being escorted from the state capitol after his arrest.

A former Democratic state legislator staged a “sit in” inside the governor’s office Monday afternoon and wound up getting arrested when the office closed to the public at 5 p.m.

Last month Ed Fallon completed a 400-mile trek along the proposed Bakken oil pipeline and he met along the way with landowners who oppose the project.

“It just really deepened my commitment to doing everything I could to help stop the pipeline,” Fallon said.

Fallon went into the governor’s statehouse office early Monday afternoon and vowed to stay until Governor Branstad met with him and agreed to support a bill pending in the legislature that would make it more difficult for the pipeline developers to seize land along the pipeline route.

“I think the eminent domain legislation, while it certainly won’t stop the pipeline, it creates a more fair playing field, giving landowners some protections, some additional reassurances that their voices are going to be heard,” Fallon told reporters shortly after issuing a news release to alert the media of his intentions.

The governor’s legal counsel met with Fallon yesterday afternoon, but Fallon said meeting with the governor himself was his goal. Fallon was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. Fallon, a Democratic governor himself in 2006, was among the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters arrested on the capitol grounds in October of 2011.

This Wednesday, a group called the “Bakken Pipeline Resistence Coalition” plans to stage another statehouse event to urge legislators to pass the bill restricting eminent domain authority for the project.

Photo courtesy of the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition.