Branstad hopeful of 2014 Senate confirmation successes

Senators rejected two of his nominees in April and two others were resubmitted after adjournment

DES MOINES – Gov. Terry Branstad expressed hope Monday that interim appointments he has made to several key state panels will fare better in the 2014 Senate confirmation process after senators rejected two of his nominees in April and two others were pulled back and resubmitted after lawmakers adjourned.

“People have had a chance to cool down and I think we’ve had a very successful, bipartisan end to the (2013) session,” Branstad told reporters during his weekly news conference. “I think, hopefully, that will set the tone for continued cooperation going forward.”

During a contentious Senate floor debate in April, Branstad’s reappointment of Brooklyn dairy farmer Craig Lang was rejected by a 30-20 vote and the governor’s appointment of construction company executive Robert Cramer of Grimes failed to win confirmation by a 27-23 margin. Democrats who hold a 26-24 Senate majority failed to deliver the 34 affirmative votes needed to confirm the GOP governor’s nominees.

Citing his concern over “collateral damage” to other appointees, Branstad withdrew the nominations of former Rep. Nick Wagner, R-Marion, to the Iowa Utilities Board and former Sen. Tom Rielly, D-Oskaloosa, to the state Transportation Commission in April, but then reappointed them to the same posts after the 2013 legislative session adjourned.

Last week, the governor named former state Sen. Larry McKibben, R-Marshalltown, and construction business owner Milt Dakovich, a Waterloo Republican, to the Iowa Board of Regents to fill the six-year slots that previously slated for Lang and Cramer. The confirmations of Rielly, Wagner, McKibben and Dakovich will come before senators next session.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a replay of the politics that were played in the Senate last session,” Branstad said Monday. “I think that was unfair and unfortunate to the nominees, and I believe that the people I’ve chosen are very well qualified, they have a tremendous background.”

At a forum in Coralville Monday, Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, noted that McKibben is a Hawkeye fan and signaled that he believes both Branstad appointees will be “decent” regents.

Pressed on McKibben’s opposition to same-sex marriage – an issue that fueled opposition to Cramer – Dvorsky suggested that would not preclude confirming the former senator.

“I think Sen. McKibben has more flexibility in trying to understand what the role of the regents is,” he said. “I think he will have more understanding of the role of the regents.”

However, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said it was a misread on the governor’s part if he thought the problems that cropped up over his nominees were rooted in politics because the objections were based on policy concerns. And, he said, the same concerns that were raised by Wagner’s IUB appointment likely will resurface next session.

“This idea that somehow rejecting some of his nominees was partisan never was a valid observation,” said Hogg, noting that 99 percent of Branstad’s appointments won confirmation. He said the objections to Cramer focused on gay rights and religious tolerance and opposition to Lang was rooted in issues of academic freedom, the ill-fated Harkin Institute at Iowa State University and the handling a contract extension for University of Iowa President Sally Mason.

Hogg said concerns continue over Wagner’s qualifications as a utility regulator and his 2011 support legislation to create a regulatory framework for a small-scale nuclear energy project by MidAmerican Energy.

“He voted for a bill in 2011 that was an unadulterated giveaway to the utility of ratepayer money to build a nuclear power plant without any consumer protections in it,” Hogg said. Senators also raised concerns about having two members from Marion -- former Sen. Swati Dandekar, D-Marion, already is on the three-member panel – on a board that is asked to rule on territorial issues.

“That was one of the reasons why we weren’t going to approve former Rep. Wagner for the Utilities Board in April, and I think that continues to be a legitimate concern in 2014,” said Hogg.

“He’ll have a year now to try to show that he has the consumer’s best interest at heart,” the Democratic senator added. “ That bill he voted for was an abomination and he’s really going to have to demonstrate that he’s concerned about the public interest and consumers. Those concerns don’t go away just because Gov. Branstad withdraws them and makes an interim appointment.”

Wagner is an electrical engineer who has worked on energy and utility projects at The ESCO Group for the past 12 years, while Rielly owns an insurance business and served as chairman of the Senate Transportation Commission during his time in the Senate.