The most brilliant Iowa political moves of 2011

It's the most list-making time of the year. Let's start talking about Iowa political highlights of 2011.

This thread is devoted to master strokes. I don't mean our elected officials' wisest actions, or the policy choices that affected the greatest number of Iowans. I mean acts of such skill that even opponents had to grudgingly acknowledge their brilliance.

My top picks are after the jump. Tomorrow Bleeding Heartland will review the year's most bewildering acts of incompetence. On Thursday we'll look at the events that are likely to have the greatest long-term impact on Iowa politics.

The Machiavelli award for 2011 has to go to Governor Terry Branstad, or to the person who planted the idea of giving Democratic State Senator Swati Dandekar a seat on the Iowa Utilities Board. In one move, the governor:

1) gave Republicans a shot at deadlocking the Iowa Senate for the 2012 legislative session;

2) gave Republicans a chance to enter 2012 with the momentum of a special-election victory;

3) removed a Democratic incumbent who was known to have crossover appeal with business groups and conservative voters;

4) fulfilled his obligation to appoint a Democrat to the Iowa Utilities Board with someone who shares his corporate-friendly energy policy agenda;

5) appointed someone who will have no trouble being confirmed by the Iowa Senate.

You have to hand it to Branstad or whoever was pulling his strings. That was genius. It's not the governor's fault that Republicans bungled their chance in Iowa Senate district 18 (more on that failure in tomorrow's post).

One Iowa politician showed remarkable talent in 2011: Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. It's easy to wield power when you're heading the largest Democratic Senate caucus in state history, as Gronstal was in 2009 and 2010. But Democrats lost six Iowa Senate seats and almost a seventh in November 2010. I thought Gronstal would come into the 2011 legislative session weaker, with a few nervous members of his caucus ready to show off their independence.

I thought wrong. Gronstal kept the 26 Senate Democrats united throughout the longest Iowa legislative session since 1978. Democrats on record opposing marriage equality stuck with Gronstal as he again blocked any vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Anti-choice Democrats went along with an alternative way to stop a late-term abortion clinic, rather than passing the 20-week abortion ban approved by the Iowa House.

The Iowa Republican blogosphere was full of complaints about "Gronstalling" in the first half of 2011.

One could argue that Branstad helped cement the Senate Democrats' unity. He went after the public preschool program and was remarkably inflexible during negotiations over the state budget. He insisted on zero allowable growth in K-12 education budgets, an action without precedent in 40 years. Furthermore, Branstad gave Democrats no reason to assume he was dealing in good faith. He line-item vetoed their top tax priority, having raised no objections to the policy while the bill was being negotiated.

Iowa House Republicans also may have strengthened Gronstal's position by sending one extremely conservative bill after another to the upper chamber. I didn't sense much effort by House leaders to craft legislation that moderate Senate Democrats might support.

As for other impressive political maneuvers of the year, I would give honorable mentions to the following:

Some Republican activists urged presidential candidates to skip the Des Moines Register's planned debate. We may never know which candidates accepted or declined the Register's invitation, but the boycott effort forced the "newspaper Iowa depends upon" into an embarrassing role as ABC's junior partner.

Republican State Representative Kim Pearson punched above the typical first-year legislator's weight, forcing Iowa House members to go on record supporting or opposing a vote on "personhood." Some may question her tactics, but I call that a skillful use of legislative procedures.

Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom found an ingenious way to let his colleagues oppose a new abortion clinic without restricting reproductive rights.

The floor is yours, Bleeding Heartland readers.  

  • Got a couple on the environmental front

    How about getting a Mourning Dove hunting season thru the legislature and onto the Governor in about...oh....10 minutes?

    And dunno if this qualifies as a "brilliant political move", but - Gov Branstad -  a)your own appointee to the Natural Resources Commission asks if he can pass a ban on lead shot for Mourning Dove season. You say yes.  b)NRC passes same in unanimous vote c) NRA and other donors call you to say 'what the hell?' d) You throw your NRC and DNR appointees under the bus and get the thing reversed...

    • true, that dove hunting bill

      was quite a clever maneuver--take an issue that's always sparked a lot of public interest/passion and pass it with no committee hearings or opportunity for public input.

      Undercutting the NRC on the lead shot ban was neither brilliant nor surprising. Branstad shouldn't have weighed in before other people told him what to think.

  • this is shaping up to be the most annoying talking point of 2012

    He insisted on zero allowable growth in K-12 education budgets, an action without precedent in 40 years.

    The allowable growth rate represents a COLA. Although the legislature changed its calculation from sole reliance on price indices to a formula with more economic factors back in 1995, the allowable growth rate tracks the CPI fairly well, which displays a drop to around zero, even negative values, in recent years.

    The argument whether the CPI (or similar) is relevant isn't part of the political argument here. Yes, the allowable growth rate may have been set at 2% in the 2010 session, but the corresponding funds (156 mill) were not appropriated. This is important: the real fight is over whether the lege allows school districts to plug shortfalls by raising property taxes. That's what the "allowable" in allowable growth rate means.

    Distilling this down quickly to the politics of the AGR, what the Republicans are saying is 1) live within your means, and 2) oh, the $216 mill added to the budget this year funds last year's $156 mill thus offering property tax relief. Democrats say that zero allowable growth is too restrictive. The districts on which a zero AGR has the greatest impact are the rural and urban districts w/ declining populations. These are school districts that will see real budget shortfalls due to declining aid strictly formulated on head count (less guarantees).

    What is really happening here is that the Branstad admin is stepping on necks of school districts w/ declining head counts to consolidate. Politically, he doesn't care much about the complaints from urban cores for obvious reasons. And for rural areas, while devastated by the closing of local schools, consolidation has been a fact of life since the reorganization in the 1950s, and probably before that as well. So that's what Branstad's banking on.

    The Democrats can hope to peel off some additional support in rural areas and will engage in "property tax footsie" in the suburban districts. The footsie will commence right after the the Republican fends off the first assault of NEVAH BEFORE! and ZERO! More about this some other time.


    • CPI v AGR

      I looked up the allowable growth rate, fiscal years 1974-current, as well as the CPI for the same time period. I offset the CPI by two years on the assumption that FY value is recommended in session FY-1 using the CPI from FY-2.

      Some observations.

      The last time the AGI < CPI was for FY 2003 -- presumably a conservative approach due to aftermath of 9/11.

      During the early years of the farm crisis, the AGI was sometimes substantially less than the rate of inflation.

      So all the rhetoric about "ZERO" and the farm crisis is just that. Although there is a more complex set of factors currently in the calculation, it is still straightforward to see that the difference between "ZERO" and 1.64% has been exceeded in the past, sometimes substantially. It's all relative. If you can't keep up w/ the inflationary costs of health benefits, salaries and supplies, there will be cuts and consolidation, whether the AGI is ZERO or some positive number that is not keeping pace with educational inflation.

      This isn't an endorsement of ZERO AGI (have to think about it), but I don't find the "NEVER BEFORE" and "ZERO" arguments convincing.

      School districts that will suffer from an AGI that is less than real education inflation are politically powerless as they tend to be associated with the "base" of each party.  

      • interesting chart

        There was a lot of school district consolidation during the 1980s, but I can't remember which year that trend started accelerating.

        • '91-'97

          w/ '93 the biggest jump. See below 🙂

          Nr of school districts

          Latino and Eastern European immigration is what flattens this out again, I'd guess.

    • ironic

      that Republicans, who almost always favor more "local control" in education, wanted state government to deprive school districts of the flexibility to make costs and revenues match up.

      The 2011 budget was drafted during an extremely difficult period for state budgeting across the country. I think it was more appropriate for the legislature to pass 2 percent allowable growth (even if not fully funded) than it would have been to pass zero growth. Remember also that in early 2010, legislators were counting on more federal stimulus funding during the 2011 fiscal year, whereas it was obvious during the first half of 2011 that no extra federal $$ would help address local education budget shortfalls.

      • may not disagree

        more appropriate for the legislature to pass 2 percent allowable growth

        on that point, but again, do not care for the misleading rhetoric.

    • ps

      DES MOINES - More students continued to pour into suburban school districts even as fewer students enrolled in public schools statewide.

      Hardest hit were rural districts, some of which have seen more than a quarter of their student population drop over the past five years.

      Conversely, the three fastest-growing school districts in the past five years are all suburbs of Des Moines. The Waukee, Bondurant-Farrar and North Polk school districts have grown by 30 percent, 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

      State school aid is doled out on a per-pupil basis to school districts. That means more state money for districts with higher enrollment figures and less money for smaller districts.

      Linda Fandel, special assistant for education policy for Gov. Terry Branstad, said the state can assist districts that are dealing with shrinking enrollments if they choose to consolidate with other districts or offer new online


      IMO, the zero growth allowance "helps" w/ the rural decision-making. For the urban (not suburban, and not DSM) districts that have lost population, time to go bargain / the unions. You know Branstad isn't losing any sleep over that.

      The suburbs don't feel the pain that much because the budgets are increasing w/ head count. The debate becomes a dance over property taxes.

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