The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

National News

November 11, 2013

Divided Iowa government means compromise

DES MOINES — While the recent federal government shutdown was the perfect example of split-party gridlock in Washington, in other parts of the country opposing parties are actually working together.

Welcome to Iowa: a state with a Republican-controlled state House, a Democratic-majority state Senate and a Republican governor. The leaders in this triangle disagree on issues ranging from abortion to taxation, but this year came to bipartisan agreements on a massive property tax cut, increased education spending and an expansion of Medicaid under the newly enacted federal health care overhaul.

“We have a divided government and despite that we are expected to work together and accomplish things,” said Gov. Terry Branstad, who is serving his fifth non-consecutive term in office.

With about 3 million people, Iowa is an agricultural state that’s also balanced on manufacturing, financial services and renewable energy. The state’s governance is an outlier in today’s political landscape.

At a time when a single party controls all branches of government in 37 states and half of all legislatures have veto-proof majorities, Iowa is one of just three states with a divided legislature. Lawmakers here are eager to point out that they have made a conscious effort to avoid Washington-style turmoil.

“We chose to govern here in Iowa and compromise,” said former Democratic House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from Des Moines.

It appears to be a popular choice. A recent poll conducted for the Des Moines Register showed that 22 percent of Iowa residents thought the nation was headed in the right direction, compared with 52 percent who thought the state was moving in the right direction.

Compared with the aggressively conservative or liberal agendas pursued in single-party control states, the compromise deals struck this year in Iowa had items for both sides — income tax breaks for Republicans, small business tax credits for Democrats; less oversight on home schooling for Republicans and more overall school aid for Democrats.

Perhaps the most noteworthy agreement was on Medicaid, given the conflicts over the issue in other states. Under the Iowa plan, which still needs approval from the federal government, the state would arrange coverage for about 150,000 people, but with conditions, like premiums, for some participants, a Republican priority.

It wasn’t always like this in Iowa. Two years ago, House Republicans came into the session with a 60-40 majority and struck a more bullish stance, pushing for a statewide referendum on gay marriage, tougher abortion restrictions and sweeping tax cuts. But the Democrats, holding a 26-24 majority in the Senate, blocked those efforts. The conflict was so bad that the two sides almost couldn’t reach a budget deal.

“We went all the way to almost government shut down. The (next year) was not as partisan, but as bad. The tone was bad, the fighting was bad,” said McCarthy, who recently resigned his seat to take a job in the state Attorney General’s office.

After the 2012 elections, which reduced the GOP’s House majority, the legislative leaders began vowing to work more collaboratively.

“(Democrat) Mike Gronstal is not who I would pick to be the Senate majority leader, but Iowans did and they expect me to work with him,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican.

Helping the path to compromise was the state’s relatively strong financial position. Recent fiscal efficiencies, coupled with some economic growth gave lawmakers surplus budget dollars to work with.

And there were political motivations. Branstad, who is expected to stand for re-election next year, wanted some legislative accomplishments under his belt.

Not everyone in the House liked the new direction. A group of conservative Republicans wanted to block the budget deal to prevent Medicaid funding from being be used for abortions, which happens a small number of times each year due to rape, incest, fetal deformity or to protect a mother’s life.

“It’s very frustrating that we can’t do more to protect the lives of unborn children,” said former lawmaker Danny Carroll, who lobbies for the Christian conservative group the Family Leader.

Dealing with a divided government isn’t unusual in Iowa. The state has had one Democratic and one Republican U.S. senator for nearly 29 years and the four house seats are evenly split. The state’s redistricting process — in which a team of non-partisan analysts draw the congressional and legislative boundaries — helps ensure that the districts reflect the electorate, unlike in other states where legislators can shift boundaries for partisan advantage.

Divided government control in other parts of the country has seen mixed success.

In New Hampshire, the divided legislature passed a budget with near unanimous support this year, but has yet to reach an agreement on Medicaid expansion. Meanwhile, in Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has been at war with Republicans who hold a veto-proof majority in the state legislature. This year he vetoed 29 bills and waged a cross-state public campaign to kill a GOP-approved tax cut.

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