Speaking to a filled board room at the Farm Bureau office in Manchester, a pair of local state Republican representatives met with constituents to discuss ongoing efforts in Des Moines and give a general overview of the legislative process.
Rep. Lee Hein, House District 96, and Sen. Dan Zumbach, District 48, both spent an hour-and-a-half explaining what their respective committees were drafting at the moment as well as answering questions, which ranged from property taxes to the Bottle Bill.
In his opening statement, Zumbach said to take any wild sounding media stories about bills floating around Des Moines with a big grain of salt. He said while they may make for good fodder, the chances of them passing are almost zero.
“Everyone brings bills from their districts that are important to their constituency and we have 150 legislators down there. They all bring two or three bills, so do the simple math,” he said. “Quite often the media likes stories that are a little on the fringes, so if you’re hearing that there’s a bill introduced that’s going to do X and it sounds pretty crazy, that’s probably because it is. But those types of bills usually don’t make it through the system, so be patient with the news right now.”
One such instance of a story the media has taken hold of is a proposal to change Iowa’s judicial selection process, Zumbach said.
“Whatever you’ve heard is not true, because (a proposed change) has not been written yet,” he said. “What you’ve heard about are conversations that are going on, but if you’ve heard that it’s going to be a certain way, I can tell you that nothing is in ink.”
He said some legislators feel the way judges are picked might be skewed and that voters are not getting as much of a say in the process as they should. To remedy this, Zumbach said some are proposing the process be done more through elected representatives rather than lawyers.
“(We want) to make sure (judges) represent you, that the judge that may be sitting in front of you or your peers someday is one of your peers that represents you, and I think that’s important,” he said.
As for everything else, he said at this point in the session, the proposals coming from the Governor’s office, the Senate and the House have yet to blend together.
Hein, a former chair of the ag committee, spoke of his new role as Chair of the Ways and Means Committee.
Hein said he is currently heavily engrossed in tax policy, adding there is a lot more to taxes than he ever dreamed of.
But with the guidance of several tax experts, Hein said they are moving forward with some reform proposals.
“I would like to come up with some sort of legislation this session that deals with property tax reform,” Hein said. “While we may not make any huge changes and you may not see a lot of difference in your property tax, we’re going to try to slow some of the (tax) growth in some areas. I don’t know exactly what it will look like yet, but we’re working on it.”
Hein said another tax-related priority is to shift how mental health is funded.
“(Mental health) is getting to be a bigger and bigger part of the budget, and that is getting funded through property tax. We would like to find a way to lift the burden off property taxes and maybe scatter that out — that could possibly be part of the sales tax down the road,” Hein said.
Hein said by shifting to sales tax, it would more evenly spread the funding burden throughout the state.
During the Q&A, a self-described small family farmer told both legislators he was being “taxed off the farm” and wanted to know what they were doing to fix it. He said so far the only thing he’s been told is to “hang in there.”
“How long am I supposed to hang in there if I’m already being hung?” he asked.
He said on his 158-acre, 70-cow dairy farm he’s paying $8,400 in property tax. He said compared to someone living in town on a $100,000-per-year household income in a $500,000 house, he said they won’t pay $5,000 a year in property taxes.
“And they’ll walk out of their house onto paved streets and go to work. If I get a snow storm, I’m the last guy to get plowed out and I’m in the mud both spring and fall,” he said.
He wanted to know why legislators can’t put in a few more exemptions for small farms, adding that one of the reasons Maquoketa Valley Community School District’s bond got voted down was due to people not being able to afford to vote yes.
Zumbach said property taxes are painful to farmers, because often they don’t factor in the land’s profitability.
“A lot of people don’t realize that property owners are footing a heavy, heavy load around here,” he said.
Hein said that historically, property tax is a very stable source of revenue for the state, hence why so many different entities rely on it for funding.
He said it doesn’t move with the economy, so it’s been real easy for political reasons to look at property taxes as a bedrock funding mechanism.
He said they’re looking to shift away from that mindset, but there could be unintended consequences if not done thoughtfully.
“What do you do whenever we have a downturn in the economy and the sales tax revenue goes down?” Hein stated. “Then you’ve got to either back up on your mental health services, which is hard to do, or you have to go elsewhere for revenue — and it’s never good to add more tax when there’s a downturn.”
Hein said they are working to lower property tax burdens, but it’s a slow process with two competing ideologies.
“You’d think Democrats and Republicans are the ones fighting, but it’s more the urban legislators that want to keep their residential taxes down against rural representatives,” Hein said, adding urban reps are against raising taxes on dwellings which would alleviate property taxes for rural communities.
Other points of interest:
• Hein said he heard a unique idea on how to increase funding to hire more state troopers — have all revenue generated from traffic cameras come to the state instead of the cities. He said cities are constantly saying the cameras are placed in the interest of public safety, so it shouldn’t make much of a difference if that money is spread through the state in the interest of public safety.
• Talks regarding the Bottle Bill are still ongoing, and neither saw a definite path emerging as of yet. The one thing everyone is agreeing on, however, is getting returned cans out of grocery stores. They both said the math doesn’t work with a nickel anymore, but legislators are still figuring out if the deposit should increase or if more money out of that nickel should go to redemption centers at the cost of either the distributors or the consumer. One idea they both found favor with was mobile redemption receptacles (read: large dumpsters) that would be placed throughout communities. They said there are companies that distribute bags with bar codes that could be thrown in the receptacles and then a check would be sent in the mail.
• Zumbach spoke at some length about diverting some public education funding toward charter-type schools designated for students who are having trouble learning, or are frequently causing disruptions that keep other students from learning. He said it would be beneficial for troubled students to go to an institution staffed by higher-qualified educators, but they need to figure out how to keep adequately funding schools who rely on the per-student formula.