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The race for Terrace Hill

BY JUSTIN SUGG | NOVEMBER 16, 2009 7:22 AM

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Too bad Iowa’s gubernatorial race doesn’t resemble a physical one. If it did, Culver’s down-hill plunge in approval rating would seem like a relief. Culver’s approval rating, down 20 points since January, according to a Nov. 14 Des Moines Register poll, instead should feel more like a leg cramp than a second wind. Fewer than half of the state approve of Culver’s performance and, to make matters worse, former Gov. Terry Branstad commands a 60 percent approval rating. Branstad isn’t Culver’s only problem, either.

Many of Culver’s problems are of his own making, while others are the just the product of bad timing. He is hardly to blame for a sour economy that has not only stricken the state but the nation and the world. There’s little — if any — he can do at this point to turn the global tide.

Culver hasn’t made any friends with his deep budget cuts. In fact, he’ll probably lose at least 300 supporters — roughly the number of state employees he’ll fire as a result of labor-union negotiations. That and the 10 percent cut he’s asked all state entities to take couldn’t come at a worse time. At a time when state bodies, including the UI, are cutting everywhere they can, asking for additional cuts seems like a slap in the face.

But what is a governor to do? States do not have the luxury of going into debt like the federal government. Culver needed to find a way to balance the budget or face a statewide shut down. His cuts were painful but necessary. His voluntary pay cut, despite its largely symbolic nature, was an admirable move, but he needs to do more. He needs to justify asking for additional cuts. He needs to state the consequences of an unbalanced budget and challenge his competitors to do better.

He should challenge his competitors to do better, because some already have answers. Bob Vander Plaats has criticized the hundreds of millions of dollars Iowa gives away each year in tax cuts, calling to replace them with standardized, lower rates. Culver should run with that and propose to cut the plethora of tax credits, especially in the wake of the film-tax-credit scandal. Ending these credits could bring Iowa closer to filling its budget gaps next year, and the governor wouldn’t have to worry about criticism for raising taxes — Vander Plaats already proposed the idea.

Nor should Culver worry about criticism from Branstad about taxes. The former governor twice raised the sales tax during his tenure.

Branstad enjoys a substantial lead now, but this may prove to be temporary and nothing more than nostalgia. Most people remember Branstad’s time in office the way they view the ’90s in general — through rose-tinted glasses. To most people, the ’90s were a time when unemployment was at an all-time low, a time when Iowans and Americans in general had little if any cares. Few people seem to remember the harsh recession in 1992, Branstad’s 37 percent approval rating at that time, and the numerous times he raised taxes in order to balance the budget.

Culver will need to remind Iowans of that, and Branstad will have to shift their focus. Branstad has done a good job of that so far, letting the rumor mill run wild about his candidacy and the Draft Branstad Movement do all his heavy lifting for him. The former governor will have to take the initiative, however, once he officially declares his candidacy. He’ll need to focus on his steady hand, his stewardship in troubled times (’92 recession and ’93 floods). Branstad will also need to make sure all his skeletons are tucked safely away in his closet.

Things look pretty grim for the current governor and pretty promising for the former, but there’s over a year of campaigning left until the election next year. The economy may turn around, new allegations may arise — old ones, too. The one certainty for both candidates is that they’ll need to assert themselves if they are to cross that finish line to make it to Terrace Hill.


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