Brad Zaun needs to clarify his stand on flood relief

As of yesterday, 44 of Iowa’s 99 counties are under disaster proclamations because of flooding in June or July. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee noted today that Republican Brad Zaun, the GOP nominee against Representative Leonard Boswell, has a record of opposing government assistance for flood victims. At an IowaPolitics.com forum in March of this year, Zaun suggested that Americans have forgotten about “personal responsibility” and gave this example: “We lost that as a country, we expect when there’s a flood or something that’s going on, the government to come in and help us.” Like all other Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate, Zaun voted against the bills that created the I-JOBS infrastructure bonding program in 2009. I-JOBS included $100 million to rebuild the University of Iowa campus, $46.5 million to rebuild sites in Cedar Rapids, Linn County, Palo, Elkader and Charles City, plus $118.5 million in “competitive grants available for reconstruction of local public buildings and flood control prevention.”

Zaun told the Des Moines Register that the DCCC took his remarks out of context, adding, “Obviously the people who are affected by the [Lake Delhi] dam break, I would obviously expect the government to play a role in that… there’s certainly is a role for government when there’s big disasters like this.”

What would that role be, Mr. Zaun? You voted against recovery funding after the biggest flood disaster in this state’s history. The Des Moines Register’s Jason Clayworth observes, “Republicans have previously said their opposition [to I-JOBS] was primarily due to their concern about long-term debt and not a sign of opposition against flood mitigation or recovery.” Fine. Let Zaun spell out how he would have paid to rebuild the University of Iowa and Linn County landmarks, let alone finance flood mitigation efforts elsewhere, without state borrowing. We didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars lying around in 2008 and 2009, because the worst recession in 60 years brought state revenues down.

Zaun wants to have it both ways: he brags about opposing I-JOBS but doesn’t want voters to think he’s against government aid when there’s a “big disaster.”

Speaking of incoherent campaign rhetoric, Zaun’s comment about flood relief at the March forum was part of his answer to a question about new financial regulations. After lamenting the lack of “personal responsibility” in this country, Zaun concluded, “there needs to be some changes with our banking system, but its not with more government red tape and I would not support that current bill [under consideration in Congress] that you’re talking about.” I would love to hear details about the banking system changes Zaun would support.

Getting back to flood recovery, I still wonder what Representative Steve King has against the federal flood insurance program. Unfortunately, property owners around Lake Delhi are unlikely to benefit from that program, because Delaware County had declined to participate.

UPDATE: Boswell’s campaign released this statement on July 27:

“It is unfortunate that Senator Zaun made such insensitive and out-of-touch comments, especially as Iowans are experiencing widespread flooding across the state for the second time in two years. He has a long record of repeatedly voting against helping Iowa’s families, small businesses, and farmers in the aftermath of the 2008 floods. Iowans pay taxes into their local, state, and federal governments with the expectation that when a disaster strikes their investment will pay off. They trust that they will have a place to go, someone to counsel them, and a way to rebuild their homes and businesses. After all, this is their tax dollars – their government. I know that my conscience would never allow me to stand idle as these families, small business owners, farmers, and communities suffer following a natural disaster. This November Iowans will have to choose whether they want to elect a representative that will stand by them in times of need and fight for their fair share of their tax dollars, or someone who turns his back on his constituents.”

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We have a candidate in House district 37

2008 was a good election for Iowa Democrats, but we still lost several very close statehouse races. In House district 37 (map here), Republican Renee Schulte defeated first-term incumbent Art Staed by 13 votes (0.07 percent).

This week Cedar Rapids attorney Mark Seidl announced his plans to run in this district and laid out his priorities:

“Although no one would have wished for any of them, the natural, fiscal, and economic disasters that have struck us in recent years present unique opportunities for rethinking each level of our government,” Seidl said.  “In going forward, we must concentrate on reconstituting and enhancing our advantages-recreating two cities which are an essential part of Iowa’s character, conserving our tremendous natural resources in agriculture and renewable energy production, and preparing the next generation of Iowans to be leaders and innovators in the future.”

This district is winnable in light of Schulte’s tiny margin of victory and a slight Democratic voter registration advantage. Nevertheless, Seidl will need to pound the pavement to win back this seat. Schulte is a hard worker who was out door-knocking last Friday, 11 months before the election when the temperature was in the 20s. Also, Schulte may benefit from an “enthusiasm gap” if Democratic voters are demoralized and Republicans energized next November.

Schulte bucked the majority of her party by voting for a bill that allowed authorities to impose a local option sales tax in disaster areas. Linn County voters approved the 1-cent tax in March, and the proposal received a majority of votes in Cedar Rapids as a whole. I don’t know whether it carried the Cedar Rapids precincts that are in House district 37.

Like other House Republicans, Schulte voted against the I-JOBS state bonding initiative, which allocated $45 million to Linn County for disaster relief (here is how that money was allocated).

I suspect that in this district, much will depend on how voters perceive the effectiveness of the state’s response to the 2008 floods.

UPDATE: Schulte is already organizing volunteers to help with voter contacts. We will need all hands on deck in this district.

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Borrow money for infrastructure, but fix what we have first

The highlight of Governor Chet Culver’s “condition of the state” address yesterday (video here and prepared text here) was a proposal to issue state bonds to borrow up to $700 million over the next few years:

Thousands of new jobs will be created, Culver said. Every $100 million spent on highway construction alone means more than 4,000 new jobs, he said.

“We’re cutting back on the day-to-day expenditures of state government,” Culver said in his Condition of the State speech this morning. “But, at the same time, we will be investing in bricks and mortar – to create jobs and keep our economy going.”

Culver said Iowa won’t need to raise taxes to pay for the plan. The state is in the position to issue bonds, which is essentially borrowing money. Existing gaming revenue would repay the bonds, he said.

Predictably, road industry lobbyists like the spending plans while expressing some doubts about the borrowing plans.

Republicans also don’t seem to like the bonding proposal, while statehouse Democrats think it’s a good idea. State Auditor David Vaudt, who may be a Republican candidate for governor in 2010, said he needed to study the details before expressing an opinion, but noted, “What we’ve got to remember is we’ve got to dedicate and set aside a piece of revenue stream to pay that principal and interest.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal made a great point:

Gronstal deflected Republican criticism by pointing out that [Senate Minority leader Paul] McKinley, in his opening day speech, talked about a business he once owned.

“He borrowed every nickel he could and leveraged himself as far as he could because he believed in his future. I believe in Iowa’s future. I believe it makes sense now to borrow money and move this state forward,” Gronstal said.

He added: “This is probably one of the best times in our history to go out and borrow money with a dedicated repayment stream. Do you own a home? Did it make sense for you to borrow money? Or did you just pay cash?”

Gronstal is absolutely right. Iowa has a triple-A bond rating, interest rates are fairly low, and creating jobs is essential to bringing the economy back. Two-thirds of our economy depends on consumer spending, and good jobs generate the money people then spend at businesses in their communities. Construction jobs tend to be good jobs too.

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, who is usually a deficit hawk, also likes the infrastructure bonding idea:

The money will be borrowed over the next few years, supervised by an oversight board and repaid with gambling profits, so no tax increases will be necessary. (If we have to have all this gambling in Iowa, wouldn’t it be nice to see something tangible in return?)

It will be the modern-day equivalent of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which built infrastructure we still use today, such as dams, sewers, parks and shelters. Previous American generations left us wonderful systems of interstates, canals, railroads, river locks and dams. What are we leaving our kids? Potholes, bridge collapses and sewers that pollute river ways.

Iowans are a frugal people. Perhaps we are too frugal. According to state Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald’s office, Moody’s Investors Service says Iowa’s per-capita level of public debt ranked 48th in the country last year. Iowa has $98 of state public debt per person. The national average of state debt is $1,158. You could double Iowa’s $98 of per-capita state debt to $200, and we would then rank 46th.

Culver should have told us that. Clearly, most other states saddle their citizens with more debt than is proposed here. And many are more attractive places to live, too, as our children attest when they leave for the better jobs and brighter lights elsewhere.

It’s funny to watch all these Republican legislators, who borrow all sorts of money to buy, expand or repair homes, businesses and farms, now turn prune-faced when Culver suggests doing the exact same thing in state government.

The Des Moines Register explained how Culver’s plan would work:

* Borrow $700 million in 20-year tax-exempt state revenue bonds

* Secure the bonds with about $56 million a year in gaming tax revenues

* Create a Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Authority to issue the bonds. It will be overseen by a five-member board.

* The authority would be administered and staffed by the Iowa Finance Authority.

How money will be spent:

housing

trails

highways

roads

bridges

mass transit

railways

airports

water quality and wastewater treatment improvements

flood control improvements

energy infrastructure

disaster-relief infrastructure

public buildings

Projects will be judged on:

Whether they are ready to proceed

How quickly the project can be started and completed

Number of jobs to be created by the project

Contribution to sustainability

On the whole, I support the idea. My main concern is that infrastructure money be spent on fixing what we already have, not on building every new road on developers’ wish lists. In the past, our legislators and state officials have focused too much on funding new roads instead of a balanced transportation policy.

The housing slump is likely to continue for at least two more years, and there is no reason to spend large sums to build new highway interchanges and major new roads through undeveloped farmland now. We should spend the money to fix stretches of existing major roads and highways and crumbling bridges, as well as on modes of transit that allow alternatives to driving. These projects will improve the quality of life for large numbers of Iowans while also creating jobs.

As for airports, I would only support spending money on needed repairs and improvements to existing airports. This is not the time to start building a bunch of small regional airports that would benefit a handful of corporate executives.

Culver emphasized that he did not plan to raise taxes, but Gronstal indicated that raising the state gas tax is still on the table.

I would like to hear more lawmakers talk about closing various tax loopholes that mainly benefit wealthy Iowans. The Iowa Policy Project has documented this and various other flaws in our current tax policies.

If you’ve got the time and the inclination, the governor’s official website has a video Culver showed during his address, called “In Deep Water: The Flood of 2008.” Iowa Public Television has House Minority leader Kraig Paulsen’s response to Culver’s address.

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Open thread on Culver's "condition of the state" address

I have to be away from my computer this morning, but please use this thread to discuss Governor Chet Culver’s annual “condition of the state” address to members of the state legislature.

Citing Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, the Des Moines Register reported that Culver is expected to announce some new proposals. Presumably those will address flood recovery and the state budget.

I’ll be interested to see whether Culver goes out on a limb to back anything really controversial. If he wants to go down in history as one of the all-time greats, he’ll need to take some risks.

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Gronstal and Kibbie set the tone on the Iowa Senate's opening day

The Iowa Legislature opened its 2009 session today, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal let the members of the upper chamber know that he has “never seen such a tough situation” with the state budget and economy in his 26 years at the statehouse.

In his opening address the the Iowa Senate, Gronstal listed some of the biggest challenges facing legislators, in particular rebuilding communities damages by last year’s natural disasters and leading Iowa “through these tough times without sabotaging the commitments we’ve made on economic growth, health care and education.”

He warned that a lot of legislators won’t get what they want this year:

Our resources are limited.  We will say “no” to many good ideas.  We are going to disappoint some people and frustrate others.

If your idea of being an elected official involves being loved by everyone, the next few months will be pretty rough.

Gronstal also noted that bipartisan majorities approved many key policies in Iowa during the past few years, and called for finding “bipartisan solutions” to this year’s challenges.

In his opening address to the chamber, Senate President Jack Kibbie echoed Gronstal’s warning that leaders will be saying “no” to a lot of requests from legislators.

He also advocated some policies that are anything but bipartisan: a gas tax hike and the expansion of workers’ bargaining rights.

Kibbie said increasing the gas tax would create jobs and boost economic development:

First, we can no longer put off the challenges to our transportation infrastructure. It is vital that we begin to clear the backlog of projects that play a  significant role in future economic development. In my district my constituents, Republicans and Democrats, all tell me that we need to get to work and if the only impediment to that progress is money they are willing to pay a few more cents at the pump. I support efforts that result in a gas tax increase. Success in that endeavor will mean better roads, jobs, and an economic boost to Iowa’s families and communities.

I’ve supported a gas tax increase since John Anderson proposed it during his 1980 presidential campaign, but I don’t expect that measure to get through the legislature without a bruising battle.

Here’s a piece listing the many potential benefits of a federal gas tax increase. Kibbie is talking about a smaller increase in the state gas tax, but many of the same benefits would apply.

Kibbie also said Iowa workers need good wages, and therefore “we should not fear passing Legislation that help[s] workers bargain for a better future.”

Kibbie could be referring to the “fair share” bill that Democrats didn’t have to votes to get through the Iowa House in 2007, or to the collective bargaining bill that Governor Chet Culver vetoed last spring. Either way, Republicans and corporate interest groups will put up a fight.

Getting labor legislation through the Iowa House, where Democrats have a 56-44 majority, is likely to be more difficult than getting it through the Iowa Senate, where Democrats have a 32-18 majority.

The complete texts of the opening statements by Gronstal and Kibbie (as prepared) are after the jump.

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Bleeding Heartland Year in Review: Iowa politics in 2008

Last year at this time I was scrambling to make as many phone calls and knock on as many doors as I could before the Iowa caucuses on January 3.

This week I had a little more time to reflect on the year that just ended.

After the jump I’ve linked to Bleeding Heartland highlights in 2008. Most of the links relate to Iowa politics, but some also covered issues or strategy of national importance.

I only linked to a few posts about the presidential race. I’ll do a review of Bleeding Heartland’s 2008 presidential election coverage later this month.

You can use the search engine on the left side of the screen to look for past Bleeding Heartland diaries about any person or issue.

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