Branstad vetoes will stand: not enough support for Iowa legislative special session

Governor Terry Branstad’s vetoes of education and mental health funding will stand, as the two-thirds majority needed to call a special legislative session has failed to materialize in either the Iowa House or Senate.

A special session always looked like a long-shot, given that Iowa House Republican leaders didn’t want to spend extra money on education and only reluctantly agreed to extend funding for mental health institutions. In addition, 23 of the 24 Iowa Senate Republicans voted against the supplemental spending bill. They had no stake in the compromise the governor blew apart.

Still, the outcry over school funding (including dozens of normally non-political superintendents speaking out) created an opening for Republican lawmakers. Even if they didn’t believe in the substantive value of additional education or mental health funding, they could have taken a big issue off the table for next year’s statehouse elections. So far, very few Republicans seem worried about the political fallout from not overriding Branstad’s vetoes. Democrats appear ready to remind voters at every opportunity who created the holes local education leaders are scrambling to fill.  

Iowa law doesn’t establish a deadline for legislators to convene a special session. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal asked colleagues to respond to the request for a special session by July 29, because local education leaders need to know as soon as possible whether they will have to make do for the coming academic year without the $55.7 million in K-12 funding Branstad vetoed.

In the upper chamber, all 26 Democrats formally requested a special session, but none of the 24 Republicans joined them–not even State Senator Mark Costello, who voted for the supplemental spending bill. (He represents the Clarinda area, where the Branstad administration shut down an in-patient mental health facility this year.)

Republican State Senator Mark Chelgren told Ottumwa-based KTVO earlier this month that he would support calling a special session. He didn’t sign a formal request for one, though. Speaking to Bleeding Heartland by telephone today, Chelgren explained that he “didn’t think [the supplemental spending bill] was a good idea at the time” and was “not going to change my vote” on it. Rather, he felt a special session could have provided “an opportunity for us to do our job as legislators.” He would have supported a broad-based discussion of education policy and reforming the “broken” mental health system, rather than a session narrowly focused on overriding vetoes. Chelgren agrees with the governor that “one-time funding for education is a problem.” He also objects to the typical legislative practice of leaving members of the minority party out of crucial negotiations. “I was not asked or consulted on anything” related to education or mental health funding during the 2015 legislative session, Chelgren noted, acknowledging that Democratic lawmakers in the Iowa House were shut out in the same way.

Chelgren was just re-elected in November to a second four-year term representing Iowa Senate district 41, but thirteen of the 24 Senate Republicans represent even-numbered districts that will be on the ballot in 2016. While many of those are safe for the GOP, a few could be highly competitive. Senator Mike Breitbach won his first term in Senate district 28 by just 17 votes in 2012. Dennis Guth carried Senate district 4 by a roughly 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

This page on the Iowa Senate Democrats’ website lists how much money Branstad’s veto will cost each public school district in Iowa. Today Senate Democratic staff have been tweeting out memes aggregating the totals for various Republican-held Senate districts. For instance, communities in Senate district 4 lost a total of $1,254,368 in state funding because of the veto Guth won’t override. Another meme that will transfer easily to direct mail or campaign advertising states, “Senator Mike Breitbach cost students in his district $1,174,395 by refusing to overturn the Governor’s veto.”

In the Iowa House, 24 Republicans would have needed to join all 43 Democrats to ask for a special session. To my mind, this was a easy call, especially for Republicans representing swing districts. A Democratic press release I enclose below asserts that “no Republican lawmaker returned a signed request to the Chief Clerk of the Iowa House.” James Q. Lynch reported today that two GOP state representatives did support the special session:

Reps. Bobby Kaufman, R-Wilton, and Quentin Stanerson, R-Center Point, have joined House Democrats in asking for a special session because of overwhelming opposition to Gov. Terry Branstad’s vetoes of one-time education funding after the Legislature adjourned in June.

“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of constituent requests for a special session,” Kaufmann said Wednesday.

“I was hearing from people not typically political,” he said, adding it was not just teachers, school administrators and board members, but “parents who aren’t political but angry about the vetoes.” […]

“I don’t like the one-time funding scenario,” Stanerson said, “but we did come up with a compromise.”

Kaufmann has been elected twice by comfortable margins in House district 73, but the district does have a Democratic voter registration advantage. Stanerson is also serving his second term in the Iowa House; he won re-election fairly easily in 2014 but beat Kristin Keast by only 200 votes during the last presidential election cycle.

Many Democrats I’ve spoken with this month have expressed surprise that so few House Republicans jumped at the chance to call for a special session. For instance, my own State Representative Chris Hagenow won re-election in 2012 by 23 votes out of more than 17,000 cast. Hundreds of families in House district 43 have kids in the West Des Moines schools, which lost $1,020,002 because of Branstad’s veto. State Representative Peter Cownie (House district 42) also represents a large part of the West Des Moines school district. If Hagenow, Cownie, and other House Republicans were acting in good faith when they voted for the supplemental education funding in House File 666, what would be the downside in overriding the governor’s veto?

Republican lawmakers may be counting on the notoriously short attention span of American voters. The partial federal government shutdown of October 2013 barely registered as a voting issue during last year’s Congressional races. Maybe this year’s education and mental health funding vetoes will be a distant memory by the time Iowa’s 2016 state legislative races are in full swing. Or maybe Republicans will be able to change the subject with “heated sidewalks and flower pots,” as Todd Dorman has suggested (more on those diversionary tactics here).

Whatever the reasoning, the Republican disinterest in a special legislative session is bad news for Iowa students and teachers, as well as those who relied on the now-closed mental health institutions or anyone who might have benefited from other funding Branstad vetoed.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Iowa House and Senate press release, July 30:

Iowans lose education funding and mental health services because Republicans ignore call for special session

DES MOINES – With the new school year starting in a few weeks, Republican lawmakers ignored their constituents and refused the call for a special session to overturn Governor Branstad’s reckless veto of $56 million for Iowa schools, university funding to prevent tuition increases, and the loss of urgently needed mental health services.

“The compromises legislators reached had strong bi-partisan support. I’m especially disappointed Republicans refused to listen to the parents, teachers and community leaders urging them to invest in our schools,” said Senate President Pam Jochum of Dubuque.  “The state can afford it and it’s the right thing to do.”

As of Wednesday, July 29th, every Democrat in the Iowa House (43) and Iowa Senate (26) joined the call for a special session. However, as of Wednesday’s deadline no Republican lawmaker returned a signed request to the Chief Clerk of the Iowa House or the Secretary of the Senate.  Since two-thirds of the members of each chamber are needed to bring lawmakers back for a special session, Governor Branstad’s vetoes are unlikely to be overridden.

“Since Republicans won’t stand up to their own Governor, our kids will be stuck in more crowded classes with fewer teachers and most Iowans will pay higher property taxes,” said House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown.  “After months of delays and partisanship from Republicans, Democrats believe it’s time to make educating kids our top priority again.”

“Legislative Republicans had a simple choice: Support your local schools and communities by restoring bipartisan compromises or provide political cover to Governor Branstad’s mistake.  Given the opportunity to help half a million Iowa school kids, statehouse Republicans refused at every turn. Our kids deserve better,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs.

An updated list of the signed statements from individual legislators calling for a special session that have been received at the Iowa Statehouse, and how much is at stake for each Iowa school district, can be found at: http://bit.ly/Restoring-School… .

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