IA-04, IA-Gov?: Bill Northey endorses Steve King for Congress

The Republican National Convention delegate elections grabbed most of the attention from today’s Iowa GOP district conventions, but Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey made some news at the fourth district gathering in Fort Dodge. Kathie Obradovich reported for the Des Moines Register,

“When I think of somebody I want in the room talking with conservative congressmen and senators, a potential president, on ethanol issues, I want Steve King,” [Northey] said.

King, in turn, suggested a promotion for Northey — but not to governor, a job for which he is often mentioned as a potential candidate. He noted there will be a new U.S. Agriculture secretary next year. “We’ll no longer have Secretary (Tom) Vilsack. I think maybe Secretary Northey sounds pretty good to me.”

King touted the quadrupling of ag land values during the first 12 years he was in Congress. “We should not forget, those are the best 12 years that agriculture has ever had in the history of this state during that period of time,” he said.

You don’t have to be an economist to know the rise in Iowa farmland values since 2003 has very little connection to who represented our state in Congress. But let’s leave that aside for now. Northey and King have long had a friendly political relationship. The ag secretary cut a radio ad King aired near the end of his toughest re-election campaign, the 2012 race against Christie Vilsack in a substantially redrawn district. Click through to read the transcript of that commercial, in which Northey touted King’s record on agriculture issues and support from farm groups. I would not be surprised to see a similar testimonial hit the airwaves before King’s June 7 primary against State Senator Rick Bertrand. People linked to the ethanol industry are among Bertrand’s heavy-hitter supporters, largely because King endorsed Senator Ted Cruz for president, despite Cruz’s stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Speaking of the presidential race, King discussed possible brokered convention scenarios on this weekend’s edition of Iowa Public Television’s "Iowa Press" program. He predicted that "neither Trump nor Cruz delegates are going to tolerate anyone coming in from the outside that hasn’t been a candidate," such as U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. The full video and transcript are here; I’ve enclosed relevant excerpts below.

Northey is widely considered likely to run for governor in 2018 rather than for a fourth term as secretary of agriculture. King’s support could be helpful in a primary that will almost certainly include at least two other candidates: Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. Neither has a strong base in rural Iowa, although Corbett has tried to bolster his credentials with the farm community by touting all-voluntary efforts to reduce agricultural runoff and bashing some efforts to regulate farm-based pollution.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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Mixed feelings on State Senator Rick Bertrand's possible campaign in IA-04

Bret Hayworth had a great scoop in the Sioux City Journal this weekend: Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand is "strongly, strongly considering" a primary challenge to seven-term Representative Steve King in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district.

Part of me wants him to go for it. Part of me hopes Bertrand will put his ambition for higher office on hold until 2018.

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Des Moines Water Works ran nitrate removal system for nearly half of 2015

graph of nitrates in the Des Moines River exceeding safe levels, taken by Steven Witmer using data from the U.S. Geological Survey

The Des Moines Water Works announced yesterday that it spent some $1.5 million during 2015 to operate its nitrate removal system "for a record 177 days, eclipsing the previous record of 106 days set in 1999." The utility provides drinking water to about 500,000 residents of central Iowa, roughly one-sixth of the state’s population. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers 10 mg/l the maximum safe level for nitrates in drinking water. The Des Moines Water Works switches the nitrate removal system on when nitrates exceed 9 mg/l in both of its sources, the Raccoon River and the Des Moines River. I enclose below the full press release from the Water Works, as well as charts from the U.S. Geological Survey’s website showing recent nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers.

Runoff from agricultural land is the primary source of nitrates in Iowa waterways. As David Osterberg wrote yesterday, "so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses." This "nutrient pollution" not only incurs extra costs for providing safe drinking water but also creates toxic algae blooms, which caused a record number of beach advisory warnings during the summer of 2015.

Last January, the Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit against drainage districts in northwest Iowa’s Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista Counties. Drake University Law Professor Neil Hamilton wrote an excellent backgrounder on this unprecedented litigation: Sixteen Things to Know About the Des Moines Water Works Proposed Lawsuit. In a guest column for the Des Moines Register last May, Hamilton debunked the "strenuous effort" to convince Iowans that "the lawsuit is unfair and unhelpful."

Governor Terry Branstad has depicted the lawsuit as a sign that "Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa" and repeatedly criticized the Water Works last year. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey claims the water utility "has attempted to stand in the way of these collaborative efforts" to reduce nutrient pollution. A front group funded by the Iowa Farm Bureau and other agribusiness interests and led by Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, among others, has also tried to turn public opinion against the lawsuit. In recent weeks, that group with the Orwellian name of Iowa Partnership for Clean Water has been running television commercials seeking to demonize Water Works CEO Bill Stowe.

Northey, Corbett, and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds may soon become bitter rivals for the 2018 GOP nomination for governor. But those three will stand together opposing any mandatory regulations to reduce agricultural runoff. All support Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction strategy, shaped substantially by Big Ag and lacking numeric criteria strongly recommended by the U.S. EPA.

William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel report in today’s Des Moines Register that Branstad "is exploring a legislative proposal that would provide money for water quality projects by using projected revenue growth from an existing statewide sales tax for schools." Apparently "superintendents have been getting called to the state Capitol to discuss the proposal" with Branstad and Reynolds. Fortunately, that cynical attempt to pit clean water against school funding appears to have zero chance of becoming law. Of the ten state lawmakers or representatives of education or environmental advocacy groups quoted by Petroski and Pfannenstiel, none endorsed the half-baked idea. Their reactions ranged from noncommittal to negative. Speaking to Rod Boshart of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said of a possible Branstad proposal on water quality funding, "We certainly would be willing to look at that but we’re not going to cannibalize education or the basic social safety net so that he can put a fig leaf on his record on the environment."

UPDATE: Erin Murphy reported more details about Branstad’s proposal: extend the 1 percent sales tax for school infrastructure, dedicate the first $10 million in annual growth to schools and allocate the rest to water programs.

SECOND UPDATE: Added below excerpts from Murphy’s report for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Branstad’s plan. I’m disappointed to see U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack endorse this ill-conceived proposal. Of course we "need to work on [water quality] now," but why does the money have to come out of school funds? Remember, the Branstad administration is already pushing a corporate tax break that will cost public school districts millions of dollars a year for infrastructure on top of tens of millions of dollars in lost state revenue.

THIRD UPDATE: Branstad told reporters today he does not believe there is support in the legislature to raise the sales tax. Under a constitutional amendment adopted in 2010, 3/8 of a cent of the next Iowa sales tax increase would flow into the natural resources trust fund. He also indicated that he would not support extending the penny sales tax for school infrastructure beyond 2029, when it is scheduled to expire, without lawmakers agreeing to divert some of the funding to water programs. According to incoming Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, "House Republicans have been divided on whether to extend the school infrastructure sales tax beyond 2029."

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Thoughts on Terry Branstad's longevity and legacy

Terry Branstad front photo photo_front_gov_zpsobbhiahu.png

December 14 marked 7,642 days that Terry Branstad has been governor of Iowa, making him the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, according to Eric Ostermeier of the Smart Politics website. Because most states have term limits for governors, "The odds of anyone passing [Branstad] in the 21st Century are next to none," Ostermeier told Catherine Lucey of the Associated Press.

Speaking about his legacy, Branstad has emphasized the diversification of Iowa’s economy, even though a governor has far less influence over such trends than Branstad seems to believe. Some have cited "fiscal conservatism" as a hallmark of Branstad’s leadership. I strongly disagree. The man who has been governor for nearly half of my lifetime is stingy about spending money on education and some other critical public services. He opposes bonding initiatives commonly used in other states to fund infrastructure projects ("you don’t borrow your way to prosperity"). But he is happy to provide tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations that don’t need the help, without any regard for the future impact of those tax expenditures on the state budget. Many of Iowa’s "giveaways" in the name of economic development will never pay for themselves.

Branstad’s governing style has changed Iowa in important ways. He has altered Iowans’ expectations for their governor. He has expanded executive power at the expense of both the legislative branch and local governments. And particularly during the last five years, he has given corporate interests and business leaders more control over state policy. More thoughts on those points are after the jump, along with excerpts from some of the many profiles and interviews published as today’s landmark approached.

P.S.- Speaking of Branstad doing what business elites want him to do, Iowa Public Television’s "Governor Branstad: Behind the Scenes" program, which aired on December 11, included a telling snippet that I’ve transcribed below. During a brief chat at the Iowa State Fair, Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter asked Branstad to call Bruce Harreld, at that time one of the candidates to be president of the University of Iowa. That Rastetter asked Branstad to reassure Harreld was first reported right after the Board of Regents hired the new president, but I didn’t know they had the conversation in public near a television camera.

P.P.S.-Now that Branstad has made the history books, I remain convinced that he will not serve out his sixth term. Sometime between November 2016 and July 2017, he will resign in order to allow Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to run for governor in 2018 as the incumbent. Although Branstad clearly loves his job, he is highly motivated to make Reynolds the next governor. She lacks a strong base of support in the Republican Party, because she was relatively inexperienced and largely unknown when tapped to be Branstad’s running mate in 2010. Even assuming she is the incumbent, Reynolds strikes me as more likely to lose than to win a statewide gubernatorial primary. Remaining in Branstad’s shadow would give Reynolds little chance of topping a field that will probably include Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

P.P.S.S.-I will always believe Branstad could have been beaten in 1990, if Democrats had nominated a stronger candidate than Don Avenson. Attorney General Tom Miller lost that three-way primary for one reason only: he was against abortion rights. Miller later changed that stance but never again ran for higher office.

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Weekend open thread: Hall of Fame and Family Leadership Summit edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

All five Democratic presidential candidates appeared at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids on Friday night. I’ve posted below my impressions from the speeches; you can watch the videos on C-SPAN. It’s a shame the venue couldn’t accommodate more people, because lots of interested Iowa Democrats were unable to get tickets for the event.

Before the Hall of Fame dinner, I spent some time with an old friend who’s a huge Hillary Clinton supporter. Huge, as in, she didn’t take down her Hillary yard sign until the grass was long enough to need mowing in the spring of 2008. She mentioned to me that she’s relieved to see Clinton working hard this year instead of “ignoring” Iowa like last time. When I told my friend that Hillary visited Iowa more than 30 times in 2007, spending all or part of 70 days in the state, she was surprised. I’m amazed by how many Iowans have bought into the media-constructed narrative that Clinton “bombed” in the caucuses because she took the state for granted.

Ten Republican presidential candidates came to Ames on Saturday for the Family Leadership Summit organized by Bob Vander Plaats’ FAMiLY Leader organization. C-SPAN posted all of those speeches here. As usual, Donald Trump sucked up most of the oxygen in the room by questioning whether Senator John McCain had been a hero during the Vietnam War. O.Kay Henderson posted the audio at Radio Iowa. Rival presidential candidates with the exception of Ted Cruz rushed to condemn Trump’s remarks. Some of the Family Leadership Summit attendees may have been more upset by Trump’s comments about his three marriages and his admission that when he’s done something wrong, “I don’t bring God into that picture.”

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