Iowa Senate rejects two Branstad Regent nominees
DES MOINES (AP) — Two of Gov. Terry Branstad's nominees to the Board of Regents were rejected Monday by the Iowa Senate.
Board President Craig Lang, whose tenure has troubled Democrats, and Robert Cramer, a socially conservative businessman from Grimes, did not receive the two-thirds majority needed for confirmation. Both fell short, as senators voted 30-20 to confirm Lang and 27-23 to confirm Cramer.
Branstad's third nominee to the board, Webster City physician Subhash Sahai, won confirmation easily in a 45-5 vote.
Members of the Democratic-majority Senate had already made clear that Lang and Cramer did not have the votes for confirmation to the nine-member board that oversees the state's three public universities.
Democrats said during Monday's debate that Lang and Cramer posed a threat to academic freedom.
"We believe it is a time for a change in leadership on the board. This is not about Democrats versus Republicans," Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames who chairs the Senate education committee, said in his remarks about Lang.
Republicans argued in favor of the nominations, noting the planned tuition freeze under Lang's leadership and saying Cramer's construction experience could benefit the universities. Republican Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, of Shell Rock, argued that the Democrats were basing their decisions on politics.
"The Washington-style hyper-partisanship that damages our congress and president has seeped into the Iowa Senate," Dix said.
Branstad released a statement expressing frustration over the rejections.
"Both Robert and Craig answered the call to public service, and they both deserved the opportunity to serve on the Board of Regents. Craig Lang showed great leadership while on the Board of Regents and Robert Cramer brought unique experience in the construction industry," Branstad said. "I am greatly disappointed that these two fine individuals were treated in such a shabby manner."
Both Lang and Cramer also released statements Monday.
"I thank the Senate for its stewardship role for Iowans and for the very productive conversations we have had in recent weeks. It is clear that we all share a passion for higher education and doing what is best for Iowa," Lang said. He also urged lawmakers to provide the funding needed for the planned tuition freeze for the coming academic year.
Cramer said he still believes in the board and the schools under its purview, adding: "If there is any way I can help make them better, I'm willing to serve."
The squabble, which has been going on for weeks, spilled over into other nomination debates Monday. Branstad sent letters to the secretary of the Senate saying that he would withdraw the nominations of Nick Wagner to the Iowa Utilities Board and Tom Rielly to the Iowa Transportation Commission.
Wagner is a former Republican state representative from Marion and Rielly is a former Democratic state senator from Oskaloosa. Both nominations had been in question, with Senate Democrats saying Wagner didn't have the votes for confirmation and Senate Republicans delaying a vote on Rielly.
Branstad said in a statement that the two nominees were being treated like "collateral damage."
During a Senate committee hearing last month, Lang and Cramer underwent tough questioning.
Democrats asked if Lang — a Brooklyn dairy farmer and former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau — 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 been 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 views on issues such as stem cell research, gay rights and academic freedom. Some lawmakers questioned whether those positions could compromise the universities' academic values.