By Steve Woodhouse
Pella — On a night when Presidential politics captured most of the attention, local legislative candidates gathered at the Pella Public Library for a forum hosted by the Pella Chronicle.
Iowa Senate District 40 candidates Ken Rozenboom (R-Oskaloosa) and Timothy Tripp (D-Pella), with Iowa House District 79 candidate Guy VanderLinden (R-Oskaloosa) took part. On the ballot, VanderLinden will have a Democratic challenger, Chris Wilson. However, Wilson has moved out of Iowa and did not have his name removed from the ballot before leaving. Even if he wins the election, Wilson will be unable to serve.
The candidates were given the opportunity to introduce themselves before questions began. Rozenboom is a hog farmer and currently serves as a Mahaska County Supervisor.
"I want to be a strong advocate for southern Iowa," Rozenboom said. His goals would be to help shape a more responsive government that collects lower taxes while promoting the private sector.
"We continue to end up with more and more government," Rozenboom said. He believes this is because shrinking government is not in a politician's best interest. "I'm running to keep government off our back." If elected, Rozenboom said he would fight regulations, overtaxation and work to cut spending. He would protect the lives of unborn children, fight the "nanny state" and overall do what he can to provide future generations the same opportunities he has had.
Tripp is a lawyer with offices in Pella and West Des Moines. His background includes working as an attorney within the federal government, including the advocacy of citizens.
"I worked in an agency," Tripp said. "I was a bureaucrat." He added that "bureaucrat" is not necessarily a bad word, because they do what they can to help others.
He believes small-town culture should be celebrated and encouraged. If elected, Tripp would study policies from an historical perspective. He has enjoyed campaigning with his son, a high school senior. He also has a daughter that is a senior in college.
"It was fun to have that youth, that energy," Tripp said. If elected, Tripp would work to leave a legacy and work to provide a course for the future of Iowa. He understands large government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and, as an attorney, has interpreted laws for two decades. Tripp said he would use this experience to be the voice of, and be accountable only to, the people of District 40.
"I'm representing the people in District 40," Tripp said.
VanderLinden is a retired Marine, originally from Iowa. He returned to the state six years ago and ran for the Legislature after being approached by a group of his constituents. His first term in the House is nearing completion.
He sees the potential for a possible fiscal crisis in Iowa that would be similar to those challenging Illinois and California. As a member of the House Ways and Means and State Government Committees, he worked to bring spending more in line with revenue.
"We were able to get state spending back to close to under control," VanderLinden said. The battle to control spending is ongoing, he added, and he is eager to return and fight.
Government's Role in Economic Development
The first question posed to the panel was regarding the government's role in economic development. It was predicated on Gov. Branstad's recent decision to offer several million dollars of incentives to a fertilizer company to build a plant in southern Iowa.
"In principle, I probably would not have supported a huge tax break for one company," VanderLinden said. He voted against an incentive package for the Field of Dreams because he said he does not like the government "picking winners and losers." Incentives would not be necessary if Iowa's tax climate was better suited to make the state more attractive to businesses, he added.
"You have to come up with some other method," VanderLinden said. On the fertilizer plant, VanderLinden believed incentives may have been necessary, as the part of the state where the plant will be built is suffering economically.
"I think it was probably a necessary move," VanderLinden said.
"That's an example of why we need a better business climate in this state," Rozenboom said. He compared Iowa's tax climate to South Dakota's, in which he indicated that South Dakota's is better.
"Business climate is a huge issue in this state," Rozenboom said. As a supervisor, he said he has run into "regulatory road blocks" when trying to bring development to Mahaska County. He agrees with VanderLinden that the government should not "pick winners and losers," and mentioned Solyndra, the failed green energy company that cost taxpayers a great deal of money, as a federal example of why that should not be done.
"A better tax climate in the state would be a goal," Rozenboom said.
"We cannot pick winners and losers," Tripp agreed. "We're not forced to do it, we have other options in this state."
Tripp said Iowa needs to create an environment that will naturally draw businesses to the state. Rather than pooling funding, search for options to make this happe. He reiterated his stance that Iowa needs a long-term plan and used the new hydroelectric power plant, to be built near the Red Rock Dam, as an example. Construction of the plant will bring several jobs to the area for a few years, but once the plant is built, only three operator jobs will remain.
A key to providing more opportunities in Iowa begins with a good education, Tripp believes, to supply a good, solid workforce companies will want to employ. Fostering a good education, including providing the necessary resources, should be the government's role in economic development. Buying Iowa and American products will help as well. Tripp touted that his campaign materials are printed locally at Pella Printing to keep the money he raises - through private donations, as he has refused to take PAC or special interest money - stays in the area.
Right to Work Law
The candidates were then asked their thoughts on Iowa's Right to Work law, which means Iowans are not forced to join or financially support labor unions if they choose not to.
Tripp said he has angered his party by not accepting donations or endorsements from unions. Nevertheless, he recognized the contributions unions have made to labor causes.
"The unions have provided an awful lot of good things," Tripp said. He pointed out that major employers in District 40, including Musco, Vermeer and Pella Corporations, do not have unions. These companies treat their employees well.
"The union is really providing a resource," Tripp said. However, he said he could not support any "fair share" legislation that would force non-union members to pay dues.
"I'm glad to hear Tim say that," VanderLinden said. VanderLinden is in favor of Iowa's Right to Work Law, though he, too, recognizes what unions have done to improve working conditions for people over the past several decades. The problem, as he sees it, is that public sector unions are gaining too much strength and Iowa's state employee benefit system is unsustainable.
"Even Franklin Roosevelt said we could not have public employee unions," VanderLinden said. Iowa is coming to a point in which it will be difficult to pay state employee pensions.
"It's a web we need to find our way out of," VanderLinden said. Specifically about Right to Work, he said he asked a union representative how he felt about letting non-union members negotiate a contract on his or her own. This is something the union leader did not want to support.
Gov. Chet Culver vetoed legislation that would have implemented "fair share" during his single term. This is a move that Rozenboom agreed with.
"Iowa's in the right place," Rozenboom said. "Let's keep it there."
The next question was in regard to road funding. For quite some time, concern has been expressed, even in Marion County, about the need to ensure sufficient funding to maintain them.
Rozenboom said there are many pieces to this discussion, but he opposes an increase in the gas tax.
"We can't keep going back to the taxpayers," Rozenboom said. He recognizes the push to increase the tax, but he is opposed, just as most Iowans are.
"If we can lower tax rates in other parts of government...I think we can have that discussion," Rozenboom said. He went on to address state budget increases and believes that other revenues to the state should be reduced to offset a gas tax increase. He criticized Culver's I-Jobs plan, which will ultimately cost Iowans $1 billion in the next 20 years.
"I think some of those dollars should have been spent on infrastructure," Rozenboom said. It is unfair that the state government is spending more, Rozenboom believes, while Iowans are not making more money.
"We can't keep taxing more," Rozenboom said.
Tripp believes efficiency within the administration should be discussed. He suggested looking at the Department of Transportation's budget, and finding places where cuts can be made.
He also suggested looking at roads that are not used, or used very little, and focusing the money raised on primary roads and bridges. Tripp also opposed a gas tax increase.
"Now is not the time to tax Iowans," Tripp said. "You can't use 'harmless' and 'tax increase' in the same sentence."
Arguments in favor of the gas tax increase Tripp has heard include that it is shared by everyone, even out-of-state drivers who use our roads, and that it's not that expensive for Iowans. Tripp shared the story of a Unionville man he met who drives from that town to Pella every day to make a living. That man puts around 29,000 miles a year on his vehicle. While organizations such as Farm Bureau may support a gas tax increase, they do not speak for everyone.
"Keep in mind farmers don't have to pay the tax," Tripp said. "I think we need to be very, very cautious." Tripp agrees that Iowa roads need to be cared for, but not on the backs of Iowans.
"Amen," VanderLinden agreed with Tripp.
"The gas tax is just another tax," VanderLinden said. He believes that if roads need to be repaired, that should become more of a priority within the state budget. Funding should go to that before other things, even if that requires taking money from another government program. VanderLinden said it is up to the state to set priorities regarding how it uses the money it already receives.
VanderLinden also agreed with Rozenboom about offseting a gas tax increase with a cut somewhere else. It is wrong to keep turning to the taxpayers, he said.
Multiple complaints have been heard over the years regarding the rule-writing process and how they may be more stringent than the legislation was intended to be. The candidates were asked about making legislation more specific to lessen the power of rule-writers.
VanderLinden said the role of the Rule Writing Committee is to look and rules and implement law. He admitted that rule-writers sometimes go beyond the intent of legislation, but added that legislation cannot be written without leaving "wiggle room."
"The bureaucrats have their hearts in the right place most of the time," VanderLInden said. He said rule-writers are experienced and they know what they are doing.
"I would describe (rule-writing) as a necessary process," VanderLinden said.
Rozenboom believes legislative intent has been abused in the rule-writing process. He says the system is "workable" and that rule-writing is not a big issue.
Tripp believes rule-writing helps ensure the separation of powers mandated in the Constitution.
"As a legislator, I believe I come in with good, clean draftsmanship," Tripp said. This is something legislators have to remain cognizant of and at the same time, not use rule-writing as a platform to grandstand. If voters are looking for someone to grandstand and blame rule-writers for government problems, Tripp says he is not the candidate.
"Don't vote for me (if you want grandstanding)," Tripp said. "We can draft legislation that is simple and clear."
He has experience arguing about the fairness of regulations and believes that clear draftsmanship in legislation goes a long way. Any regulatory application must also be done right and fairly, he added.
Republicans have complained for the past two years about Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal blocking a vote on the same-sex marriage issue. The leader does have the power to decide what does and does not get discussed and voted on in the legislature, with the support of their party. The candidates were asked if they felt it was fair for one person to silence the voices of an entire elected legislative body.
"I'm not interested in leadership power struggles," Tripp said. If elected, he wants to reduce the problems of political partisanship in the Legislature.
"I think the media glorifies it and makes it bigger than what it is," Tripp said. As for his party, Tripp reiterated that he is not going to the to represent anyone else but the people of District 40. He is proud of those who have stepped away from partisan leadership to vote to reflect the feelings of their constituents. He wants to focus on common sense issues and take a common sense approach to governing.
VanderLinden used part of his time to dispel Tripp's statement that Gov. Branstad has proposed and supported a gas tax increase. He also said that regardless of how clearly legislation is drafted, amendments often shred clarity.
From there, he said that a single person does not control the Legislature.
"The only reason (Gronstal) can do that is because his colleagues go along," VanderLinden said. In this case, Gronstal is taking the heat for all Senate Democrats, whom VanderLinden accused of "hiding behind Gronstal's skirt." VanderLinden has less respect for those Democrats who hide, than he has for Gronstal.
"It's just not necessary," Rozenboom said. Rural Iowans try to not make things more difficult than they need to be. He believes legislators are elected to use their minds and find ways to get along. As for the powers of the house leader, Rozenboom said he would welcome the discussion and would also like to see more cooperation, but both parties are guilty of bullying the other when they have control.
Are taxes too high?
"Yes," Rozenboom answered. He had already mentioned earlier in the night that he felt Iowa's tax burden is too great and that the government continues to grow instead of shrinking.
"Government is notorious for being inefficient," Rozenboom said.
"I love my inefficient government," Tripp said. "I love America." Regarding taxes, Tripp pointed out to the good things they are used for, such as the library and roads.
"I need to learn more," Tripp said. "I'm not ready to say we need to cut taxes." He criticized proposals to rollback commercial and industrial property taxes, as local governments depend on that revenue to provide services. The tax breaks and incentives Iowa offers places the state among the best for offering such things, Tripp added. He does not want to increase taxes, but believes cooperation is necessary.
"We live in a society," Tripp said. "We have to work together."
"I think government should only do the things only government can do," VanderLinden said. "They're taking your money and spending it the way they want it spent."
VanderLinden believes Iowa can cut taxes, as there are small things government is doing that it does not need to do. He supports zero-based budgeting for state government, and forcing those who run departments to justify the need for their requested levels of funding each year.
Health insurance for state employees
It has been reported that 80 percent of state government employees do not contribute to their health insurance costs. Candidates were asked their thoughts on the fairness in state employee contributions.
VanderLinden considers health insurance part of the total compensation package offered to employees. Changing things can be difficult because of existing agreements.
"We have a contract with those 88 percent," VanderLinden said. He agrees that they should not get free health coverage and a defined retirement benefit, as these things do not exist in the private sector. Going back and renegotating would be a first step.
"We're going to have to quit being so generous," VanderLinden said.
"If I'm in the Senate next year, we will be discussing this," Rozenboom said. He likes the library and other public services, but he does not like deficits. In Rozenboom's opinion, it is wrong for us, today, to enjoy things paid for with public dollars, if it means we are mortgaging the futures of those yet to be born.
"We need to look at the big picture," Rozenboom said. "I think we need a discussion at the state level (regarding pensions)."
Rozenboom added that private business recognizes its limitations and government should as well. He said we need to be "grown-ups" about what we're promising and doing.
"I'm a little reluctant to say we need to pull back," Tripp said. There is still a need to attract quality employees to fill state positions. If there is a difference between wages and benefits between private and public sector employees, it should be discussed. Tripp believes legislators could lead by example, by giving up their taxpayer-funded health insurance as a way to begin the discussion about public employee health benefits. Before he could go into further detail, he said he would need more information.
"In order to get good workers, we need to have a good benefit package," Tripp said.
Tripp was the first to provide closing remarks. He thanked the Chronicle and those who attended the forum.
"I'm really excited for the opportunity to serve as your next State Senator," Tripp said. He plans to be the voice of the people and would like to see all communities of District 40 band together to form its own community, to be a single voice for the people he will represent if elected. Promoting resources and quality education for all residents, should be goals.
"This is a very broad district," Tripp said.
VanderLinden also thanked everyone. He criticized his "opponent" for being irresponsible and not living up to what he said he would do.
"I hope you'll vote for me," VanderLinden said.
Like the others, Rozenboom also thanked everyone. He agrees that education is a huge matter and the fact that schools are not performing well should be addressed. An honest conversation is necessary and would be a good first step.
"I don't have a preconceived answer to all of this," Rozenboom said. He added that schools have a monopoly on revenue and customers, with the result being "an inferior product that is overpriced." If elected, he would propose bringing competition into education.
"I would appreciate your support and your vote," Rozenboom said.
An audience member went on to ask the candidates if they would support legislation to reduce property taxes for disabled veterans. She said Nebraska has such a law.
"I would be committed to looking into that," Tripp said.
"I would agree," Rozenboom said.
VanderLinden said that if this is an issue, veterans service organizations have never brought it up to the Legislature. Most veterans' issues are "rubber stamped" he added. They just have be aware of the request.
"Somebody's got to bring it to our attention," VanderLinden said.
Republican candidate for Marion County Sheriff, Jason Sandholdt, was in attendance, as he was at the Knoxville Journal-Express forum last week. He was introduced to the crowd.