Comparing Branstad and Culver: budgets and floods

I stand by my prediction that former Governor Terry Branstad will not seek his old job again, but I can’t resist responding to these comments by Republican blogger Constitution Daily:

Now back to Branstad, his credentials as a governor are amazingly good. He governed during the farm crisis and floods of 1993, all while balancing a budget and even having a surplus. […]

Branstad against Culver will be a great campaign. Culver has shown no leadership skills even within his own Party. The flood will be a defining issue. Branstad led us through that with ease where Culver still has us wading through the muck. Culver has no excuses and no one to shift blame to. This is a big advantage for Branstad.

Also with Culver, the budget is massively in the red. Whether or not you agree, the perception is that Branstad always had a balanced budget and didn’t grow government. That is what people want and dream of returning to. Can you imagine the debates between the two? How would Branstad not come out smelling like a rose not just on rhetoric but actual experience?

If Constitution Daily is old enough to have been politically aware during Branstad’s tenure, he is suffering from serious memory loss. I’ll explain why after the jump.

The key to examining Branstad’s record as governor is his 1994 Republican primary battle against then Congressman Fred Grandy. As I wrote last week, it’s unheard of for a three-term incumbent governor to face a strong challenge from his own party in the absence of a personal scandal. I’m not aware of anything like it happening elsewhere.

Why did Grandy run against Branstad in 1994 instead of waiting for him to retire, and why did Branstad barely win the primary by a 52-48 margin? Branstad’s fiscal mismanagement had become too much for many Republicans to stomach.

Commenter saraf posted a couple of blasts from the past in this thread at The Iowa Republican:

“Grandy calls Branstad ‘MasterCard governor'”

Friday, April 1, 1994

DES MOINES (AP) – Republican candidate for governor Fred Grandy has renewed his assault on Gov. Terry Branstad’s handling of state finances, labeling him “the MasterCard governor.”

“Terry Branstad has been cooking the books for years,” said Grandy. “That’s how he managed to run up $1 billion in deficits, despite a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto.”

Grandy pointed to new figures showing a larger-than-expected deficit in the state’s fiber-optic network.

He also cited criticism by State Auditor Richard Johnson of Branstad’s management as fresh evidence the governor should be replaced.

“The Mastercard governor pays his debts months late, borrows to pay off last year’s bills and keeps two sets of books,” said Grandy, in a statement.

And this one:

“Auditor: Grandy has the better fiscal plan”

Wednesday, April 27, 1994

Author: Rod Boshar

DES MOINES – State Auditor Richard Johnson , acknowledging a “strained” relationship with Gov. Terry Branstad , broke his neutrality Tuesday to endorse U.S. Rep. Fred Grandy’s bid to unseat Branstad in June’s Republican primary.

The announcement drew an immediate rebuke from Brian Kennedy, Branstad’s campaign manager, who said the auditor has been “attacking” Branstad on Grandy’s behalf and has “long been rumored” to be the Sioux City Republican’s choice for lieutenant governor.

Johnson said he made the unsolicited endorsement out of concern that new budgeting practices passed in the just-completed legislative session may not be fully implemented without a change in the state government’s top leadership post.

The Sheldahl Republican added that his decision to take sides also was spurred by “a trend toward distorted information, a trend toward not being completely honest with the public” in the GOP gubernatorial campaign during recent weeks.

“I think it would be unfair to my family and my grandkids if I didn’t take a public stand on something that I feel very strongly about,” said Johnson, in praising Grandy’s straight-forward approach to the issues most important to Iowa’s future.

“I consider myself a fiscal conservative. The plan that Representative Grandy has presented as a candidate is a very conservative plan,” said Johnson, an outspoken critic of state budgeting and borrowing practices that rolled up a $408 million deficit and delayed bill payments in recent years.

“If we look at practice and look at the amount of public expenditures and the amount of tax increases that we’ve had over the last 10 years, I think that’s less than a conservative record that’s been placed before us,” he added.

Grandy said Johnson’s assertion that fiscal mismanagement practices have forced him to break his neutrality are a repudiation of “out of whack” budgeting and structural deficits that grew out of a “bidding war” between Branstad and former House Speaker Don Avenson in the 1990 governor’s race.

The current Republican line against “Debt Culver” is that he has mismanaged Iowa’s finances. Branstad himself has misleadingly suggested that Democrats are digging this state into a hole.

It’s natural for Democrats and Republicans to disagree over appropriate spending levels for government programs, but Wall Street analysts can tell when governors are cooking the books like Branstad did in his day. They see that Iowa has a healthy reserve fund, which we did not have during the 1980s and early 1990s. They know the difference between a state borrowing to meet ongoing budget obligations and a state borrowing to make capital investments.

Culver’s I-JOBS infrastructure bonding program is different from the borrowing some other states are forced to do this year to keep paying the bills. That’s why our state is one of just 11 to have earned the AAA bond rating from Standard and Poor’s. That’s why investors were lining up to buy Iowa’s bonds for lower interest rates than what they would accept on bonds issued by many other states.

Not all borrowing is the same. Taking out a $15,000 home equity loan to renovate my home may add more than $15,000 to its value, depending on how I spend the money. But it would be stupid to take out a $15,000 home equity loan to pay for a fancy vacation or support unsustainable monthly spending on essentials. My ability to repay the loan and overall debt load also factor into this equation. The I-JOBS program will fund capital improvements across Iowa. The state’s gambling revenues are sufficient to cover the $42 million in annual repayment costs for the I-JOBS bonds. In fact, our strong credit rating helped reduce the expected repayment costs for these bonds by 24 percent. Even with all the I-JOBS borrowing, Iowa’s per capita debt load ranks 46th among the 50 states, according to the State Treasurer’s Office. That’s not the crushing burden Republicans make it out to be.

Now let’s consider the two governors’ responses to record-breaking floods. Culver’s I-JOBS program includes a lot of money for flood rebuilding projects, including $45 million for Linn County alone. I am still waiting to hear how Republican critics of state borrowing would fund these flood recovery projects.

I wasn’t living here in 1993, so I don’t have first-hand memories of those floods, but let’s assume that Branstad did fine in the immediate aftermath of the flooding. His leadership at that time wasn’t enough to deter Grandy from challenging him the following spring. It didn’t stop a sizable number of Iowa Republicans from voting for Grandy either.

More important, Branstad did nothing to help prevent or reduce future flood disasters in Iowa. Common land use and watershed management practices contributed to last year’s record flooding in many ways. Branstad 1985 reorganization of state government eliminated the Department of Planning, moving us backward in terms of land use policy. Nor did Branstad propose any new watershed management regulations in the five years he was governor after the 1993 floods. State Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids was right to point that out:

“What happened after 1993? What did Gov. (Terry) Branstad and the Legislature do after 1993? Nothing,” said Hogg, who was elected in November of 2002. “Fifteen years later, we had the biggest disaster in Iowa’s history. That could have been averted if Gov. Branstad and the Legislature had acted.” […]

“I think you’re going to have to remake the way we govern and manage our watersheds,” Hogg said. “It just has to happen or else we’ve basically committed to having this happen again.”

Culver has not done much on the prevention front yet, but he still has an opportunity to lead on policies to mitigate future flooding. Branstad’s record of inaction is clear.

Like I said, I doubt Branstad has any interest in leaving his current position as president of Des Moines University. If I’m wrong about that, Iowa voters will need to consider the reality of Branstad’s tenure as governor, as opposed to the airbrushed Republican version.

About the Author(s)


  • Braindead Redeux

    Living in Des Moines during the time of Branstad’s reign, there are reasons he was nicknamed “Braindead” by members of both parties, although GOP folks would never say so publicly. Branstad was a stooge/puppet for the now extinguished elite GOP machine in DM who pulled most of the levers. Not sure Chet is any higher on the intelligencia level, but to romanticize Branstad as the White Knight of the GOP is laughable at best. Or a sign of desperation, but as you’ve written probably a moot point anyhow.  

  • Holding my nose...

    If Branstad is the nominee, it’ll be a tough choice for me.

    I like most of Culver’s policies. I supported I-Jobs, I’m thrilled about passenger rail, and I support gay marriage (probably more than he does). However, on a personal level–I really dislike him. He’s a big fat slob. He’s nothing more than mediocre. His wife smokes in the state vehicles all the time. He goes and parties in donors’ condos and travels all around the country and wouldn’t call a special session for the floods or the budget crisis.

    On the other hand, I disagree with a lot of what Branstad (and to a lesser degree, Fong) would run on. But I like and respect both men on a personal level.

    It’s not like 2008, where in Obama I saw a candidate who I liked personally and politically and in McCain one who I disliked on both fronts.

    I don’t know how I would vote at this point. Either way, I’d have to hold my nose.  

    • hard for me to understand that

      If we “knew” most of our politicians personally, who knows who we would like or dislike. Image construction has a lot to do with this.

      Branstad is pleasant on a personal level, but his policies were very much skewed toward the wealthy (cut taxes for wealthy in good times, cut services for everyone else in bad times). Politically, he was willing to go nasty when he had to. I volunteered for Bonnie Campbell toward the end of the 1994 campaign and remember the Branstad tv ads claiming that as attorney general her office wouldn’t prosecute sex offenders, “even child molesters.” The attorney general doesn’t prosecute sex offenders–county attorneys do. I also answered the phone and had to assure people that despite what they heard from the Branstad whispering campaign, Campbell was not going to ban parochial schools. (Ed Campbell himself was educated at Catholic schools!) And Branstad was so mediocre that Grandy never endorsed him for the general, and Grandy’s wife endorsed Bonnie Campbell.

      Culver has not ruled out calling a special session after final numbers are in (September). This is no different from what Vilsack did in 2001–he waited and called a special session in October.

    • upon further reflection

      Your comments remind me of a Republican line on Bill Clinton circa 1992: he can’t control his waistline, and he can’t control his wife.

      I can’t see why Culver’s weight should be any concern of ours, except in the sense that we wouldn’t want him to make Patty Judge governor by dropping dead of a heart attack.

      • Culver's weigh is our concern

        because we are paying for his health insurance and obesity (and obesity-related medical complications) is the fastest growing medical epidemic in the country. Throw in Mari’s smoking habit and we are subsidizing two high risk health hazards.

        And I wonder why Culver was so reluctant to speak out on behalf of a public health option, when he is one of the largest beneficiaries (no pun intended by any means)?