Monday, May 23, 2011

Newt for president? Surely you jest!

Hosting the first-in-the nation caucus is a sacred duty for Iowans. As a result, it's a great place for visiting politicians considering a run for president to test the waters. The accompanying media coverage doesn't always mean great PR, though, as Republican Newt Gingrich found out last week while kicking off his "once in a century" presidential campaign. Early in the week, he received a blunt rebuke from Iowan Russell Fuhrman during a stop in Dubuque. Fuhrman told Gingrich he is an embarrassment for comments calling Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to reform Medicare radical "right-wing social engineering." He then gave Gingrich a piece of advice:  "Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself." He's got a point. Leading up to this latest snafu, there have been a series of comments by Gingrich or disclosures concerning him that have made the former Speaker of the U.S. House look foolish. There was his attempt to explain cheating on his wife with a staffer (who now his wife) while pursuing the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lies related to the  former president's 
infidelity. He has also suggested everyone should pay something for their health care, making it harder to convince people that he wants to repeal "Obamacare" --- reforms already approved by Congress and championed by President Barack Obama. Then there was the report that he or his current wife carried a debt of $250,000 to $500,000 at the jewelry store Tiffany's --- a big red flag for a constituency that is increasingly focused on wiping out the national debt and deficit. So, maybe it's only a matter of time before something dumb Gingrich has done or says makes him an even bigger fool.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Squeezing out the last drop of blood

Making Iowa's tax system "equitable" --- the idea behind the Republican/Branstad reform plan passed by the House last week --- is not equitable. Business and industry exists to make money. There's no reason to abolish a mechanism ensuring they pay taxes on a larger percentage of their property's value than homeowners. There is apparently broad consensus at the Statehouse that business taxes are too high. So, why not go with the Democratic plan? That would cut taxes businesses pay to the residential rate for the first $30,000 of value. After that, it would go up to the existing rate for businesses. This targets the tax cut to small business while providing a benefit for all businesses. Everyone loves small businesses and every politician loves to aim their legislative efforts at that kind of business. The only thing is (BROAD  GENERALIZATION ALERT!), Republicans really love big businesses and are always looking out for their interests. Republicans and Branstad say these lower taxes will attract more business to Iowa and spur growth of existing businesses. That is basically a tenent of trickle-down economics: Lower taxes to spur economic growth and pretty soon you'll be bringing in more revenue that ever before! There's never been any particular reason to believe that logic, and certainly not to accept it as a panacea solving all problems. Local governments --- cities, counties, school districts --- are concerned that the bottom line of this solution to "high taxes" would be sucking tax money from their coffers. But $500 million less annually for local governments across the state just means cutting costs and finding efficiencies, advocates of this plan say. We could start just educating kids through eighth grade, shut down public safety departments on weekends and let those roads revert to dirt trails --- you know, the way they were in the 1800s. Some Republicans have said, though, that local governments should have less taxing authority. There's no equity in the Republican/Branstad plan because tax money is precisely where local governments get their revenues to provide vital services that give us an excellent standard of living. Their primary purpose is not to make money by selling people products (like the businesses that would get the windfall under this plan). Even if Republicans are right in suggesting that local governments wouldn't lose tax revenues, opponents argue that the plan would result in taxes being shifted from businesses to homeowners. I'm sure that's the kind of equity all Iowans can get behind.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Principles, pledges and posturing

As the Iowa Legislature starts another week of the 2011 session, it makes you wonder how much actual negotiating is going on. You'd think coming to agreement on each of the bills that still need to be passed and signed into law would be the top priority for the Republicans, Democrats and the governor. Instead, people are starting to wonder about  a shutdown and noting that Branstad was governor during the last time that was threatened, in 1992. The Legislature has piled up quite a stack of unresolved budget and spending bills, along with other contentious issues from abortion to secretly videotaping livestock operations. So, maybe the small groups of House and Senate leaders left at the Legislature would spend full days every day talking about what they need in these bills to reach that point and adjourn. Instead, everyone is still repeating their principles and pledges --- along with trashing their opponents. Branstad has to have two-year budgets and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen says they're just trying to reduce government costs. To Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal all their talk is just a "gut punch to the middle class." Everything is so stalled that lawmakers may only accomplish what they absolutely have to --- approving a budget. Is it all just posturing for the base with an eye on politics? There certainly are differences between the various parties to these negotiations and they're important. They indicate divergent philosophies that really do matter and can shape state government. But, again, politics is truely about compromise and real leadership means figuring out how to bridge those gaps. In the process, everyone has to give up something. That's what is going to allow the Legislature to adjourn.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A compromising position

They've all got campaign promises and competing ideals to uphold, but it's time. Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad need to put it all aside and do one of the most vile things a politician can do: compromise.  Spending bills have been slow to come to the governor since each house of the Legislature is  controlled by a different party with competing aims and interests. When the Democrats and Republicans did figure out how to compromise, Branstad vetoed all or part of the bills. He's got his own set of campaign promises and ideals that cannot be broken! The period where lawmakers receive daily expense payments, or per diem, ended Friday. That is typically tied to the ajournment date, but nobody's sure how soon it will happen with so many budget and spending bills  yet to be approved and signed. Closed door meetings of the Legislature's leadership are now under way. But freshmen Republicans, with their tea party sympathies, may be pushing their leaders to positions the Democrats can't accept. What the two sides do come up with could conflict with Branstad's promises of a two-year budget and a package of tax reforms that he suggests will spur employment growth in Iowa (which is related to his pledge to create 200,000 jobs). We'll see how much impact reality has on those promises and ideals.