Grim and grimmer

BY ART CULLEN

All these Democrats are lining up to run for governor — they’re even campaigning in Storm Lake, already — and Gov. Kim Reynolds has a mess on her hands left to her by former Gov. Terry Branstad, now safe in Beijing. A sales tax exemption on machinery and equipment pushed through by Branstad has come home to haunt Reynolds in the form of a $104 million deficit. As we understand it, her choices are grim and grimmer.

Choice A: Impose across-the-board budget cuts to respond to the revenue shortfall in the absence of the legislature. Ask former — that is, former — Gov. Chet Culver how that gutsy move worked out for him.

Choice B: Impose the cuts in a one-day special session called in September, a year out from the general election. To keep the session at one day, majority Republicans will have to agree to the cuts ahead of time. None of them will be popular, since DNR already is laying off staff and others soon will be to follow. Special sessions called to make significant program cuts because of poor forecasting — which ultimately is poor management — are terrible political optics for the governing party. The legislature would put this ugly chore off to the governor, if she were a Democrat. But she isn’t.

Grim and grimmer.

Democrats can sit back with their arms folded and watch the tragedy.

And then immediately start campaigning on school cuts and closed parks and less help for district transportation costs and how Grandma lost her Medicaid at North Lake Manor, now closed, and you name it.

You have Donald Trump headlining the show and a newbie governor dealing with the worst political crisis of her life. And you have six Democrats all offering critiques from different points of view.

And, don’t think that the latest estimate of being $104 million short of obligations is the all of it. The state is in closed-session talks with insurance companies over their discontent with the new private Medicaid program. The insurers are taking it in the shorts. They want higher payments. So do hospitals. They are fuming.

None of it adds up well, from this hot summer perspective.

Revenue will not improve before the drop-dead date of September, when all bids are due. Look at the crops outside. It’s going to be a tough year.

And in a tough year, you do not necessarily want to be the party in power. Especially when you were not elected governor, and you really don’t have a handle yet on what to do with this huge shortfall.

Branstad left in the nick of time.

Just before all the tax cuts he piled up over the years came home to accrue. And the full cost is not yet known.

An honest discussion

Here is how the civic conversation is supposed to take place: John Norris is hosting local Democrats on the veranda at King’s Pointe. Jim Eliason asks Norris, a former state and federal utility regulator, to assess the Dakota Access Pipeline against the Rock Island Clean Line, a high-voltage transmission line from O’Brien County that would ship windpower to Chicago. The wind line has stalled while the pipeline sailed.

Norris supports both, or at least would not criticize the Iowa Utilities Board (which he once chaired) over its decision to grant eminent domain for the pipeline. Norris explained that we will need fossil fuels for at least the next 30 to 50 years, and it can be argued that the pipeline is the most efficient way for that energy to be transported. It’s a fair argument.

Many progressives would write him off over that. Eliason listened.

“I hate to sit on the sidelines and scream,” Norris told Eliason. “As a regulator, I had to operate under Ohm’s Law that governs how electricity flows. That keeps you honest, to be governed in the reality of what works.”

Eliason didn’t like his answer and pressed him three different ways. Each time, Norris answered the same way but with a different angle to help illustrate.

Nobody walked out on him or blew up on him. They thought about what he said. And they still probably disagreed with Norris. On the Dakota pipeline issue, we happen to strongly disagree. But we understand how Norris arrives at his conclusions. He was thinking as an adjudicator and not an advocate. He could have offered his principled opposition to the pipeline, but he did not.

We have to admire that in him.

He looked voters in the eye and told them what they didn’t want to hear. He might be right or he might be wrong but he had the courage to say what he thought the regulator’s job should be, damn the consequences. That’s the sort of unflinching discussion Iowa needs.