Revisionist history watch: Branstad on spending and jobs

Terry Branstad officially launched his gubernatorial campaign this week at the State Historical Building. I enjoyed the imagery of a politician from a past era standing in front of a mammoth skeleton.

Branstad’s promises on spending cuts and jobs created look unrealistic in light of his record as governor, though.  

Branstad’s kickoff speech laid out a number of goals, including creating 200,000 new jobs and cutting government spending by 15 percent in five years. (I guess he decided he had been too ambitious in 1994, when he promised to create 300,000 jobs by the year 2000.)

Todd Dorman wrote a must-read column on Branstad’s speech this week. Excerpt:

Branstad vowed to slash the cost of state government by 15 percent. But please forget how during Branstad’s four terms as governor the number of state workers increased by nearly 8,000 while the state’s population shrank by 1,000. Don’t focus on how total general fund tax receipts that stood at $1.9 billion in fiscal year 1983 grew to $4.9 billion by 1999.

Forget that as he prepared to leave office, the Cato Institute gave his fiscal performance a D, citing his propensity to spend too much and his lack of action on tax reforms. He’s going to fix property taxes now.

Please, remember the $900 million surplus that existed when he left office and was squandered by Democrats. Forget that during his last two years in office, Branstad and a Republican Legislature responded to a temporary surplus by enacting $400 million in permanent tax cuts and $390 million in spending increases for ongoing programs. Branstad wasn’t around for the next economic downturn in 2001 when the house of cards collapsed.

Even after adjusting for inflation, the size of the Iowa budget grew substantially during Branstad’s four terms as governor. Immediately after being inaugurated in 1983, he asked state legislators to raise the sales tax (as opposed to cutting spending). Now he wants us to believe that he will have no trouble cutting 15 percent in a little more than one term.

After the state legislature completes work on the budget for fiscal year 2011, I hope journalists will challenge Branstad to be more specific about where he’ll find 15 percent in savings, which would work out to more than $150 million in cuts every year for five years.

If past experience is any guide, programs benefiting vulnerable Iowans would be first on Branstad’s chopping block. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal reminisced about negotiating with Branstad during a the 1992 budget crisis. The portion begins around the 4:30 mark of this video:

If you don’t want to watch the clip, allow me to summarize: Branstad walked into a meeting with state lawmakers in 1992 to negotiate budget cuts in advance of a special legislative session. Branstad’s first idea for saving money was to cut spending on foster care. His second idea was to cut certain Medicaid programs, like one aimed at keeping senior citizens out of nursing homes and one that helped children buy eyeglasses.

I wonder what Branstad will propose cutting from the budget now. He’s on record wanting to scrap the voluntary preschool program that helps thousands of four-year-olds whose families can’t afford early education. That’s not nearly enough to reach his self-imposed goal for shrinking government, though.

Incidentally, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll from November showed broad support for recent increases in state spending on health insurance coverage for children, aid to public schools, road and bridge construction, raising teacher pay, research and development of renewable energy, and expanded preschool. It’s easy to bash alleged overspending by Democrats, but where would Branstad make cuts?

Side note: Branstad isn’t a policy wonk like Chris Rants, and he’s acknowledged that he didn’t enjoy working on the budget:

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa said he won’t miss long, painfully long, meetings deciding what to include, and leave out, of your new proposed state budget.  “What I hate the most is when you’re cooped up in the Capitol for that month, or month and a half, putting programs and budget together,’ said Branstad.”  

(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/9/98)

Branstad’s in his element this week, traveling the state shaking hands with people. It would be a shame to see him “cooped up in the Capitol” a year from now in those long, boring meetings.

Job creation is Branstad’s other major campaign promise. He likes to brag about bringing down the unemployment rate as governor, but he took office at the beginning of 1983, when the U.S. unemployment rate was at one of its highest points since the Great Depression. He left office in 1999, after several years of economic expansion nationwide. Every state in the country created jobs between 1983 and 1999.

Whether Branstad’s policies boosted Iowa relative to other states with similar demographics is a different question. I didn’t live here during the 1990s, but I remember that our state lost population during the 1980s, even as every state we border gained in population.

Speaking of Branstad and jobs, he should be called to account for false accusations he made this week after Smithfield Foods announced plans to close a Sioux City plant with 1,400 employees. Branstad told a Quad Cities audience that Governor Chet Culver hadn’t done enough to prevent the job losses and hadn’t contacted Smithfield executives to try to convince them to keep the plant open. In reality, Culver had been directly involved in negotiations aimed at keeping the plant open, and was willing to offer some state incentives. Culver also ordered Iowa Workforce Development to start working with the Smithfield employees right away to help them find new jobs.

Someone should look up how many Iowa factories closed during Branstad’s tenure and how many plant closings he personally averted during tough economic times.

Branstad’s comments on Smithfield got me thinking about how the pork industry changed while he was governor of Iowa. But that’s a subject for another post.

  • Confused

    I don’t understand how he would create jobs while slashing the state budget by 15%.  There is no way he could offer additional incentives to corporations or tax cuts to small businesses while still slashing the budget.  

    What other pro-business policies could he even implement?  

    None of his speech makes sense.  No wonder members of his own party tried to oust him.  

  • So, would it be a "MAMMOTH" mistake to re-elect Braindead?

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

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