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Staff Columnist

Interest groups keep Iowa lawmakers well fed

The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Legally, it’s a no-no for lobbyists and PACs representing special interest groups to make campaign donations to state lawmakers during the legislative session.

But an all-you-can-eat buffet? That’s A-OK.

So far this session, various interest groups have invited state lawmakers to more than 100 receptions, most offering free food, beverages or both. According to required disclosure forms covering 99 of those events, the price tag so far tops $278,000.

Of course, the size of these shindigs vary considerably.

At one end of the spectrum is the $19, 191 affair sponsored by FUELIowa — representing fuel marketers, convenience stores, etc. — the Association of Electric Cooperatives, the Iowa Biotechnology Association, the Iowa Communications Alliance and the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives. It was held at the Iowa Historical Building on Jan. 15, the second day of the session.

At the other end is the thrifty $70 spent by the Iowa chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association for a gathering in the Statehouse rotunda.

The Iowa Association of Business and Industry held a $19,065 reception at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center on Jan. 16. The event was sponsored by Alliant Energy, Arconic — a lightweight metals manufacturer — the Central Iowa Power Cooperative, Community State Bank, International Paper and Tyson.

The Dubuque Chamber of Commerce dropped $17,232 on its famous Dubuque Night event on March 20. Iowa Wholesale Beer Distributors threw a $14,000 event on Feb. 12 at Embassy Suites downhill from the Statehouse. On Feb. 6, the Iowa Association of Realtors put out an $11,000 spread at The River Center and the Iowa Credit Union League spent $10,752 on a reception Feb. 19.

Not to be outdone by credit unions, the Iowa Bankers Association held two events, on Feb. 6 at Embassy Suites and on March 19 at the Capitol, totaling $17,573 and change.

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The priciest day was Jan. 15, when $39,000 was spent on five receptions. The most receptions on a single day, nine, occurred on Feb. 6.

Regardless of the size, the intent of all of these breakfasts, lunches and evening munchies is to get lawmakers into a room where they can be informed, reminded and influenced with hopes they’ll care about the sponsors’ issues. How many lawmakers actually go to these receptions? We don’t know, because it’s not disclosed. It should be. Sign in sheets, retinal scans, whatever it takes.

We do know it must be at least somewhat effective, otherwise why spend more than a quarter of a million dollars on bagels, barbecue, beer, etc. Last year at this time, interest groups had spent $277,000, and many of the usual suspects mentioned above threw the most expensive events. When all reports were in at session’s end in 2018, the total topped $380,000.

I, for one, am pleased lawmakers are being well fed. The agenda the last few years is bad enough. Can you imagine what sort of decisions they’d be making on an empty stomach? And if Democrats and Republicans actually can socialize over a shrimp platter without a side of rancor, who knows what bipartisan breakthroughs can be accomplished?

I also don’t think this Legislature happily does the bidding of utilities and large corporations just because they come bearing piles of savory appetizers.

But all this wining and dining stokes the public perception of a Legislature that serves insiders and moneyed interests over public interests. The minimum wage sits unchanged for 11 years, but when utilities want to slash energy efficiency programs and slap a fee on solar power, it’s done and done. I guess felons who want voting rights should have fired up the chafing dishes.

And, though I could be wrong, I’m betting there have been more special interest receptions this year than, for example, legislative forums where voters can ask lawmakers questions in public.

Heck, we can’t even get some of them to meet with our editorial board. Maybe we’ll become the Eastern Iowa Opinion Manufacturers Association. Is Embassy Suites available?

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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