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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

May 8, 2017

Des Moines Register. May 3, 2017

Reynolds should listen to the attorney general

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds has yet to assume the duties of Iowa’s governor, but already she seems intent on pursuing a costly and politically divisive course of action.

With Gov. Terry Branstad expected to leave office soon and become the U.S. ambassador to China, Reynolds is preparing to move into the governor’s office. While there’s no question she will assume the duties and responsibilities of governor, there is a legitimate question as to whether she can appoint her own lieutenant governor.

It’s a question of great import because, although we’ve argued repeatedly that the office of lieutenant governor could — and should — be disposed of, it exists today as an elective office. In other words, it’s not the sort of job that is handed out by appointment. At least it never has been in Iowa.

As the current situation demonstrates, a lieutenant governor can assume the job of governor without ever having run for that particular job. What’s more, if Reynolds were to resign or be incapacitated after having appointed her own lieutenant governor, Iowa could then be led by a governor who has never run for any sort of statewide office.

Attorney General Tom Miller has issued a formal opinion that says while Reynolds will unquestionably assume the duties of governor once Branstad leaves Iowa, it won’t be through the process of leaving her old job to take a new job. Rather, Miller says, the duties of the governor will “devolve” to Reynolds and she will “hold both the office of governor and office of lieutenant governor” — which means, he says, there will be no vacancy for her to fill.

If that doesn’t sound logical to you, consider the fact that the main reason the office of lieutenant governor was created, as articulated at the 1857 constitutional convention, was to ensure that the first person in the line of succession for the job of governor would be a statewide-elected official, not a political appointee. (The Iowa Constitution of 1846 hadn’t even provided for the job of lieutenant governor.)

Subsequently, four Iowa governors left office prematurely. Between 1877 and 1969, three governors resigned and one died while in office. In each of those instances, the lieutenant governor assumed the duties of the governor without appointing a new lieutenant governor.

Has Iowa somehow gotten it wrong over the past 140 years? Should those four previous governors have appointed their own lieutenant governors? To answer those questions, it’s helpful to look to other states for guidance and, as Miller points out, in other states “there is virtually no debate on whether the new governor can appoint a new lieutenant governor. The widely accepted answer to that question is no.”

Now, it would have helped if Miller had reached this same conclusion back in December. But at that time, Miller’s office issued an informal legal review that concurred with Gov. Terry Branstad’s assertion that “in her capacity as governor, Gov. Reynolds will have the authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor.”

Not surprisingly, Kim Reynolds agrees with Miller’s earlier opinion, and she points to a 2009 law that speaks to the manner in which vacancies for elective offices are to be filled. But as Miller points out, the line of succession that’s outlined in the Iowa Constitution can’t be modified by a state law.

Still, it appears that Reynolds is determined to appoint a lieutenant governor, stating, “With the law on our side, we will move forward with (Miller’s) first conclusion as we examine our options.”

It’s hard to argue that the law is on your side when the state’s highest ranking law enforcement official, who is paid to defend the state’s position in court, says otherwise.

It would be a shame if one of Reynolds’ first official acts as governor was to defy the attorney general and invite a costly, politically charged court challenge.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. May 3, 2017

2017 legislative session was productive

Republican control led to an extremely broad range of policy changes

In recent years, control of the Iowa Legislature has been split. Neither political party controlled both chambers and the governorship simultaneously. The result has been much legislation proposed that couldn’t achieve sufficient consensus to make it into law.

As a result of major Republican victories across the Hawkeye State last November, the story was quite different this year. The GOP not only had significant majorities in both the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives, but the governor’s chair was occupied by a seasoned Republican chief executive — Terry Branstad.

It’s been nearly two decades since Republicans have been in so dominant a position and the record of the session that ended late last month demonstrates that they were determined to take full advantage of that opportunity. Major changes in policy have been enacted.

“When you look at the volume and diversity of policy issues that were addressed this year, I am proud to say this has been one of the most significant and productive sessions in our history,” Branstad said in a statement issued as the lawmakers adjourned. “We have given Iowa taxpayers and families a balanced budget under difficult circumstances, prioritized K-12 education funding while building a computer science foundation for our schools, provided money for family planning clinics that don’t provide abortions, protected the ballot box, strengthened our traffic safety laws, protected victims of domestic abuse and violence, solidified Iowans’ Constitutional 2nd Amendment rights, and most importantly, made Iowa more competitive for attracting business and industry.”

Some Iowans may disagree with the governor that all the measures he cited represent desirable policy choices. Even so, for the first time since the 1990s it has been possible for one of our two major political policies to show what it could accomplish if given the power to enact most of its agenda. Voters will be clear on where the praise or blame should be directed.

Since Branstad will soon be stepping down to become our nation’s ambassador to China, he will leave office having been able to preside over a final legislative session that was able to respond favorably to many of his policy recommendations. That will allow him to undertake this new assignment with the knowledge that much of what he sought to bring about has been achieved.

The Messenger congratulates the governor and lawmakers on the perseverance and hard work that resulted in a productive legislative session.

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Quad City Times. May 3, 2017

Branstad took a global view

Gov. Terry Branstad did his homework before Tuesday’s confirmation hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations. And, along the way, the future ambassador to China made a few welcome statements that fly in the face of the Trumpian nationalism.

“I see this as the biggest challenge I’ve ever had,” Branstad told the committee, when asked about growing tensions with North Korea. “I want to do whatever I can to find a solution that will benefit the entire human race.”

Such a pledge would be boilerplate in most times. But, within the context of the White House’s stated nationalism, Branstad’s commitment to all of humanity — regardless of national affiliation — suddenly takes on real meaning. Clearly, Branstad is considering the human costs for the 20 million in and around cities such as Seoul, South Korea, should things blow up in the region.

It’s a welcome, if brief, return to normalcy.

China is, after all, the only power with any real economic or political sway over Pyongyang. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, accused the Chinese government of offering “head fakes” over the years because the Communist power has no interest in sharing a border with a unified, democratic Korean state. All the while, North Korea’s nuclear program continued to blossom, threatening millions in Seoul and Tokyo.

Branstad is all but assured the post. His hearing went smoothly. Senators from both parties lauded his grasp of the issues and preemptively congratulated him. Branstad pledged, under questioning, to press Chinese officials on human rights violations, clandestine opiate operations and trade irregularities.

Branstad’s close friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping won’t mean much once he’s pushing for U.S. economic and political interests.

“Despite your relationship with President Xi ... they’re tough negotiators,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

His will be a Herculean task that no previous friendship can soften.

And it comes amid increased saber rattlings on both sides of the Pacific. North Korea has for years touted its nuclear ambitions. The Trump administration, though, has adopted a substantially more aggressive posture than those before it. Averting a second Korean War requires China’s cooperation.

“We need their help,” Branstad said of Beijing. “I don’t think they want war over this either. They don’t want a bunch of refugees flooding in.”

Every American should be rooting for Branstad’s success. Iowa’s long-time governor is striding confidently into a minefield that’s unmatched anywhere on the planet.

Democrats on Foreign Relations rightly reminded Branstad his coming oath is to the U.S. Constitution, not the White House. Branstad could find himself caught between those two allegiances due to President Trump’s financial interests in China.

Branstad impressed Tuesday. He confidently touched on all the bullet points, from Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to its notorious human rights record. He pledged to annually visit every Chinese province, the Full Branstad, and to welcome and defend political dissidents from persecution.

Plainly, Branstad said all the right things. In so doing, he touted global interests, which extend to the entire species. And he looked to mean it, too.

Hopefully, political realities don’t undermine his mission.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. May 5, 2017

The flip-flop decision on Lt. Gov. position

As Gov. Terry Branstad went through the confirmation process this week to become U.S. ambassador to China, others were left home squabbling like juvenile siblings over a recently vacated bedroom.

The vacancy won’t be the governorship. We know who is taking over that position - current Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.

However, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, an elected Democrat, surprisingly reversed course last week. On Monday, Miller issued a formal position, while Reynolds will be governor, she will not have the authority to appoint her replacement as lieutenant governor.

That’s a complete turnaround from five months ago. This was the language directly from Miller’s office Dec. 13, 2016: “Our office has researched the law and consulted with the Governor’s office. We concur with the Governor’s conclusion that, upon resignation of Governor Branstad, Lt. Governor Reynolds will become Governor and will have the authority to appoint a new Lt. Governor.”

It would be a fair assumption this assurance was one factor playing into Branstad’s decision to leave the governor’s office if confirmed for the federal post.

Miller said his latest conclusion was based on an Iowa Constitution provision addressing a governor’s resignation, which states, ”. the powers and duties of the office . shall devolve upon the lieutenant governor.”

However, Miller said his reading of the constitution led him to conclude once this happens with Reynolds, her office becomes vacant.

“In other words, upon a governor’s resignation, the lieutenant governor will hold both the offices of governor and lieutenant governor. There is no vacancy to be filled,” according to the opinion.

The reversal has Republicans fuming, and we’re finding it hard to blame them. We’d have to agree the timing is suspect. Was the attorney general derelict in his duties earlier, or is this latest decision linked to partisan politics? Whichever way this is answered, it won’t be an endorsement.

Branstad has stated nothing has changed in the facts or the law since Miller provided a “crystal clear” position in December.

“Tom Miller has allowed politics to cloud his judgment and is ignoring Iowa law,” Branstad said in a statement. “This is disappointing.”

The National Lieutenant Governors Association chimed in Tuesday, also calling Miller’s decision “disappointing.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds says she has been moving forward in her transition planning from the position she would appoint her successor.

“Now, five months later, just one day before Governor Branstad testifies before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the attorney general has reversed himself, but the law hasn’t changed.”

Ben Hammes, Branstad’s communications director, said the power of a governor to appoint a new lieutenant governor was put into the law and signed in 2009 - all under Democratic control.

“Now, just because the Democrats do not control the governor’s office, Attorney General Miller wants to pretend like this law does not exist, and issue a non-binding opinion. Quite frankly, this is what Iowans are sick and tired of. The attorney general should be upholding the law, not ignoring it.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, Rob Hogg, of Cedar Rapids, said he expects the courts to eventually get the matter.

If it does end up in court, it’s not clear who would bring such a case. Miller has stated he would not challenge an appointment himself. Why he would flip-flop on the issue, then decline to defend his latest decision is another matter worth questioning.

However, it obviously leaves the door open for others to challenge an appointment, should Reynolds go ahead and make one.

One thing is certain: Should this issue become another drawn-out legal process, Iowa taxpayers stand to lose.

The combination of the circumstances, the reversal and the timing scream partisan politics. At the very least, it’s a case where the lack of clarity leads to the perception of partisan tactics.

Should this issue end up in the courts, with Iowa taxpayers footing the bill, the language of how these positions are filled — covering all cases of how they may be vacated — needs to be plainly spelled out to avoid similar situations in the future.

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