Bring on the clash of the auditors

Was anyone else disappointed that the “major endorsement” Terry Branstad’s campaign hyped yesterday turned out to be State Auditor David Vaudt? He’s not exactly a celebrity, and his stamp of approval only reinforces that Branstad is the Republican establishment candidate. I guess the big deal is that Vaudt normally does not endorse in competitive Republican primaries, but when I think “major endorsement,” I think game-changer, and Vaudt doesn’t fit the bill.

At yesterday’s press conference, Vaudt cited several of Branstad’s accomplishments as well as his proposals for the future. For example, he praised the 1985 government reorganization. It takes guts for Branstad to keep bragging about “cutting out half the state agencies” when Iowa’s general fund budget increased by 166 percent during his tenure, and the number of state employees increased by about 15 percent (from 53,342 in 1983 to 61,400 in 1999).

Vaudt also credited Branstad with implementing budget reforms to use generally accepted accounting principles, establishing the rainy day fund, spending no more than 99 percent of expected revenues, and leaving Iowa with a $900 million surplus in 1999 (which happened to be near the peak of an economic cycle). As State Representative Chris Rants has noted, Governor Branstad wanted to spend more:

Republicans were unwilling to go along with Branstad’s desire to spend more money – a fact he forgets when he talks about how much money was left in the reserves when he left office as it was only there because the legislature wouldn’t agree to his spending plans.

Vaudt praised Branstad for promising to reduce the cost of state government by 15 percent. We still haven’t seen specifics about how Branstad will achieve that. The 2011 budget was adopted in March; it’s past time for Branstad to tell us which services or programs he would eliminate to put us on track to reduce the size of government by 15 percent. Cutting funds for preschool programs, family-planning services and Area Education Agencies administrators won’t be nearly enough to keep his promises on spending.

Vaudt’s endorsement invites questions about Richard Johnson, who was state auditor during most of Branstad’s time as governor. Johnson famously endorsed Fred Grandy during the 1994 Republican primary and now co-chairs Bob Vander Plaats’ gubernatorial campaign. Asked about Johnson yesterday, Branstad said,

“First of all let me say, I’ve learned a lot.  Dick Johnson made some valid criticisms back in the 80’s when the Democrats were in control of both houses of the legislature.  As a result we put together the Committee to Reform State Spending in 1991 and passed the spending reforms.  I didn’t just accept the legislature saying, ‘That’s all we can do.’  I brought them back twice in 1992 until we got all the spending reforms.”

Branstad went on to say that, after Republicans got control of the Iowa House in the 1992 elections, they passed the 99% spending limitation, and he strictly enforced that limit the rest of the time he was in office.

Whatever reforms Branstad enacted in 1992 weren’t enough to satisfy Johnson two years later. Johnson also called out Branstad for misleading claims about reducing the size of government. Chet Culver’s campaign released several news clips yesterday about Johnson and Branstad, including this one:

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that “Where Branstad claims a 16 percent reduction in the number of management employees in state government, for example, Johnson contends the reality is that jobs weren’t eliminated. Titles were changed. ‘The people and the payroll are still there.’” (Cedar Rapids Gazette, 6/4/1994)

I posted the Culver campaign’s release after the jump for those who want to stroll down memory lane about Branstad’s record on fiscal issues.

Speaking of Branstad’s accountability problem, the Des Moines Register reports today that he spoke out publicly for a racetrack in Cedar Rapids in 1984. Branstad recently criticized Governor Chet Culver for advocating approval of four new applications for casino licenses. He claims that unlike Culver, he never directly contacted members of the Racing and Gaming Commission to urge approval of the Cedar Rapids racetrack. I highly doubt that the commissioners were unaware of then-Governor Branstad’s opinion. Most governors make their views known to state commissions via backdoor channels.  

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Massive Iowa Legislature linkfest (post-funnel edition)

The Iowa Legislature has been moving at an unusually fast pace during the shortened 2010 session. It’s time to catch up on what’s happened at the statehouse over the past three weeks. From here on out I will try to post a legislative roundup at the end of every week.

February 12 was the first “funnel” deadline. In order to have a chance of moving forward in 2010, all legislation except for tax and appropriations bills must have cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the end of last Friday.

After the jump I’ve included links on lots of bills that have passed or are still under consideration, as well as bills I took an interest in that failed to clear the funnel. I have grouped bills by subject area. This post is not an exhaustive list; way too many bills are under consideration for me to discuss them all. I recommend this funnel day roundup by Rod Boshart for the Mason City Globe-Gazette.

Note: the Iowa legislature’s second funnel deadline is coming up on March 5. To remain alive after that point, all bills except tax and appropriations bills must have been approved by either the full House or Senate and by a committee in the opposite chamber. Many bills that cleared the first funnel week will die in the second.  

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Sorry, Republicans, Iowans don't think state government is too big

Republicans have complained for years about Democrats allegedly spending too much on “big government,” but a majority of Iowans think state government is about the right size, according to the latest poll by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register. The poll surveyed 805 Iowa adults between January 31 and February 3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. Respondents were asked, “In general, do you think the size of state government is too big, about right, or too small?” 52 percent said “about right” and only 39 percent said “too small.”

The Des Moines Register poll also indicates that Iowans would rather tap into the state’s tax reserves, raise fees and perhaps even raise taxes than impose massive service cuts or lay off hundreds of state workers.

The poll tested eleven options for balancing the budget and asked whether that option should be considered, strongly considered or taken off the table. The largest majority (76 percent) said consolidating some state government services should be considered or strongly considered. The Iowa legislature will pass a government reorganization bill this session, but the savings won’t be large enough to avoid other painful budget decisions.

The next largest majority (61 percent) supported considering taking up to $200 million from the state’s cash reserves. But even that probably wouldn’t be enough to balance the 2011 budget.

The other three options that at least half of respondents said should be considered were “increase fines, license fees and other user fees” (53 percent), expand gambling by allowing casinos to host large poker tournaments (51 percent) and raise the sales tax by 1 percent (51 percent).

The Register reported that several political observers found the sales tax numbers most surprising. I was more surprised to see the public evenly divided on raising the income tax. Some 48 percent of respondents said “lawmakers should consider raising state income taxes by a half percentage point; 50 percent said that idea should come off the table.”

The Register’s poll found much less support for “cutting services to thousands of Iowans” (just 33 percent favored considering that option, while 60 percent said it should be taken off the table). Only 42 percent favored considering laying off hundreds of state employees or consolidating school districts. Only 43 percent said legislators should consider eliminating all business tax credits. Just 45 percent said reducing the number of Iowa counties should be on the table.

My point is not that politicians should put blind faith in the wisdom of crowds. I don’t agree with every finding in this poll. I’d rather reduce the number of counties and scrap many business tax credits than raise the sales tax, and I find Iowans’ support for the film tax credit baffling.

The larger message from this poll is that Iowa Democrats should not cower in fear when Republicans bash “big government.” Offered a range of choices for balancing the state budget, most Iowans would prefer not to see services slashed. The Register’s November 2009 poll pointed to the same conclusion, finding broad support for spending increases Democrats have adopted in recent years.

Republicans will be cheered by the portion of Selzer’s latest poll that found one-third of Iowans called themselves supporters of the “tea party” movement, and a majority believe state government is spending too much money. To me that suggests the framing of the budget issue will be critical for this November’s elections. Democrats need to convince voters that they did all they could to find efficiencies in state government without cutting priority areas. If Republicans object, for instance, that the state could have saved tens of millions of dollars by ending the preschool initiative started in 2007, Democrats must point out that doing so would have cut off early childhood education for about 13,000 Iowa kids.

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New Register poll finds record low approval for Culver

The latest Iowa poll by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register finds Governor Chet Culver’s approval rating at a new low of 36 percent. Only 34 percent of respondents said Iowa is headed in the right direction, while 57 percent said the state is on the wrong track. The poll was in the field from January 31 to February 3 and surveyed 805 Iowa adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Culver’s approval rating fell to 36 percent, with 53 percent disapproving. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll from September had Culver in positive territory, with 50 percent approval and 39 percent disapproval. The Des Moines Register’s November poll had Culver with 40 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval.

The Des Moines Register noted that since September, Culver’s approval among Democrats has fallen from 72 percent to 57 percent, while Senator Tom Harkin’s approval among Democrats was measured at 77 percent in both polls.

The economic recession is probably a major factor in Culver’s slide. Although the state’s eight leading economic indicators were measured in positive territory in December 2009 (for the first time since April 2007), employment remains weak. Iowa’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in December 2009, and Iowa Workforce Development found,

Compared to last December, the Iowa economy has lost 40,100 jobs. Manufacturing still leads all sectors in terms of losses, down 19,900 over the year. Trade and transportation and construction followed with losses of 7,900 and 7,700, respectively. Education and health services remained the most resilient sector, adding 2,600 jobs since December 2008.

The slow economy has caused state revenues to fall below projections, which prompted Culver to make a 10 percent across-the-board cut in current-year spending in October. Spending cuts are rarely popular with anyone.

Side note: I wondered last fall whether the scandal surrounding Iowa’s film tax credit, which broke in September, would hurt Culver. I was surprised to see that 61 percent of respondents in the Des Moines Register’s poll think the film tax credit is “good for the state.” The poll question didn’t mention how much the film tax credit has cost compared to the economic impact. I agree with economist Dave Swenson, who thinks the program was flawed from the start.

The latest Register survey also polled Culver against the four Republican challengers. (This portion of the poll, like the approval numbers, is in the print version of the Sunday Des Moines Register but hasn’t appeared on the website yet. I will update this post with a link when that becomes available. UPDATE: Here is the link.) The hypothetical matchups come from a subset of 531 “likely voters,” producing a slightly higher margin of error: plus or minus 4.3 percent.

Former Governor Terry Branstad remains the strongest challenger, beating Culver 53 percent to 33 percent. Bob Vander Plaats leads Culver 43 percent to 40 percent. Strangely, Culver trailed Branstad and Vander Plaats by slightly larger margins in the Register’s November poll, even though his approval rating was a little higher then. Culver barely beats the other Republicans, who are less well known. He leads State Representative Chris Rants 41 percent to 37 percent and State Representative Rod Roberts 41 percent to 36 percent.

Needless to say, it’s never a good sign when an incumbent governor is below 40 percent approval and barely breaks 40 percent against any challenger. Culver needs to make up ground this year in order to be re-elected. The right direction/wrong track numbers show that voters under 35 were more likely than the overall population to think things are going in the right direction, but most of the electorate in November will be over 35.

Culver has chances to improve his standing this year. If the state’s leading economic indicators continue a positive trend, the job market may improve. Also, spending on infrastructure projects supported by the I-JOBS state bonding initiative will pick up in the spring and summer. So far nearly $600 million in I-JOBS money has been awarded, but only $20.7 million has been spent. As the projects take shape, more Iowans will be employed and more people will see the benefits to their communities.

On the political side, Branstad hasn’t received much scrutiny from the media yet, but when the gubernatorial campaign heats up, his accountability problem may become more apparent. A hard-fought Republican primary will exacerbate the rift between moderates and conservatives. Some conservatives have already vowed not to support Branstad if he is the GOP nominee. More focus on the inconsistencies between candidate Branstad and Governor Branstad may help Culver’s standing with Democrats and independents.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich says Culver may as well start shopping his resume around, but John Deeth argues that Culver is not dead yet.

SECOND UPDATE: The latest poll commissioned by The Iowa Republican blog and the Republican Concordia group found Branstad leading Culver 57 percent to 29 percent and Vander Plaats leading Culver 43 percent to 39 percent. I don’t know much about the firm that conducted that poll, and I would put more stock in Selzer’s numbers for the Des Moines Register.

THIRD UPDATE: The Iowa Democratic Party’s statement on this poll is a bit odd. More on that after the jump.

To depressed Democrats out there, I offer six silver linings of a Branstad candidacy.

FINAL UPDATE: This poll prompted Swing State Project to change its rating of this race from tossup to lean Republican.

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Don't believe everything Republicans tell you about spending cuts

Yesterday the Iowa House State Government Committee voted down a Republican plan to cut state spending by $290 million in the coming year. State Representative and gubernatorial candidate Chris Rants offered the plan as an amendment to the government reorganization bill. He said his party was trying to “work in a bipartisan way” and make “tough decisions” to balance the budget for the coming year. All twelve Democrats on the House State Government Committee voted against the GOP amendment, while the nine Republicans voted for it. Later the same day, the committee approved the reorganization bill on a 20-1 vote, with only Rants opposed.

We are sure to hear more from Rants and other Republicans about how big, bad Democrats rejected their good ideas for spending cuts. A closer look reveals funny math in the Republican “plan.”

The biggest line item is “$92.3 million, end all state benefits to adult illegal immigrants.” The Iowa House Republican caucus claims this number comes from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The implication is that the state of Iowa hands out $92.3 million in cash to illegal immigrants.

But that’s not the case. From a report by the Legislative Services Agency on “Undocumented Immigrants’ Cost to the State” (pdf file):

The only government services that illegal immigrants are eligible for are elementary and secondary public education and emergency health care.1 Most citizens do not gain direct benefits from a majority of government spending. Instead, government programs are intended to benefit society as a whole through maintenance of a healthy economy, satisfying public health and safety concerns, providing basic infrastructure, etc. Although undocumented immigrants do not receive most direct benefits, the total benefit of State spending is assumed to accrue to undocumented immigrants at the same rate as legal residents.

The LSA divides total spending from the state general fund by the state’s total population to calculate roughly how much in “benefits” each Iowa resident receives annually. This isn’t a cash payment from the state to residents; it represents each individual’s share of benefit from the state paying for schools, roads, and so on.

Iowa House Republicans arrived at the $92.3 million figure by dividing total general fund expenditures by the number of undocumented immigrants currently estimated to be living in Iowa. They call the remainder “benefits” that illegal immigrants receive. But there’s no magic wand we can wave to make immigrants stop benefiting indirectly from what state government does. The same LSA report noted:

Undocumented immigrants qualify for few services at the State level, and those for which they do qualify are largely mandated by federal law or the Courts. Therefore, decreasing undocumented immigrant eligibility for State spending does not appear to be a viable policy option. Additionally, if the assumption that undocumented immigrants accrue benefits even without receiving direct services is considered valid, attempting to reduce direct State expenditures on undocumented immigrants would have a minimal effect.

By the way, proof of citizenship and identification are already required for Iowans participating in Medicaid and HAWK-I (the children’s health insurance program).

Scoring points against undocumented immigrants may be good for Rants politically, but that won’t help the state of Iowa save $92.3 million in the coming year. That one item represents nearly a third of the Republican-proposed spending cuts.

I’ve posted the full list of cuts after the jump. Some ideas may have merit, but most of them reflect skewed Republican priorities for state government. GOP legislators want to save $45 million by reducing access to pre-school for four-year-olds. They also want to invest less in renewable energy production and energy efficiency measures by eliminating the Power Fund and the Office of Energy Independence, which would $25 million. Many Republicans never liked the core curriculum, so it’s no surprise they’d like to save some money by delaying its implications. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll in November indicated that Iowans support higher spending on renewable energy research and development and are divided over whether to cut funds for expanded free pre-school.

Some of the smaller Republican-backed cuts would please conservative interests. The religious right would love to eliminate the family planning waiver. Rants has always been a good friend to tobacco companies, who would love to see the state scrap the “Just Eliminate Lies” anti-smoking campaign. There’s also $4 million saved by cutting “taxpayer-funded lobbyists,” which sounds great until you realize that would leave corporate groups unchallenged as they lobby for bills that might counter the public interest. Anyway, last year taxpayer money for lobbying totaled about $1.8 million, and a lot of that didn’t come from the state general fund. Municipalities, county agencies and associations like the League of Cities hire lobbyists too.

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Terry Branstad's family values

Anyone following the Iowa governor’s race must read Todd Dorman’s recent interview with Republican front-runner Terry Branstad. The Branstad so many Iowans remember from his four terms as governor shines through.

Branstad is at his most incoherent when speaking about gay marriage, but his answer to an open-ended question about the state budget was also revealing. The whole interview is worth your time. I discuss a few of my favorite excerpts after the jump.

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