Staff Columnist

Iowa lawmakers take aim at local governments - again

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Republican state lawmakers are talking about handing down a “soft cap” to their fellow elected leaders running local governments. That doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe it’s a nice warm stocking hat with a decorative ball on top, or perhaps a jaunty beret.

Actually, under House File 773, the soft cap would be on the growth of local property taxes, either through a levy increase or an increase in property valuations. If cities and counties want to collect more than that, local leaders would need to approve a resolution making that clear. Citizens could then collect thousands of signatures to force a public vote on the increase.

Why 2 percent? Who knows? Tucked into this basic framework are many other limits and exclusions, details and devils. The Senate has its own version, which differs from the House bill. All of this has been crafted largely behind the scenes, hashed out in closed-door caucuses and could very well change in multiple ways during the final days of the legislative session. It may be one of those bills passed amid the final chaotic stumble toward adjournment, before many of us are sure what’s in the final version and what consequences it might spawn.

Its backers say the goal is transparency.

Which, hey, I’m all for. More information, more public hearings. Local elected leaders do like to crow about holding or slicing levy rates while actually collecting more taxes due to property valuation increases. I’d like to see local officials paint a clearer picture for their constituents. City hall reporters across Iowa already do this, so lawmakers could recommend subscribing to your local paper. (End shameless plug.)

What I’m not all for is more micromanaging of local government by sausage-making sages from the Golden Dome of Wisdom. We’ve seen quite a bit of it in recent years while Republicans have controlled the Legislature and governor’s office. It’s actually a long, treasured Statehouse tradition. Just ask local officials who want more say in where large livestock confinements can be built.

Thanks to lawmakers, your local leaders can no longer raise local minimum wages, even as the state minimum wage has been frozen in place for more than a decade. Local law enforcement agencies must comply with even the most dubious federal immigration orders or face the loss of state funds. Those are just two of the highest profile recent examples.

Silly council members, supervisors and police chiefs. Don’t question the wisdom of the dome.

And lawmakers are lecturing locals on their opaque budgeting process from a Statehouse where budget deals routinely are negotiated by a few key lawmakers behind closed doors and thick budget bills are passed swiftly in the session’s final days. On Thursday, GOP leaders announced an agreement between the House and Senate on spending levels. They also hope to adjourn by the end of this week.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Professional lobbyists will be scrambling to keep track of what’s happening to budget provisions in the drive to adjournment. What chance do we have? Once we hear about what’s in the sausage, the trains will have left the station.

The very last train will be the “standings” bill, which has become a last-minute catchall for legislators who couldn’t get their great ideas passed as stand-alone bills. Last year, provisions forcing the University of Iowa Community Credit Union to change its name and prohibiting state officials from putting their names on state-funded promotional materials were added to the “budget” bill in the session’s final moments. Very transparent.

And although the Legislature has many, many state revenue buckets to tap as it builds its budget — income taxes, corporate taxes, tobacco taxes, booze taxes, gambling taxes, sales taxes and fees of all shapes and sizes — it’s made sure local governments mainly rely on one big bucket, property taxes. Rather than address that stubborn systemic issue, it’s much easier to simply hand down another round of legislative edicts.

Lawmakers love to make local taxation subject to public votes. I fully support giving voters a say. And yet, legislators seem to have no interest in considering any initiative and referendum measures that would allow Iowa voters to steer the state’s agenda and weigh in on those legislative edicts.

Lawmakers say they’re elected to make those decisions. Come to think of it, so are local officials.

Still, lawmakers know best, and it’s a good bet those local leaders soon will be receiving their soft caps from Des Moines. One size will have to fit all, I’m afraid. But with all the restrictions, limitations and mandates cast down at local governments from the Statehouse over the years, hard hats would be far more appropriate.

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

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.