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Budget woes, governor vetoes: Are Iowa politics becoming more like Washington?

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa elected officials pride themselves on working in a politically divided government that still gets things done. But after a combative budget process, capped with several vetoes by Gov. Terry Branstad, some are questioning how well the system is working these days.

Simply put, is Iowa politics becoming more like Washington?

"If you look at the length of the session and the actions by Governor Branstad, there's more evidence of Washington-style politics, which I think is unfortunate," said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls.

Branstad has spent the past month defending his decision to veto several budget compromises negotiated by the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-majority House. Branstad slashed some one-time education spending, saying he could not support one-time money for ongoing operating expenses. He also axed a deal to keep two mental health institutions open. The vetoes drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans.

Educators and school advocates have slammed Branstad for the education funding choice, saying it will lead to larger class sizes and fewer supplies for students. Critics of the mental health cuts include 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has taken to questioning the vetoes during campaign stops. And complaints are coming from both Democrats and Republicans.

"There's no question that people are irritated about the vetoes, myself included," said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton. He said he shared Branstad's concerns about fiscal responsibility, but noted that he vetoed a compromise deal.

"The veto particularly hurts small rural schools," he said.

Looking ahead, just how this will play out for the 2016 session is unclear. Certainly some think that negotiations will be more fraught if any legislative compromise could be red-lined at the final hours. Legislative leaders had mixed feelings about the state of affairs at the Capitol and what the recent conflict foreshadows.

"The relationship between the legislative branch and governor is pretty close to an all-time low," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, of Council Bluffs. He said that Branstad had acted in "bad faith" and "broken trust" with lawmakers.

A Democratic effort to recall the Legislature for a special session to override the vetoes has sputtered out. Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, of Hiawatha, said there was not enough support for such a move. Paulsen also said that he wished the governor had approved the compromise, but noted that some conflict is business as usual.

"I would have preferred he signed that. But this is not a first time a governor has vetoed something. I think you guys need to stop characterizing this as a new revolutionary thing the governor did," Paulsen said.

Branstad, who is serving his sixth term as governor, said he was not concerned about his relationships with lawmakers or his ability to get legislation passed in the future.

"I've been governor for a long time. This is nothing like what we went through during the farm crisis period of the '80s or even some of the early '90s," said Branstad, who also noted that the state had agreed on a balanced budget and approved infrastructure spending.

Many said Iowa had a long way to go before it was operating like Washington.

"In Washington you have complete stalemate. In Iowa, the budget is still balanced. There were multiple bills that passed," said Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann.

Still, the budget woes may have impacted Branstad's public standing. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in early July showed 48 percent of Iowa voters approved of Branstad's performance and 43 percent disapproved. The poll of 1,236 Iowa voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. It was the lowest approval for Branstad since Quinnipiac started polling in Iowa in 2013.

Branstad said poll numbers didn't bother him. He said he was following prudent budget practices and making investments in education, including a teacher leadership program created under his watch.

"My interest is on doing the best job I can for the state of Iowa," he said. "Sometimes it takes a while for people to realize the things that we put in place and the impact they're having."

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