Despite an abbreviated week due to the Fourth of July holiday, last week was important to those hoping to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination. While the issue of gay marriage will continue to be a major issue in next year’s elections, the state budget is most likely to be the number one issue on the minds of the voters when they enter the ballot box next November.
Governor Culver’s budget took center stage again last week when the fiscal year 2009 budget came to a close on June 30th. The Legislative Services Agency, a non-partisan government agency that provides reporting and analysis of state revenue information, reported that the FY 2009 budget ended with a $161 million deficit. Governor Culver chose to dismiss LSA’s report, even though the House, Senate, and Governor’s office have agreed for the last few decades to abide by the numbers provided by the agency.
A number of Iowa Republicans were quick to echo the LSA’s findings, however, out of the potential candidates for governor, Chris Rants was able to rise above the rest. Rants hit his stride last week, and in doing so, he was able to display the positive attributes that he brings to his gubernatorial campaign.
Long before the 2009 fiscal year came to a close, Rants had been sounding the warning that Governor Culver’s budget would not balance. He also indicated that, unless Iowa’s economy picked up substantially in June, the Governor wouldn’t have the necessary funds at his disposal to cover the gap, meaning he would have to ask the legislature for more money. Rants was correct on both counts. However, instead of calling for an immediate special session, which Rants called on him to do, Governor Culver has opted to wait until the books officially close in September to make any modifications to the current state budget. Rants also identified a number of areas where the state could cut in order to save money during the legislative session.
Rants was the only Republican who called on Culver to respond to the FY 2009 budget deficit by demanding a special legislative session. Republican leaders in the House and Senate, as well as Rants’ opponents for the gubernatorial nomination, lashed out at Culver’s budgeting practices, but none called on him to immediately act. Some of the gubernatorial candidates even failed to even weigh in on the issue all together.
Christian Fong, the AEGON employee who officially entered the race for the Republican nomination for governor this past Tuesday afternoon, failed to respond to the news about the FY 2009 budget the following day. Fong wasn’t the only GOP hopeful to pass on weighing in on Culver’s budget. State Representative Rod Roberts and State Senator Jerry Behn both opted not to issue a statement on the LSA’s end-of-the-fiscal-year report.
Bob Vander Plaats was quick to send out a statement following the news of Governor Culver’s budget deficit. Vander Plaats called on Culver to make a fiscal new year’s resolution to control his out-of-control spending. The following day, Vander Plaats called on Culver to freeze state workers’ pay and work with legislative Republicans who proposed more than $300 million in budget cuts during the legislative session. While Vander Plaats was quick to respond, he also got sidetracked when he called on South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford to step down after admitting an affair with a woman from Argentina. Vander Plaats’ statement on Sanford in the midst of the debate on Culver’s budget deficit was odd and not necessary for him to do.
On the other hand, Rants was able to stay on message and go after Culver and his budget mess without having to use a quick or funny line. Rants stuck to the facts and was rewarded by being featured on Jan Michelson’s radio show on WHO and in newspaper articles across the state.
Rants was also able to pit Governor Culver against his Democrat predecessor Tom Vilsack. Rants pointed out that when faced with a budget similar situation in 2001, then-Governor Vilsack called the legislature back in session to correct the course the state was on. Rants also was critical of a Republican administration when he said that he was “worried that we are backsliding to those days in the late 80’s when the governor and legislature fudged the numbers to look good for an election.”
It is interesting that Rants is the only one to forward these sorts of criticisms. Former State Auditor Richard Johnson is the co-chair of the Vander Plaats campaign and was very outspoken over the budget games that Rants is speaking of, yet Vander Plaats has not yet voiced that type of criticism of Culver.
It was easy to see that Chris Rants was in his comfort zone last week, but it’s inexcusable for any quasi-gubernatorial candidate to pass on making a statement regarding the state budget last week. Rants was on message. He called for a special session, he offered areas of the budget that should be cut, and most importantly, he pitted Governor Culver’s actions against what Governor Vilsack did in 2001.
The attention Rants was able to garner last week should help him to continue and grow his campaign around the state. While Rants still has some major obstacles in his path to the nomination, it is clear his campaign is off and running.
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