Terry Branstad's accountability problem

For a guy who claims to be proud of his record, former governor Terry Branstad sure has a funny way of showing it.

On one issue after another, Branstad takes credit for things he didn’t do and evades responsibility for things he did. So, the governor who kept two sets of books boasts about enacting budget reforms that that other people pushed in response to his fiscal mismanagement.

The governor who used state bonding more than once says that politicians who create debt should be voted out of office.

Pressed on his record of expanding gambling in Iowa, Branstad has suggested he had little choice in the matter: “What was I supposed to do? Over 70% of the people wanted it even though I was personally opposed to it.”

Now Branstad is playing the same game on the Road Use Tax Fund and the idea of eliminating federal deductibility from Iowa’s tax system.

Last week Governor Chet Culver proposed shifting nearly $50 million needed to pay for the Iowa State Patrol from the state’s general fund to the Road Use Tax Fund.

Reasonable minds can differ on the merits of this plan. I think it’s worth considering, and the State Police Officers Council supports the idea on the grounds that state troopers “are vital in supervising the highways, which is one of the missions of the [road use] fund.” At the same time, I doubt Culver will be able to convince state legislators to take on this “sacred cow”. Several powerful lobbies will work hard to stop any encroachment on the road use fund.

However you feel about Culver’s idea, Branstad’s response was ridiculous:

“This is no savings. This is a diversion from the Road Use Tax Fund, and a detour from pay-as-you-go budgeting.

“This is a bad budget practice that was used in the past, and as governor I put an end to it.

It’s remarkable that the “MasterCard governor” sees fit to lecture anyone on pay-as-you-go budgeting. As Culver pointed out, Branstad has “no credibility on how to balance a budget.”

More to the point, Branstad glossed over his own record on this issue. It didn’t take long for State Representative Chris Rants, a rival candidate for governor, to comment that “Branstad started the practice of funding the Iowa State Patrol from the road use tax fund.” But Branstad passed the buck:

“It is true that during the Farm Crisis of the 80’s, the Legislature did fund the highway patrol out of the road fund for a number of years, but I got that corrected,” Branstad said.

“We corrected that while I was governor, we corrected a lot of other things. This thing about only telling half the story — I mean, I just want people to know, yeah, this did occur, but we corrected it.”

So Branstad pins this supposedly bad decision on state legislators trying to deal with the farm crisis. But no worries, he “got that corrected” (more than a decade later). Trouble is, Rants recalls that moving the state patrol funding back to the general fund wasn’t Branstad’s initiative.

Republican blogger Craig Robinson viewed the road use fund flap primarily as a sign of weakness in Branstad’s campaign.

how well do the people running Branstad’s campaign know the former Governor’s 16 year record? Either they didn’t know that Branstad implemented the practice of using Road Use Funds to pay for the state patrol, or they did know and thought they could get away with the language in their press release. Neither option is good for the Branstad campaign.

But the buck stops with the candidate. For once I agree with Krusty Konservative, who thinks Branstad looks “like a total idiot for blasting Culver for something he’s done.”

Branstad’s public comments on taxes repeat this pattern of evading responsibility. For instance, he has claimed he only agreed to sign a sales tax increase after vetoing the measure twice. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal described the reality in this video, beginning around the 3:00 mark. Within days of being sworn in as governor in 1983, in his first budget address, Branstad asked lawmakers to raise the sales tax.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Michael Kiernan discussed some of Branstad’s other flip-flops during a conference call with reporters yesterday. After the call I looked up the page on Branstad and federal deductibility at the Iowa Knows Better site.

I agree with Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson, who has described federal deductibility as an “archaic holdover” serving no useful purpose. Most Republicans disagree, and the issue is likely to be a factor in the GOP gubernatorial primary even though Democratic legislative leaders don’t plan to bring the matter up during the 2010 session.

In 1987, then Governor Branstad tried to eliminate federal deductibility from Iowa’s tax code. But a video posted a the Iowa Knows Better site shows him dancing around the issue just this week during an appearance at the Kalona Rotary Club. Click here to watch the video and read the full transcript. Branstad claimed that getting rid of federal deductibility was the Democrats’ idea, and he balked because they did not want the tax reform to be revenue neutral:

Way back when Democrats were in charge of the legislature they wanted to get rid of federal deductibility. And I said okay I will go along with you provide that you reduce the rates from 13% to 6%.[…]

I learned on the hard way about this on Federal Deductibility, you cannot deal with them because in the end they want to get rid of federal deductibility to raise taxes not to make it revenue neutral.

But a Des Moines Register story from January 1987 tells a different story:

“Gov. Terry Branstad has labeled his new revenue proposal ‘income tax reform,’ but for the typical Iowans it will also be a state income tax increase.  For 1987, the state will collect an additional $125.1 million from its 1.1 million income taxpayers, an average of about $111 per tax return.  The heart of the proposal outlines by Branstad to the Legislature Thursday calls for repealing the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes paid.”

That’s right, Branstad sent the proposal to repeal federal deductibility to the legislature, and it wasn’t a revenue neutral proposal.

Speaking to James Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette yesterday, Branstad again claimed that he wanted to eliminate federal deductibility in the 1980s only as part of a tax-reduction effort: “I’ve been a strong supporter of federal deductibility ever since,” Branstad said.

But if that’s true, then why did Branstad tell the Des Moines Register in June 2003 that he supported a tax reform package that would have eliminated federal deductibility?

‘This would simplify the efforts at marketing Iowa as a tax-competitive, pro-growth state,’ said former Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. ‘Having been governor and having tried to improve Iowa’s competitive position, I am aware of the challenge. Iowa’s taxes aren’t as high as they appear.’”

Whether Branstad has sincerely changed his mind or is just pandering to the Republican base, he shouldn’t be allowed to rewrite history.

Branstad plans to formally announce his candidacy for governor with a 25-day tour around the state, beginning in mid-January. Count on him to keep running from his own record as long as local and statewide media let him get away with it.  

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