Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 23, 2009
Our View - Symbolic cuts need to set tone for real cuts
In one of her columns last month, Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich described one of four ceremonial events (three ribbon cuttings and one tree planting) that Iowa Gov. Chet Culver presided over on Sept. 15.
"At John Deere Credit in Johnston," Obradovich wrote in a Sept. 17 column, "(Culver) gamely brandished giant, wooden faux scissors for the cameras -- then looked on as Deere employees and retirees with real, normal-sized scissors did the actual cutting. There's a budget metaphor in there somewhere."
Whatever the metaphor would have been last month, it took on much more negative and unflattering symbolism Wednesday. That's when the governor's spokesman was left trying to explain why Culver was only giving back 5.4 percent of his $130,000 salary ($7,000) rather than the full 10 percent ($13,000) his staff (and his Twitter account) said he would be giving back.
Now, nothing requires Culver to slice his own salary. But the announcement was the right move both politically and practically. Yes, $13,000 is an infinitesimal part of the half of a billion dollars required for the state to cut 10 percent across the board. But Culver's self-imposed pay cut -- and his call for department heads to do the same -- was a good symbol of solidarity with the thousands of state workers who face layoffs and massive pay cuts. And although the self-imposed pay cuts were never going to be a substitute for the strong leadership that the governor needs to show in the weeks ahead, the promise was a good first step toward working with the departments and the unions to ensure the financial pain is spread around equally.
Unfortunately it turns out the Big Lug couldn't even hold the symbolic scissors right this time. The proposed budget made public Wednesday had the governor's pay reduced by only $7,000.
"John Frew, our chief of staff, directed that the pay cut not be retroactive," Culver spokesman Phil Roeder told the Register. "The 10 percent cut in pay for the governor -- as well as chief of staff and department directors -- will not be retroactive, but apply to the balance of the fiscal year."
Even if the explanation were plausible -- and it's not since a 10 percent cut in eight months of Culver's pay would total $8,666 -- it's completely at odds with other across-the-board cuts. The Iowa City School District, for example, already has received two of the 10 payments it will receive from the state over the fiscal year. That means the remaining eight payments won't have just 10 percent less money, they'll be 12.5 percent smaller to make up for the two pre-cut payments the district already has received.
If the governor is going to make a symbolic cut, he needs to make sure the symbolism rings out loudly and clearly. If he can't even pose right with the big wooden scissors, then no one is going to trust his department heads to cut with their own little scissors. (The governor's office seemed to have recognized as much on Thursday when it issued a statement that the governor really will be giving back a full 10 percent of his annual salary.)
If you have questions about the real cuts that will be taking place -- involving real jobs for real people who often make a lot less than $130,000 a year -- you can ask Culver personally next week. About 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, he'll be on the corner of North Dodge Street and Scott Boulevard striking a new ceremonial pose: He'll be participating in a ground breaking ceremony for the new fire station on Iowa City's northeast side.
Let's hope he doesn't throw the dirt at anyone.