Our Statehouse remains divided, post-election. And that’s not unusual.
In only six of the past 30 years has one party controlled both the Iowa Legislature and the governor’s office at the same time. Republicans did it during the last two years of Gov. Terry Branstad’s first long stretch as governor, in 1997 and 1998. Democrats took over the joint from 2007 through 2010.
Otherwise, we’ve had governors of one party and legislatures of another, or split. In January, Branstad will be governor, Republicans will control the House by a diminished 53-47 margin and Democrats will narrowly control the Senate, likely 26-24, depending on a recount and a special election.
Obviously, local legislative races often are decided by local factors. But our overall purple state preference for division in recent decades is striking. Perhaps we Iowans like to watch politicians fight. Or we have a soft spot for gridlock.
Actually, I think many of us have a thing for moderation, checks and balances. We may not like all the drama and friction we get, but we appreciate the compromises they yield. Agreements that tend to last.
We make it hard on Statehouse types. But look on the bright side, lawmakers. You’re not in Congress. Instead of staring into an abyss from a fiscal cliff, you’re looking up at a mountain of surplus cash. And last week’s election verdict, leaving the state balance of power largely unchanged, indicates that we don’t want you to do anything rash.
Republicans can’t use a potentially fleeting surplus to gorge on massive, permanent tax cuts of questionable value. Democrats can’t binge on big new spending initiatives of questionable necessity. They’ll all have to focus on what they have the best chance of accomplishing together. The are several major issues on tap, although property tax reductions and school reform would seem to be the best bets. Many candidates in both parties ran on both.
Republicans saw little reason to strike big deals in those areas in 2012, convinced that they’d run the whole show in 2013. The voters had other ideas. Now, any grand bargains will be bipartisan bargains, signed by a governor who is looking for a legacy, making a re-election case (six terms?!), or both. Everybody benefits from success and will be harmed by failure.
This will be a big test for Branstad. The super-sized surplus gives him and the Legislature a rare, historic opportunity on property taxes. He’s also got a decent shot at putting some school reforms in place that, over time, could make a positive difference if they’re fully funded for the long haul.
Dealing with skeptical Democrats will be difficult. Convincing his own Republicans to accept uncomfortable concessions will be tougher. I still think, in the end, he may be better off with a split Legislature than one run entirely by Republicans with an agenda considerably different than his. We’ll find out.
It promises to be contentious. And apparently that’s the way we like it.