The “GOP3” debate in Cedar Rapids

It’s 3:20 and in 10 minutes the three men seeking the Republican Party of Iowa’s 2010 nomination for governor will debate for 90 minutes here in this ballroom at a Cedar Rapids hotel.  The event is sponsored by the Iowa Broadcast News Association and is airing live on Iowa Public Television’s “IPTV World” channel.

Eric Woolson, the campaign manager for Bob Vander Plaats, is sitting two rows in front of media row.  Tim Albrecht, Terry Branstad’s campaign spokesman, is sitting five seats to the right of Woolson.  At 3:26 p.m. folks in the room were asked to put their cell phones/’berries/iPhones on silent.

A panel of journalists will ask the candidates questions.  Todd Dorman, a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette; Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio and Paul Yeager, host of The Iowa Journal on IPTV are sitting on the right of the stage.  The three candidates are standing on the left, with moderator Bob Fisher of KLSS/KRIB in Mason City in the middle.

The candidates have done a good bit of traveling today before arriving.  They all attended the district conventions in Dubuque and Iowa Falls.  Riding in a plane on this windy day was an adventure.

It’s 3:30 and the show is on with an introduction of the candidates underway.  First topic:  the state budget.  How do you balance and reduce the size of government?

RR:  across the board not a responsible way to balance the budget.  Critical decisions would have been far better a year ago, with selective cuts — “a more surgical approach.” 

BVP:  “It takes no intellectual fire power” to do an across the board cut, which is what Culver did last October.  “I think we need to be funding the classrooms, not the bureaucracy.” 

TEB:  “Governor Culver’s actions have been both reckless and irresponsible.”  He insisted on “putting the state deeply in debt.”  Branstad said it’s time for “prudent and thoughtful leader.”

All three said they would have reconvened legislature in order to make selective cuts rather than cut budget across the board. 

Next question:  about property taxes, how to cut commercial without raising residential.

BVP:  “We’ve taken state obligations and put them on the back of property taxpayers” in “past administrations” — a reference to TEB.  He outines his proposal to shift cost of mental health services for the poor to state, off of counties/property taxes.

RR:  “There’s no question that property taxes have become an impediment to business growth and development.”  Calls for a “hard look” at what property taxes pay for in schools, counties, cities. 

TEB:  Restates the question.  “Governor Culver four years ago ran on a platform of reducing commercial property taxes…Nothing has been done. I have a plan,” Branstad said of reducing commercial property taxes.

Name one service govt should stop providing today.

RR:  “We have adults present in our state who reside in our state illegally and I have recommended that we look seriously at denying services to resident illegal alients.”   He says it  would save up to $92 million.

TEB:   “I agree with Rep. Roberts on that issue.”  He’s deny state funding to organizations which provide abortion services. “I think we can also reduce administrative costs,” he says, suggesting Area Education Agencies are an area to cut.

BVP:  “This is kind of fun because I agree with both of my peers here.”  He says there should be no state services at expense of taxpayers to illegal immigrants.  He brings up AZ law.  “Not only do I support that, but I would promote that as governor,” he says.   He says “redefine” A.E.As.  Advocates another look at “universal preschool” —  “parents, churches should be in charge” not the state.

Next topic:  education.  Public university tuition — pricing Iowans out of a higher education.

TEB:  I went to a state university, am “sensitive” to topic.  “I’ve paid all my loans back, but I didn’t get my last loan paid back until after I was governor,” he said, adding “erratic action” of late has caused disruption at universities.   

BVP:  “I agree.  Higher education is something we should be extremely proud of,” BVP said.  “Because of poor leadership and poor management the ripple effect has been on the backs of students.” Advocated setting tuition for a four year period rather than year to year.

RR:  Said Regents schools designed originally to have public provide most of the support.  As governor, he’d require no more than 50 percent of Regents funding come from tuition.  “To be truly public, the public needs to contribute the majority of resources,” he said.

Next question: preschool in public schools.

BVP:   Says the question is who’s responsible.  In the formative years it’s best to be educated by a mom and a dad according to BVP.  He says state “can’t afford” mandatory preschool.  “That may not be popular, but at least it’s honest.”

RR:  Says he predicted 4-year-old preschool will be a drain on state support of K-12.  “it’s a classic example of state govt going beyond our means…Long term, I think we need to look seriously” at ending it.

TEB:  “Again, this was a reckless and irresponsible thing that Governor Culver did…I don’t think the public schools should have to take over all the education of three and four year olds,” he said.   State can’t afford it.

How do we get the most from our education spending?

RR:  “As our local schools go, so go our communities.”  Prioritize funding for K-12, community colleges, Regents.  “Ultimately, education in Iowa.  It matters to Iowans and that should be a focus.”

TEB:  “Education should focus on the things that are most important to the children and that is the classroom,” he says.  Parents need to be involved.  “We need to reduce some of the mandates…and we need to reduce some of the adminsitrative and overhead costs…and we should reward good teachers…and we need to have uniform assessment.”  Mentions drop in test scores.

BVP:  ‘We need to get our arms around K-12 education…otherwise you’re just messing around with the budget…In the 1990s, we started growing the bureaucracy…at the expense of the classroom.”  (1990s, again, is a reference to TEB without saying him by name.)  “Let’s let the teachers teach.”

Economic development is the next topic.  Will you pledge to provide $$ for levies and protection of future flooding?

TEB:  “I know that CR was devastated by the floods in 2008 adn I don’t think that should just be the state’s responsibility…and I also have some real misgivings about saying now we’re going to go to a 500 year flood situation..which makes it almost unaffordable….I certainly want to see things like the Czech and Slovak Museum rebuilt…But I also think…there can’t be a blank check.”

BVP:  “Flood was the wrost natural disaster in our state’s history…We need to…come alongside…and see what we can do…and do a cost-benefit analysis.”  BVP said he helped “hand out things” after the flood in CR.  Mentions state “rainy day” fund which he argues should have been spent on CR, homeowners and business and industry.  Said Culver should have called a special session.  Advocates an enterprise zone in I-380 corridor.

RR:   Says devastation hard to understand unless you visit the area.  “There are blocks and blocks of homes in CR that are still unoccupied.”  Culver should have called legislature in special session, he says.  “Republicans called for immediately appriopriating every dollar out of economic emergency fund…instead, only $50 million was.”

Next question:  tax credits.  More oversight means more government.  What tax credit would you add, which would you subtract?

BVP:  “I think you need to get govt out of the business of picking winners & losers.”  Eliminate the corp inc tax.  “Believe me, zero percent sells.”  Drastically reduce commerical/business property taxes; cap gains taxes.  “We shouldn’t be penalizing people for being successful.”

RR:  Said tax credits, over time, have become the “preferred method” of economic incentives in Iowa.  “It would be far better to eliminate that approach in time and replace it with simply eliminating taxes on business.”

TEB:  Targeted tax break for moviemaking “was a huge mistake” he says. “They didn’t put the right people in charge and they didn’t oversee it.”  Says he got all kinds of movies made here in Iowa during his 16-year tenure as governor “without a tax credit.”  Touts resaarch activities credit.

If elected, will you continue to supp;ort the Iowa Values Fund and the Iowa Power Fund.

RR:  Decries the tendency of state government to create grant/loan program, although he says he’d reduce the programs.  He didn’t use the word eliminate.  “I really question the wisdom of trying to devise state programs to stimulate the private sector.”  Ultimately, he’d “move away from these programs where it’s Des Moines trying to figure out a way to stimulate the economy.”  Getting rid of business taxes and regulations would be better he says.

TEB:  “I agree with Rep. Roberts,” and he’d reduce them both; doesn’t advocate elimination.  He reviews his tax proposals.  “That’s how I think we can generate the jobs and the growth and keep more of our young people here.”

BVP:  Values Fund was picking winners and losers “on steroids.”  Says Values Fund not “right approach” but he doesn’t say eliminate it.  Calls for cost-benefit analysis of Power Fund.

Question:  immigration bill in AZ.   Use immigration to repopulate the state.

TEB:  “Iowa has always been very welcoming to people who come here legally…But we don’t want peope coming here illegally and using our resources…welfare, medicaid and Iowa Cares money.”  We don’t want sanctuary cities and amnesty, he says.  Mentions what happened in Postville and new owner checking to make sure all workers are here legally.  “If the federal govt refuses to enforce..the immigration laws, then we should work with local law enforcement (to come up with a law) that fits Iowa…We ought to do something that fits the needs of our state.”

BVP:  Says he wants to make Iowa “hospitable” to legal immigrants.  “It’s not that I’m against immigration…On illegal immigration, there’s nothing honoring about illegal immigration.”  He says the federal govt has been “completely inept” on this issue.  He would make it a crime in Iowa to “knowingly employ, transport or employ illegal immigrants shouldbe “held accountable.”  Maybe the fed govt will ‘start listening” if Iowa passes a law similar to Arizona’s.  “I think the states need to stand up and take a role here.”

RR:  “People come to Iowa and we welcome them, but they need to come here legally.”  He says Iowans highly value the meaning of citizenship.  “It’s something very precious..but those who come illegally…the citizens of this state are not obligated to provide benefits to (them).”  He said: “Remove the incentive for being here and they will relocate somewhere else.”  Calls for verification when they apply for benefits from the State of Iowa as well as punitive measures for businesses that hire illegals. 

Next question:  should children of illegal immigrants qualify for instate tuition?   They all said no, essentially, and they expanded on answers above.

Isn’t there a cost to local government if state passes law like Arizonas?

RR:  “There would be costs, probably…but we’re going to require law enforcement; ‘You enforce the law.'”

TEB:  “Immigration is the primary responsibility of the fed govt,
 he said, adding that Iowa is “paying a high price now for the meth and other illegal drugs that are being smuggled here” by illegal inmigrants.  “Keep the pressure on the federal govt to live up to their responsibility…but we need to make sure we’re effectively dealing with that (at the local level).”

BVP:  “I don’t know about you, but I do know about me.  I’m tired of relying on the federal government.”  BVP said he doesn’t think the state would “absorb more costs,” but he predicted the state of Iowa would “save money” if it passed an AZ-style immigration law.

Next topic, gay marriage.  If you don’t win the GOP nomination, will you support the GOP nominee?

TEB:  Yes.

BVP:  Starts by saying: “I’ve proven to be a team-player…I”ve never endorsed a Democrat.”  BVP goes after Branstad directly for endorsing Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska.

Branstad jumps in and comments.  “He’s a long-time friend,” adds that he wasn’t governor.  BVP says Nelson is why we have “socialized medicine.” 

Branstad replies:  “This is supposed to be on the subject.”

BVP:  “It’s about being a team player.

Third in the rotation after that dust-up, RR answers:  “I will certainly support the nominee.” 

Question:  what harm has been done in the year since gay marriage became legal in Iowa?  Each reviews their previous statements on the topic, but Branstad, during his answer, goes after BVP and his pledge to issue the executive order. “What Bob is advocating clearly won’t hold up…You will not be successful in that effort.”

Would same-sex marriage still be top-three priority in January, 2011.

RR:  “This will be a priority” and a “lingering concern” for Iowans.  “This is not going to go away.”

TEB:  “I agree….People are angry that the court has struck down a law that was duly enacted by the legislature and signed by the governor…I will support the effort” for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment.

BVP:  “This is a key differential in this race…It is about being responsive to the will of the people.”  BVP talks about Steve King’s challenge of a Tom Vilsack executive order.  He says it was about allowing felons to vote.  Branstad jumps in to say BVP is “wrong” on the topic of the lawsuit.  “You’re wrong in what you’re saying.”

“Isn’t this my time?” BVP shoots back.

Is obesity a problem that should be addressed by government policies, such as restricting ingredients in food served in schools?

BVP reveals he hasn’t eaten ice cream in 60 days, “so I can have a cold one” on primary night.  He also suggests the governor can be “a role for the governor to model” on this issue.

Would you sign a bill that would remove the exemption which continues to allow smoking on casino floors?

BVP:  Yes.  Seems to suggest he’d like to repeal the smoking ban, in favor of private property rights although he doesn’t say that explicitly.

RR:  It was a flaw in legislation to allow smoking in the casinos.  Notes he voted against the smoking ban.  He would sign a bill that would ban smoking on casino floor.

TEB:  Yes, he would sign a bill.  “My wife’s probably the original military non-smoker.”  Said he would have signed smoking ban that passed in 2008, but there were “smokers” in charge of legislature when he was governor and couldn’t get it through the leggie.

Final question:  governor asked for a review of state insurance division’s approval of rate hike for Wellmark Blue Cross private insurance customers.  Would you do the same?

All said governor shouldn’t second guess insurance commissioner.

Each candidate gets 90 seconds for a closing comment.  BVP is first.

“Iowa needs new leadership,” he says, with emphasis on the word “new.”

RR is second.  “Chet Culver has failed this state and the people of Iowa want a new governor,” he says.  Again that word new.

(In case you’re new to this game, in 2010 Branstad is seeking a fifth term as governor.  He served four terms, leaving office in January of 1999. Culver, a Democrat, is seeking a second term.)

TEB is the third to go.  “I think Iowans know I have the experience and the ability,” TEB says, adding he “gave up a good job” to run again.

Branstad continued to lecture Vander Plaats after the debate was over, saying “look it up” in reference to the Vilsack executive order.

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About O.Kay Henderson

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