Branstad looking at economy, but gay marriage issue is not going away

Tyler Kingkade

DES MOINES — Gov.-elect Terry Branstad disapproves of the way he’s given nominees for appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court, but he’ll have to deal with it — at least when he likely fills the three vacancies left as a result of the Nov. 2 vote against the retention of three of the high court’s justices.

Branstad talked about possibly changing the way nominees are selected during his campaign, hinting that he preferred a scenario similar to the federal system, where a U.S. president can choose anyone with a legal background, even if they had not been a judge in the past. He again mentioned it Monday morning at the State Capitol to reporters.

“There is no foolproof system [to pick judges] and there’s no way to anticipate what someone might do 15 or 20 years later,” Branstad said shortly after acknowledging two of the outgoing justices were appointed by him in his past years in office.

The incoming governor spent much of his time comfortably discussing ways he’d like to stimulate Iowa’s economy, although the state is in better shape than many others and will begin 2011 with a $940 million surplus. Yet, when the same-sex marriage issue was brought up, he chose his words much more closely.

Branstad signaled he believed the Iowa legislature should pass a resolution to allow a vote go to the public on whether to make marriage one man-one woman. But Democrat Mike Gronstal, who will remain Senate Majority Leader, has vowed to never let that come to a vote, because, in his words, he will not write discrimination into law.

“Just because you’re a leader in the legislature doesn’t mean you’re a dictator or you have the right to make unilateral decisions,” Branstad said, seeming to be referring to Gronstal.

Gronstal later responded to the comment, “Dictators are those who make efforts to take away other people’s rights. I’m not going down that road.”

Speaker-elect Kraig Paulsen and Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, Republicans, spoke alongside Gronstal and House Democratic Leader Matt McCarthy. Paulsen said changing the nominating process could come up in the judiciary committee, but said it likely would not be more than a discussion on the matter.

Branstad also said he’d like to change the makeup of the nominating commission, which Republicans have been criticizing as being stacked with Democrats. Although on Monday, Democratic leaders responded it was full of Republicans during Branstad’s tenure. Outgoing Chief Justice Marsha Ternus said in an October speech in the Memorial Union it was, indeed, said to be heavily Republican when she was nominated in the 1980s, but they were still fair in their process.

Early sparring in economic plans

Much of the morning discussions with reporters did focus on the economy and what Branstad intends to do to spur growth. Branstad said he would be busy over the next week deciding who he would appoint to lead various departments in his administration, and said he’d work on greatly reducing commercial property taxes to 60 to 65 percent of market value, as opposed to 100 percent, where he said it stood now. The point of this would be to attract more businesses to locate in Iowa.

Branstad said he’d like to phase the property tax down over four to five years, and equated it with how he got rid of a tax on machinery equipment in his past terms as governor. 

But Gronstal characterized the example of the phase out on tax of machinery equipment was “pretty close to the biggest unfunded mandate” in state history. He said one cannot lower a tax rate without regard to how a local government depends on that revenue, because the revenue will need to be made up elsewhere.

McKinley said leading up the election, property taxes were the number one issue brought to his attention, and many believe they are too high.

But leaders of the House and Senate cautioned they would need to make sure local governments do not face an increased burden due to the cut in commercial property tax, especially since much of property tax revenues are used for education.

Republican leaders said there is some “heavy lifting” to be done about property tax reform, but it has to be done. Paulsen said he’d like to work on repaying the $231 million he claimed Gov. Chet Culver shorted school districts in the prior year.

Another step Branstad intends to take to reduce the cost of government is to only hire one legislature liaison, named Monday as Todd Schulz.

Despite the positive projection for revenues today by the Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference, Branstad warned cutting spending would still be needed because many of the one-time funds, like the federal stimulus money to states, would not be around again. Branstad recently met with national leaders in Washington D.C.