Vilsack talks about the constitution

I went to Drake University’s Law School this morning for a forum on the constitution.  Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack was the keynote speaker.

Drake University president David Maxwell opened the proceedings by reflecting on what he termed the "polarization of debate" on campuses across the country, suggesting "more and more students are replicating" what they see and hear on the national political stage.  That means, according to Maxwell, that students are trying to make "assertions and beliefs" into "knowledge and facts"  — leading to a "rise in irrationality." 

"The lack of public models for civil debate makes our work harder," Maxwell told the assembly of law students and panel members who’re experts on constitutional issues.

Vilsack was introduced and as I put my microphone up on the lectern, Vilsack said something to me akin to "this isn’t going to yield anything for you."  But the tape rolled anyway, and Vilsack began with a story I had never heard him tell before.  It was about the night he’d been elected mayor of Mount Pleasant in a special election.  He was being interviewed by a local reporter (perhaps John Kuhens?) and the reporter asked if he was ready.  Vilsack, in recounting the story today, asid he had told the reporter he’d study up and would be ready in January when he took office.  The reporter "got a funny look on his face" and told Vilsack that he was mayor "immediately" since the previous mayor had been killed and Vilsack had won the post in a special election.

That story then played into Vilsack’s opening theme about succession.  He went into detail about succession at the federal level (that is who takes over when the president dies or becomes incapacitated).  He noted that under the current president, there are two cabinet members (pretty far down in the line of succession) who would not be able to serve as president because they were born outside the country (that would be the Labor and Commerce Secretaries, according to Vilsack).

"What we are doing here is putting the constitution on trial," Vilsack told the crowd.  He launched into a discussion of Iowa’s law on reapportionment — redrawing legislative district lines every 10 years, based on new data from the US Census.  "Iowa has the best reapportionment system in the country," Vilsack said. 

After that brief foray into Vilsack’s time as a state senator, Vilsack continued with a discussion about his time as governor.  "When you’re governor, the constitution can be your friend, or it can be quite problematic," Vilsack said.  Vilsack cited the court case brought by Prairie Meadows Race Track & Casino, challenging the tax structure for race track/casinos which was different (and which levied a higher tax) than the one for riverboat casinos.  He suggested to the would-be lawyers in the room that if they were trying a case at the state court level, they might want to use a new equal protection argument because the Iowa Supreme Court had shown its willingness to create a different structure of equal protection based on the Iowa Constitution which may not be the same as under the federal constittuion.

He also cited his decision to grant voting rights to ex-felons and the legal challenge of that executive order.  Vilsack did not mention the lawsuit over his executive order extending on-the-job protections to gay state workers.

Vilsack opened the floor to questions and the first came from a fellow panel member (this forum is to feature discussion among the panelists).  It was about the goernor’s item veto authority.  Vilsack shared that Iowa’s constitution gives him line item veto authority in appropriations bills — so the debate then is just what is an appropriations bill (briefly he mentioned the Iowa Values Fund fight over his item veto of that bill).  He also told the crowd only one of his vetoes had been overriden — on that eminent domain bill.  that happened last summer, during the close-down of his eight-year run as governor.

The next question, again from a panelist, was about Iowa’s reapportionment law and the questioner wondered why a political party would "unilaterally disarm" and give up the right to draw districts favorable to their particular party.  Vilsack argued the Iowa system creates competitive districts and is a model for the rest of the country.  He ventured into the subject of public financing of campaigns, too.

"A small, small number of people limit your options" as a voter, Vilsack suggested — referring to the "1500 to 2000 people who have the capacity to bundle" campaign donations.  As you may recall, Vilsack dropped out of the presidential race in February — citing an inability to compete in the money race.

"My hope would be that we would take a look at public financing," Vilsack said.

Next came a little bit more discussion about reapportionment, then the final question was about initiatives and referendums.  Vilsack said he’s glad Iowa isn’t California, where he contends initiatives and referendums have overwhelmed California’s voters because "every idea" goes on the ballot.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.