Governor, this isn’t how you get a fresh start

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

It’s too early to know, two weeks into her tenure as Iowa’s chief executive, whether Gov. Kim Reynolds will be much different from Gov. Terry Branstad.

It’s too early to know whether she will approach issues from a different perspective. It’s too early to know whether she will adjust the course Branstad had set for the state.

But one thing is certain. Iowa’s first female governor, a small-town girl from southern Iowa, comes to the job with a rich variety of experiences during her 57 years of life.

She rolled up six and a half years as lieutenant governor, two years as a state senator, four terms as the Clarke County treasurer, earlier work as a pharmacy clerk, and the important duty of raising three children.

I have known Reynolds since she first walked into The Des Moines Register editorial board conference room with Branstad shortly after their inauguration in January 2011.

She has grown from being hesitant on policy matters to being a confident, knowledgeable colleague of the governor’s in later years in their visits to the Register. 

Since she became governor on May 24, Reynolds has made some smart political moves, chief among them her decision to hire State Public Defender Adam Gregg to carry out the duties of lieutenant governor without him officially being part of the constitutional line of succession.

But there are a couple of other decisions she made that call into question her judgment. More on this shortly.

Had Reynolds forged ahead and formally appointed Gregg to be lieutenant governor and part of the line of succession, a court challenge almost certainly would have followed over the issue Attorney General Tom Miller identified. Miller said a constitutional amendment would be needed before a person elevated from lieutenant governor to governor would have the power to appoint a new lieutenant as part of the succession line.

That decision by Reynolds to forgo a lawsuit might seem like an esoteric matter. But she offered an important explanation to reporters: “We’re going to be focused on building a better Iowa, and I’m not going to have the taxpayers of Iowa in a potential lawsuit pay millions of dollars toward something that will be settled in 18 months” --- a reference to the 2018 election, when the next governor and lieutenant governor will be chosen.

Reynolds’ decision stands in sharp contrast with the costly way Branstad handled a similar matter that didn’t go the way he wished.

Christopher Godfrey was appointed by Gov. Chet Culver as Iowa’s worker’s compensation commissioner in 2009. Unlike many appointed state employees, the commissioner has a fixed, six-year term, rather than serving at the pleasure of the governor. That meant Godfrey would have the job until 2015.

But after Branstad defeated Culver and took office in 2011, he wanted to appoint a new worker’s compensation commissioner. He demanded Godfrey’s resignation. But Godfrey refused, citing the four years remaining on his term, so Branstad retaliated by cutting his pay $36,000 a year.

Godfrey sued Branstad for defamation, harassment and sexual discrimination. (Godfrey is gay.)

Godfrey left for a federal job three years later, but the lawsuit continues to drag on. Branstad spent about $1 million in taxpayer money to defend the $36,000-a-year pay cut.

Reynolds knows that the meter is continuing to to spin on the attorneys’ fees taxpayers have to pay in the Godfrey case. So she deserves thanks from the taxpayers on how she avoided a legal challenge to Adam Gregg’s hiring.

But Reynolds didn’t show the same finesse in two other decisions she’s made recently. In doing so, she missed a wonderful opportunity to signal to voters that a new day has dawned in Iowa government.

Reynolds wanted to visit a bunch of Iowa communities to introduce Gregg and tell Iowans about the vision for the state that Reynolds and Gregg will take into the 2018 election.

She could have paid for renting a plane with money in her campaign account. Instead, she asked Des Moines businessman Gary Kirke if he would donate his jet and a couple of pilots. Kirke gladly agreed, and Reynolds and Gregg used the plane to fly from stop to stop.

Kirke’s involvement normally would be ill-advised because he owns Wild Rose Entertainment, a company that operates casinos in Clinton, Emmetsburg and Jefferson. Those casinos are regulated by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

But his involvement in Reynolds’ recent travels is even more troubling because he is lobbying for state approval to allow Wild Rose to build a casino in Cedar Rapids. The decision will be made by the Racing and Gaming Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor.

There’s more: Kirke and several other people affiliated with Wild Rose are hosting a $100-per-person reception for Reynolds on June 13.

Reynolds’ staff assures Iowans that she will take no role in considering three competing proposals for a possible Cedar Rapids casino.

But the relationship between Reynolds and Kirke at a time when a Cedar Rapids casino is pending before a state board certainly gives the appearance of coziness that someone like Reynolds should avoid.

It’s difficult to get off to a fresh start when you begin by following the bad habits of politicians from the past, regardless of their party affiliations.