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Regents conflict could impact legislative work

Published: Monday, April 1, 2013 11:08 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — If two of Gov. Terry Branstad’s nominees to the Board of Regents are not confirmed by the Senate, some think the political fallout could jeopardize progress on tough issues like education spending, property tax reductions and health care.

Democratic senators said two of Branstad’s three nominees to the nine-member board that oversees Iowa’s three public universities face serious problems winning confirmation.

Board President Craig Lang, whose tenure has troubled Democrats, and Robert Cramer, a socially conservative businessman from Grimes, did not receive the backing of the Senate education committee.Branstad has been a vocal advocate for both nominees.

The governor praised Lang’s leadership, including the plan for a tuition freeze in the coming academic year. And he said Cramer’s experience in construction would benefit the university system.

GOP fundraiser and Branstad adviser Doug Gross said there could be bad blood in the Capitol if the nomination process doesn’t change course.

“These things are the toughest because they’re personal. They’re not just numbers, they’re people. People are hurt on both sides. There’s a lot of bile on both sides,” Gross said. “It bodes ill for the rest of the session.”

The nominations require a two-thirds approval vote in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority. Under state law, the Senate must vote on the nominations or pass a resolution to defer the decision by April 15. The 85th legislative session is scheduled to end May 3. The legislative session can continue after that time, but lawmakers will no longer receive per diem payments.

The governor and the Legislature are dealing with a substantial policy agenda this spring, with proposals for property tax reductions, increased education spending and Medicaid expansion on the table. But discord could lead to little or no resolution on those issues, which has happened in previous years.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor’s office would not speculate on what would happen if the nominees were not confirmed.

In an interview, Branstad made clear he was throwing his political weight behind his picks. He has sent letters to all 50 senators seeking their support.

“I want them to know I do take these things seriously. I do try to choose strong, effective people and we shouldn’t have a bunch of clones that everybody thinks the same way,” Branstad said. “I’ve been through this before and I’ve seen some things unfairly done. I don’t want to see a repeat of what was done in the 1990s.”

According to Branstad, a Regents nominee has not been rejected since the mid-1990s, during his previous stint in the governor’s office.

Former Regents President Marvin Pomerantz was not confirmed for a second term in 1993, after critics raised questions about his management style and ties to the governor. Branstad later put him back on the board on a temporary basis. And the Senate rejected businessman David Fisher in 1995, amid some similar concerns about his relationship with Branstad, but confirmed him to the board in 1997.

“They were two of the strongest and best regents we ever had,” Branstad said.

Branstad’s third nominee, Webster City physician Subhash Sahai, was recommended by the Senate education committee and appears to face no threat.

Sen. Jack Hatch, a Democrat from Des Moines, said rejecting the nominees could sour negotiations on other issues, but he hoped both sides could move past it if necessary.

“We know the politics of the whole session is already difficult and we’re not trying to make it more difficult,” Hatch said. “When personalities are involved you have to get through that. The Senate can separate these issues.”

Lang, a Brooklyn dairy farmer and former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, and Cramer underwent tough questioning during Senate hearings.

Democrats asked if Lang was trying to restrict academic freedom at an Iowa State University policy institute created to honor Sen. Tom Harkin. Lang had supported rules implemented by ISU President Steven Leath that would have limited the institute’s ability to research agriculture. Leath loosened the policy, but Harkin — angry about the restrictions — withdrew plans to donate his papers and blamed “partisans on the Board of Regents” for meddling. The institute now faces an uncertain future.

Senators also took issue with Lang’s criticism of University of Iowa President Sally Mason. The board last year took the unusual step of declining to renew her contract and ordered her to improve the university’s public relations.

Lang, who was appointed to the board in 2007 and has served as president since 2011, acknowledged mistakes during the hearing but asked senators for continued support. He said he supported Mason and didn’t know of any professors who thought academic freedom had been violated at the Harkin Institute.

Cramer was questioned about his conservative social views on issues such as stem cell research, gay rights and academic freedom. Some lawmakers questioned whether those positions could compromise the academic values of the public universities that the board oversees.

Cramer said Friday that he had different beliefs than some senators, but stressed that he valued higher education. He said he would write a letter to the senators to advocate for his nomination.

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