Happy new year to everyone in the Bleeding Heartland community! Undeterred by my failure (yet again) to win, place, or show in my own blog's election contest, I offer fifteen Iowa politics predictions for this calendar year.
Your own predictions or any other relevant comments are welcome in this thread. At the end of this year I'll look back to see what we got right or wrong.
1. Terry Branstad will still be governor at the end of the year.
This statement may seem obvious, since Iowans just re-elected the governor to another four-year term. But some Iowa politics observers believe undisclosed health problems will force Branstad to step down sooner rather than later.
Although I believe Branstad will resign before the end of his sixth term in order to allow Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to run for governor in 2018 as the incumbent, I think political considerations (not health issues) will dictate the timing. I see two particularly likely windows for Branstad to step down: shortly after the 2016 general election, or shortly after the 2017 Iowa legislative session.
2. Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert will be the only Branstad appointee rejected by the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate.
Wahlert barely managed to get the necessary votes for confirmation in 2011, and her leadership of Iowa Workforce Development has raised serious legal questions as well as angering statehouse Democrats.
Every Branstad appointee who is subject to confirmation needs support from two-thirds of Iowa Senators (34 out of 50), which means at least ten votes from Democrats in addition to all 24 Republicans in the upper chamber. I don't think that will be a problem for the rest of the governor's choices. Under Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, Senate Democrats have been sparing in their use of confirmation votes to shape the administration. Most years, only one or two nominees have been rejected, and in 2014, senators confirmed everyone who came up for a vote.
3. Some compromise involving an increase in Iowa's gasoline tax will be passed during this year's legislative session.
Iowa hasn't increased the gas tax since 1989, and in recent years I have believed that a divided state legislature would refuse to take this unpopular step. However, the political environment has changed since Bleeding Heartland last discussed this issue. Not only were key advocates of raising the gas tax just re-elected to the Iowa House and Senate, and not only has Branstad indicated that he will put some political capital behind this effort, gasoline prices have fallen to multi-year lows. Gas near $2 a gallon will provide cover for Iowa legislators to approve an increase of ten cents over several years, in conjunction with other changes to vehicle fees.
4. The Republican-controlled Iowa House will not approve a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Soon after winning control of the lower chamber in the 2010 landslide, Iowa House Republicans approved a constitutional amendment on marriage with support from every member of their caucus. (In the process, they helped make Zach Wahls an Iowa politics celebrity and hero to liberals.)
In contrast, the marriage amendment failed even to make it out of an Iowa House committee during the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions. The speaker, majority leader, and speaker pro-tem were among the eighteen Iowa House Republicans who declined to co-sponsor the marriage amendment during the last two years. Iowa House leaders have generally downplayed social issues when talking about their legislative priorities.
To my knowledge, only two incoming Iowa House Republicans are on record affirmatively supporting same-sex marriage rights: Josh Byrnes and Ken Rizer. But I would guess that privately, many others would prefer not to try to write discrimination into the state constitution, especially since the marriage amendment will continue to be a dead letter in the Iowa Senate. Opinion polls show growing acceptance for marriage equality in Iowa and nationally.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: Byrnes has said he supports the right of LGBT couples to marry, and I thought Rizer had done so too during last year's campaign. However, he sent me the following comment: "What I said then and have always said is that I personally believe in traditional marriage, yet I recognize the legal and political realities that make same-sex marriage a reality in our state. I don't see this as something that is likely to change, so it wasn't a political issue for me in my race. I think my time can be best utilized on other issues." So we can add Rizer to the list of Iowa House Republicans who will not attempt to pass a marriage amendment, but I was wrong to say he supports marriage equality.
It has been suggested to me that one or two other Iowa House Republicans may share Byrnes' position. I am seeking comment and will update this post as needed.
5. The Iowa House will not approve as much funding for water quality programs and the Resource Enhancement and Protection program (REAP) as the Iowa legislature approved last year.
During the 2014 session, the Iowa House and Senate agreed on an all-time high level for REAP funding as well as spending increases on a few other environmentally friendly initiatives. Unfortunately, Branstad vetoed millions of dollars for conservation and clean water programs. I don't think House Republicans will want to spend political capital fighting the governor on this issue. In theory, the votes should be there to override the governor's veto, but budget bills tend to be decided at the very end of the session. Lawmakers have typically adjourned for the year before Branstad uses his veto power.
6. The Iowa House will put thousands of people's health care at risk by failing to approve legislation to create a state-based health insurance exchange.
Sometime this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on King v Burwell. If plaintiffs are successful, tens of thousands of Iowans will lose access to tax subsidies for health insurance, making coverage unaffordable. The simplest solution would be to create a fully state-based health insurance exchange to replace the "partnership" exchange Branstad insisted on in 2012 and 2013. But that won't happen, because Branstad and statehouse Republicans would rather have a talking point against "Obamacare" than help preserve health insurance for their constituents.
7. The Iowa Utilities Board will approve the Bakken (Dakota Access) pipeline project.
A "coalition of landowners, community members, non-profit organizations, and interest groups" is organizing opposition to the pipeline project, which threatens soil and water resources in the eighteen counties it would cross from northwest to southeast Iowa. However, the Iowa Utilities Board's three current members were all appointed by Branstad and lean toward corporate-friendly policies. I see them as likely to approve the proposal from the Houston-based company Energy Transfer Partners. While Branstad could use his executive authority to stop the Bakken pipeline, his staff has said the governor will defer to the IUB's decision.
8. The Iowa Supreme Court will strike down a state rule banning the use of "telemedicine" for medical (drug-induced) abortions.
Some Planned Parenthood clinics in Iowa have been offering abortion services through a videoconferencing system since 2008. After being petitioned by advocates who oppose abortion in all circumstances, the Iowa Board of Medicine adopted a rule in the summer of 2013 that would ban the use of telemedicine for medical abortions. A Polk County District Court judge put a stay on that rule pending litigation. To my surprise, a different Polk County District Court judge upheld the ban on telemedicine for abortions last August. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland quickly appealed that ruling. There's no doubt in my mind that a majority of Iowa Supreme Court justices will find at least part of Planned Parenthood's appeal compelling. The only question for me is whether it will be a unanimous decision or a split along the same lines as a ruling last year in a case challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision.
9. U.S. Senator Joni Ernst will not retire from the Iowa National Guard.
Ernst told Radio Iowa's O.Kay Henderson last month that she will decide sometime this spring whether to retire from the Iowa National Guard after more than 20 years of service. I share John Deeth's opinion that she should retire from the military in order to focus fully on representing Iowa in the U.S. Senate. That said, I think her Iowa National Guard service is too much a part of Ernst's political profile for her to give it up. It also provides great cover in case she doesn't have a perfect attendance record for Senate votes and committee hearings.
10. Ernst and her senior colleague Senator Chuck Grassley will vote on opposite sides fewer than three times during the calendar year.
Naturally, senators from the same party and the same state will vote the same way most of the time, but I expect the pattern to be even more pronounced for Ernst. She rarely voted differently from her Iowa Senate caucus leaders during four years in the state legislature. It's hard for me to imagine her going out on a limb and taking a stance different from Grassley's on anything.
11. U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02) will be among the most conservative 10 percent of House Democrats, as measured by the Progressive Punch database.
I'm not talking about Loebsack's lifetime voting record here, just his votes during 2015. Following the two-year session that just ended, Loebsack's lifetime "progressive score" put him in 159th place among 202 House Democrats. But Loebsack's voting record has been less progressive since 2011 than it was when Democrats controlled the U.S. House. In addition, a bunch of conservative-leaning House Democrats were defeated in the 2014 general election. The new Congress will include just 188 House Democrats. By the end of December, I expect Loebsack to rank no higher than 169th in terms of his "progressive score."
Side note: many Iowa liberals will be shocked and disappointed when Loebsack votes for various horrible Republican bills this year. They shouldn't be surprised, because he has already voted for a balanced budget amendment (even co-sponsoring one version), for building the Keystone XL pipeline (repeatedly), for deregulating the coal industry generally and specifically for undercutting the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate coal ash.
12. During some critical Congressional vote on funding the federal government and/or raising the debt ceiling, Iowa Republicans Steve King (IA-04) and Rod Blum (IA-01) will vote one way, while David Young (IA-03) votes the other way.
The lame-duck Congress already approved most federal government funding for the remainder of the 2015 fiscal year (through September 30). Sometime in the late summer or early fall, there is bound to be a showdown between the Republican-controlled Congress and President Barack Obama over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling, to allow the U.S. Treasury to meet obligations to creditors. Whether or not another partial government shutdown is in the works, at some point a deal will be struck to keep the government running on full faith and credit. I see Young supporting that compromise, while King and Blum posture against it.
13. A Republican primary challenger to David Young will emerge before the end of the year.
Young won the GOP nomination in IA-03 at a special district convention after finishing fifth in the primary. Even before the general election, some right-wingers in his district were complaining about his policy stances. So while he won by a healthy margin in November, he doesn't begin his Congressional career with a deep pool of support in his own party. Young will vote the same way as Steve King more than 90 percent of the time, but a handful of high-profile votes that are "too establishment" will inspire someone to run against him as a true conservative.
For the record, I believe Young will be able to fend off a primary challenge, with the help of his mentor and former boss, Senator Grassley.
14. No Republican member of Iowa's Congressional delegation will endorse a presidential candidate this year.
I doubt any of them will pick a candidate during the final weeks before the 2016 Iowa caucuses either. Grassley has typically not endorsed presidential candidates during the primary season. Ernst backed Mitt Romney before the 2012 caucuses, but I see her keeping her powder dry during the next election cycle. Steve King has flirted with endorsements but didn't take the plunge with any candidate before the
2008 or 2012 caucuses. CORRECTION: King endorsed Fred Thompson in late 2007. David Young has no incentive to anger any Republicans in his district by picking a side before the caucuses. Rod Blum has the support of many Republicans formerly in the Ron Paul camp but did not endorse a candidate before the 2012 caucuses. In fact, Blum opted to campaign in Black Hawk County that night in January 2012, instead of caucusing in his home precinct.
Side note: I don't expect Governor Branstad or Lieutenant Governor Reynolds to endorse before the caucuses either, but Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey or Secretary of State Paul Pate may do so.
15. Sometime during 2015, Loebsack will announce that he is "ready for Hillary."
Loebsack endorsed Barack Obama before the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Johnson County, which has repeatedly delivered the vote margins Loebsack needed to win IA-02, is home to many Democrats who would prefer a more progressive presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton. They will be disappointed, but they won't hold it against their Congressman.