The Effects of the Legislature

by Jennifer L. Crull

Public Interest Institute has spent the last two months reviewing the activities of the Iowa Legislature. In June we released the annual Iowa Vote Tally and then in July we released the annual Iowa Bill Tally. This month I wish to take a look at other activities of the Iowa Legislature that most citizens either didn’t know were under the Legislature’s authority or don’t think about.

As most Iowans remember from our high school government class, the role of the Iowa Legislature is to make laws at the state level. The Iowa Civics Project states that:

The Legislature passes the laws that determine what government should do and provides direction for the executive branch to carry out those laws. The General Assembly is elected to represent the citizens. All decisions to increase or reduce the size or role of government reside with the General Assembly, unless the citizens call another Constitutional Convention.[1]

But did you know that the Iowa Legislature also passes legislation that affects our City Councils, Board of Supervisors, Community College Board of Trustees, and School Boards? If you have ever wondered about the decisions that they make or how certain money is spent, it is usually due to a piece of legislation that the General Assembly passed versus the choices of local entities. If we look at the most current legislative session, an example of state legislation that impacts local entities is House File 2456. The following is the description that is provided on the Fiscal Note prepared by the Legislative Services Agency:

House File 2456 provides changes to two property-tax levies available to community-college districts. It allows both the Facilities Levy, established in Iowa Code section 260C.22, and the voter-approved portion of the Equipment Levy, established in Iowa Code section 260C.28, to be continued by resolution of the Board of Trustees without voter approval after a levy has been approved by voters for two consecutive elections and has been in place for 20 consecutive years. This Bill allows the Boards to continue each of the levies by resolution at the current rates for periods not exceeding 10 years. This Bill provides that levies renewed by resolution can be discontinued or the rate changed by petition of eligible electors and subsequent election.[2]

So both the House and Senate passed a bill that would allow community-college districts to extend these levies. So basically both chambers felt that it was okay to remove your right to vote on the extension of the Equipment Levy as it is currently written in the Iowa Code. Luckily the Governor vetoed this piece of legislation. This is why it is so important to pay attention to the activities of our Legislature. It is not that voters don’t support community colleges, but they don’t support the power of their vote being taken away.

Governor Branstad stated in his veto letter to Secretary of State Matt Schultz the following reasons for vetoing this bill:

House File 2456 takes away decision-making power from the voters for property tax increases. Estimates reveal that the amount of property-tax dollars at issue are $9,200,000 in FY 2015, $11,600,000 in FY 2016, $12,900,000 in FY 2017, $15,100,000 in FY 2018 and $17,800,000 in FY 2019. If this bill was allowed to become law, the voters would not be allowed to vote on these property taxes; instead they would be taxed by resolution of a community college board.

Voters should have the power to approve or disapprove property-tax increases or continuing additional levies. When voters get to decide, it helps to hold everyone accountable. Typically, when these measures are on the ballot, they receive voter approval. Voters should have the opportunity to decide this important property-tax issue. Decision-making power in the hands of the voters helps for voters, communities and community colleges to work together to best serve the needs of the community.[3]

The Iowa Code is a collection of all the laws enacted by the Iowa General Assembly. This collection is what sets the rules under which city and county governments operate, the rules concerning budgeting, and what different funds can be spent on at the local level. Yet, most of us don’t even begin to understand and know about the laws that are included in this document. Additionally the Iowa Code includes the laws that govern our school board, community-college districts, and regent universities. Check out the Iowa Code here: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/law/iowaCode.

While this bill seems to only threaten a small right, we must remember that the next step may be much more serious. The federal government has for years been chipping away at our rights. The following quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis sums up what has been happening to our rights:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent...The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.[4]

I hope after reading this article you will pause and take the time to check out what the Iowa Legislature is up to during the legislative cycle. For if the Governor had signed HF 2456, then one of our rights would have been eroded. While it is the Governor’s job to watch out for the rights of the citizens, it is also important for those citizens to monitor what your elected officials are up to and remind them that they represent YOU and not their own interests!

(Endnotes)
[1] Dr. Donald P. Racheter, “Iowa Government and Politics,” Iowa Civics Project, p. 15.
[2] Robin Madison, Fiscal Note for HF 2456, Legislative Services Agency, March 25, 2014, <https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/FiscalNotes/85_5429HVv0_FN.pdf> accessed on July 2, 2014.
[3] Governor Branstad, Veto Letter concerning HF 2456 to Sec. of State Matt Schultz, May 30, 2014, <http://votesmart.org/static/vetotext/48351.pdf> accessed on August 21, 2014.
[4] “Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice,” Brandeis University, <http://www.brandeis.edu/legacyfund/bio.html> accessed on August 21, 2014.

Jennifer L. Crull is an IT Specialist with Public Interest Institute.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is a monthly newsletter reporting on government transparency in our state.

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