Exploring Paul McKinley's fantasy world

If Iowa Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley believes the spin he serves up to journalists and the Republican Party faithful, he must have an active imagination.

I don’t know which is most detached from reality: McKinley’s take on Iowa’s finances, his views on “state sovereignty” or his election predictions.


McKinley tends to hit the same talking points in each of his regular Friday e-mail blasts. Here are some typical assertions from the most recent “McKinley’s Memo” (July 9): “By First Learning to Crawl, We Can Begin to Walk and Run.”

Because of too much spending during the last four years by Governor Culver and legislative Democrats, Iowa still faces a $1 billion dollar deficit next year.

Sorry, no. Iowa isn’t facing any budget deficit, let alone a billion-dollar budget deficit. Like his fellow Republicans, McKinley is making projections about the fiscal year that begins in July 2011. It’s way too early to know what state revenues will look like during the 2012 fiscal year, but we do know that when projections in November 2009 suggested a billion-dollar shortfall for the current fiscal year, Iowa Democrats made the adjustments necessary to adopt a balanced budget during the 2010 legislative session.

Also notice how McKinley’s July 9 memo ignores the latest state revenue estimates from the fiscal year that just ended. Those projections came out at the end of June and suggest that Iowa will end FY 2010 with a larger-than-expected surplus.

A recent report by State Auditor Dave Vaudt shows why we are in the alarming predicament that we find ourselves. Prior to Governor Culver and legislative Democrats coming into power, the state was spending approximately $1.01 per $1.00 that was coming into the state. Since Governor Culver and his fellow party members have taken over, the state has been spending approximately $1.13 for every dollar coming in.

The extra spending in recent years has come from federal stimulus money, which was approved with the specific goal of supporting state budgets, as well as Iowa’s reserve funds. Is McKinley saying Iowa should have rejected the federal stimulus money? Much of it supported education budgets, Medicaid and unemployment benefits. Is McKinley saying Iowa shouldn’t have dipped into rainy day funds during a severe recession that began after this state suffered the worst flood damage in history? Remember, Democrats have maintained healthy reserve accounts in Iowa while many other states fully depleted their reserves during the recession.

Clearly Iowa does not have a revenue problem – we have a spending problem. During the last four years, we have seen the four largest spending budgets in state history. We have seen hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax increases and a quintupling of state debt.

Iowa is not suffering under a crushing debt load. Click here to view a list of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, ranked by state and local debt as a percentage of state gross domestic product. Iowa ranks 48th on this list, with a debt load way below the national average, even taking into account the I-JOBS infrastructure bonding initiative.

Republicans opposed I-JOBS on the grounds that infrastructure projects should be funded only on a pay-as-you-go basis. However, GOP politicians never tell you where they would have found the money to rebuild flood-damaged facilities in Linn County or on the University of Iowa campus. The crumbling infrastructure and substandard sewers in many Iowa communities suggest that if anything, this state’s leaders have been too reluctant in the past to borrow for capital investments. Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson has pointed to long-term benefits from the I-JOBS projects: “Iowa is getting very valuable social goods that will serve us for 20 years.”

While Terry Branstad was governor, Iowa borrowed more (adjusted to today’s dollars), and a large chunk of Branstad’s state bonding was used to meet budget obligations in 1992. I-JOBS was entirely devoted to capital investment, not paying the bills for ongoing government programs.

UPDATE: McKinley also exaggerates the repayment costs for I-JOBS bonds.

Without fundamental and systemic reforms, Iowa could become like California with serious structural deficits.

Professionals who assess the states’ financial condition have declared Iowa to be among the states “least like California” in terms of budget problems. Iowa would not be one of only seven states to have the highest bond rating from all three major agencies if we faced disaster without “fundamental and systemic reforms.”

we must continue to take steps to trim the size and scope of state government and continue to remove the waste and duplication that exists. We should start by adopting the over $300 million in additional savings offered by Senate and House Republicans during the last two years.

About a third of that $300 million figure comes from flawed estimates of how much could be saved by cutting services to undocumented immigrants. Also, I doubt it would be practical to “combine the administrative functions” at the University of Iowa, Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa. Republicans claim that idea would save about $62 million a year. Other proposed cost-cutting is questionable as well; privatizing the state vehicle fleet would not necessarily save taxpayers money, especially not in the long run.

McKinley has made even more ridiculous assumptions about the state budget. Last year he claimed Iowa could save $200 million to $300 million each year on special education “[i]f we taught [children] how to read in kindergarten and first grade.” That concept was so implausible it didn’t even make the Republican list of proposed spending cuts.

Iowans all over the state will see hefty property tax increases courtesy of Governor Culver this fall.

It’s misleading to pin all the blame for property tax increases on Culver. Moreover, McKinley ignores the fact that local governments and school districts would have been much more starved for cash if not for the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The federal stimulus money McKinley cites as proof of Iowa Democrats “spending too much” helped prevent even larger property tax increases during the most severe recession in 60 years.

Creating an environment where small businesses and employers can thrive, succeed, grow and therefore hire more people is absolutely essential. Unbalanced budgets leading to higher taxes and the constant onslaught of anti-jobs legislation promoted by Governor Culver and legislative Democrats have not moved Iowa’s economy forward and instead have held it back.

Reality check: Iowa has had a balanced budget every year for the past four years, and Democrats have not raised income or sales taxes. Also, many Democratic initiatives have aided job creation in Iowa. To cite just a few examples, the Power Fund, which Republicans opposed from the start and want to scrap, has awarded money to many Iowa businesses. The Iowa Demonstration Fund (also passed the first year of Culver’s term) is specifically aimed at small and medium-sized businesses like these. During the most recent legislative session, Democrats approved a bill to increase the Research Activities Credit available for small businesses.

McKinley advocates the usual Republican one-two punch of cuts in public services to pay for corporate tax cuts, but that’s not his only idea for making Iowa strong.


McKinley has positioned himself as one of Iowa’s leading crusaders for states’ rights. He recently put together a video touting a state sovereignty resolution that would in his mind “re-assert the 10th Amendment.”

McKinley started standing up for Iowa’s “sovereignty” to resist federal mandates while pretending to run for governor during the summer of 2009. I say “pretending” because he was rarely seen anywhere gubernatorial candidates could be found at the time.

Last year the Omaha World-Herald explained why state sovereignty resolutions are just Republican political gestures with no legal weight. According to U.S. Supreme Court historian and Lucas Powe, the “nullification” movement (which holds that states can refuse to enforce federal laws) consists of “Nutcases, which is much more typical, and people who are losing at the federal level and resent the fact that they are losing.”

Self-styled conservative constitutional scholars talk about the 10th amendment, which says “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution […] are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” But they are silent on Article VI, which includes these words: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” So much for the idea that states can refuse to enforce federal laws.

History buffs might appreciate this post by Charles Lemos on the disturbing origins of the nullification movement in the United States.

Perhaps it’s not fair to depict McKinley’s state sovereignty efforts as part of a fantasy world. I don’t know whether he is acting out of conviction or simply looking for a cheap and easy way to harness “tea party” energy for Iowa Senate Republican candidates.


Speaking of this fall’s campaigns, McKinley is bullish on Republicans taking control of the Iowa Senate. Democrats hold a 32-18 majority but are defending 19 of the 25 seats on the ballot this year. Republicans are contesting 15 of the Democratic-held seats, and McKinley insists, “We have a real shot. We only need eight to come to a majority.”

I get that the Senate GOP caucus leader has to be a cheerleader during campaign season. If he doesn’t talk up his party’s candidates, he will hurt future fundraising and recruitment. But McKinley would sound more credible if he talked about making gains that will help win back the Senate in 2012. It’s not realistic to talk about a net gain of eight seats for Senate Republicans this year.

I’ll write more about specific Iowa Senate races in the future, but the Republicans have only four strong pickup opportunities in the upper chamber: Senate districts 5, 9, 37 and 45. Even if you assume they sweep all four battlegrounds (a tall order), GOP candidates would have to defeat three more Democratic incumbents and take the open Senate district 1. Democrats still have a registration advantage of about 4,000 in district 1, according to the July 2010 voter registration figures. Senate district 13 is also open, but registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in that district by more than 8,000.

I won’t say it’s inconceivable that Republicans could pick up eight Iowa Senate seats, but it’s highly unlikely even in a wave election. Some gain for the GOP is probably inevitable with Democrats defending so many of the seats up for grabs. Whether the Republicans make a net gain of 1-2 seats or 4-5 seats will affect their odds of winning back the Senate in 2012.

While we’re on the subject, a few words about Louis Jacobson’s statehouse rankings for the publication Governing last week. Jacobson gave the Iowa House a “tossup” rating and called the Iowa Senate “lean Democrat.” I would give the Iowa House (where Democrats now have a 56-44 edge) a “lean Democrat” rating, although I understand why some might view it as a tossup. Jacobson is way off on the Iowa Senate, which deserves a “likely Democrat” rating.

Jacobson argued that Terry Branstad’s lead over Chet Culver might help the GOP take over the legislature. Even if Branstad were to win the governor’s race, Iowans have a history of splitting tickets. This state elected Democratic-controlled legislatures during Branstad’s first two and a half terms and Republican legislatures during Governor Tom Vilsack’s two terms.

Branstad himself doesn’t appear to believe Republicans have a chance to win back the Iowa Senate this year. Just last week, he laid out a scenario for passing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He predicts a GOP takeover of the Iowa House but only “gains” in the Iowa Senate. Under Branstad’s vision, the Republican-controlled House would pass a marriage amendment, and the Democratic-controlled Senate would then “have to debate it.” (Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal continues to insist that he will never allow debate on “adding discriminatory language to the Iowa Constitution.”)

Looking at the individual districts, it’s easy to see why Branstad doesn’t foresee a Republican-controlled Senate. The latest voter registration figures for Senate districts can be downloaded here. Senators representing the odd-numbered districts will be elected this November. Show me eight districts Republicans are in a position to win. I don’t even think they’ll knock off all four of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

Share any thoughts about Republican fantasies or this year’s legislative races in this thread.

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  • I'm moving into McKinley's district

    at the end of this month. It’s a shame he’s running unopposed.

  • Balancing a budget...

    Is in the state constitution.  It’s not an option, so of course Democrats are going to balance a budget.  Still doesn’t excuse McKinley, but you can’t just glance over that.

    • I find it troubling

      that journalists don’t point out that fact more often when McKinley and other Republicans start going on about the “billion dollar deficit.”

      I would bet that a significant percentage of Iowans by now wrongly believe we have been running a billion-dollar deficit.

  • Thanks for this post

    Your response to McK is exhaustive.  He probably didn’t put as much effort into his statement as you put into your reply.  

    This is why we read blogs and dispense with newspapers!