Three weeks removed from ending the third longest legislative session in Iowa history, I had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with District 35â€™s representative in the Iowa Senateâ€”Republican Jack Whitver. The main focus of our conversation was the results of the 172 day session and the political clouds already forming on the horizon for next yearâ€™s Senatorial get together.
In the interest of adding perspective, here is a brief overview of Senator Whitverâ€™s political and business careers: He joined the Iowa Senate this year by virtue of winning a special election to fill the seat of Larry Noble, first beating five other Republicans in a truncated primary and then defeating Democrat John Calhoun (63%-36%). The district covers most of the northern half of Polk County including the Des Moines suburbs of Ankeny and Johnston, as well as Grimes, Polk City, Alleman, and Elkhart.
He is a former wide receiver for the Iowa State Cyclones and, in addition to being in the Senate, owns a three-location athletic training business called Acceleration Iowa, was the Offensive Coordinator for the Iowa Barnstormers last season, and is a law student at Drake University (no this is not a misprintâ€¦ this is all in the same year).
At a glance it would be easy to say that the 2011 Iowa legislative session was a disappointment, as it saw high ranking agenda items from both political parties ultimately produce no legislation. As usual, however, the real story lies a few layers beneath the surface and, especially from a Conservative Republican viewpoint, is found by looking at and answering the question of why these things didnâ€™t get done.
Without a doubt, commercial and residential property tax relief was one of the few issues to truly burn white-hot during the session. All three legislative players had a plan on the table prescribing varying levels of aggressiveness in lowering Iowanâ€™s taxes. The Governorâ€™s plan was the most robust, followed by a more temperate approach from House Republicans, while the Senate Democratsâ€™ plan was far tamer than the other two.
Reflecting just how high profile and high priority this issue was, Sen. Whitver regards his â€œnoâ€ vote as the most important one he cast in the session.
â€œI think the vote I am most proud of, and probably the toughest one I took, was on property taxes. That is something I campaigned on and something that needs to be done to help small businesses. The Senate Democrats brought forth a plan that I felt was not a good plan. It wasnâ€™t nearly strong enough to do anything and was a long way away from what the House Republicans and the Governor were proposing. So itâ€™s easy to sit down there and say â€˜Well, itâ€™s on property taxes so I am just going to vote yes and pass it.â€™ I was one of four Republicans that voted no, because I felt it wasnâ€™t good enough, and I donâ€™t want to put my name on a bill, even if it has the right title, if it wasnâ€™t good enough. Because once you pass property tax reform, and itâ€™s not a good bill, then it would be off the table next year, and the year after. So you donâ€™t want to pass it for the sake of passing it.â€
Beyond it being too small, he also saw the Democrat plan as a vehicle to allow local towns and counties to avoid tightening their belts and reducing their property taxes. â€œItâ€™s basically taking our State income tax and our State sales tax and giving it to businesses in the form of a tax creditâ€”as opposed to actually lowering taxes. I wasnâ€™t a big fan of that tax shift.â€
Sharing his philosophy of not settling on this issue, and certainly providing some welcome company, was Governor Branstad.
â€œTo me the Governor showed a lot of confidence and leadership on this issue. Most governors, especially ones that donâ€™t have the experience and the confidence he has would say, â€˜Well, I said I wanted a property tax bill and Iâ€™ll take what I can get.â€™ Instead he said, â€˜You know what, itâ€™s not the one I want. Weâ€™ll come back and either do it in a special session or next year, but Iâ€™m not just going to try and save face and take whatever I can get.â€™ So I was happy about that.â€
Mental Health Reform
Another issue that remained unresolved by the session was reforming the stateâ€™s mental health care system, otherwise known as SF 525 . To the casual observer this amounted to a mere failureâ€”true in the sense that no reform got passed but, once again, a look at why this was the case unearths undeniable evidence that a strong Conservative presence is asserting itself at the State House.
More than any other issue, this bill split the Senate Republican caucus, with ten voting in favor, nine voting against, and five not voting at all. The eventual fate of the bill was that it was assigned to a committee for further study. When asked about this divide in the Party and the debate in general, Sen. Whitver laid out the issue like this:
â€œPart of it is a rural-urban divide. There is a lot of agreement that redesigning the mental health care system needs to be done. The difference is, do we want the state to take control of it, or can we let the counties keep control. Being from Polk County, we offer a lot of services that maybe Adams County does not, because they have 4,000 people. If they want to design a system where every county has to offer the same services they are not going to take every county down to Adams County levels, they are going to bring all other counties up to Polk County levels. And at the end of the day it just looks like something thatâ€™s going to greatly expand the cost and scope of government, and I think a lot of us werenâ€™t comfortable with that.â€
The insight that this answer provides into the thought process of at least a sizeable chunk of Senate Republicans should bolster the resolve of Conservatives state-wide. It is hard to imagine a more positive indicator that Iowa Republicans are serious about actually achieving a smaller governmentâ€”and not just talking about it.
Realize, especially on an emotionally sensitive topic like this one, what the specific logic they approached this issue with provesâ€”they get it. They are viewing all things through a prism of justified skepticism, asking themselves, â€œDoes this bill have the potential to explode into an over costly, ever expanding leviathan?â€ This type of foresight, had it been displayed by the Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson administrations, could have sparred us much of the pain we are currently feeling at the Federal level.
The Reality of the Minority
In short, the reality of the minority is that you are forced to judge success differently. A look at the 293 votes Sen. Whitver cast reveals a splintered wasteland of votes cast in vain. As the roll calls of losing 26-24, 24-23, 26-21 began to pile up during the session, one has to wonder if the Senator would rather have been back running 5 yard drag routes into 240-pound Big 12 linebackersâ€¦minus his pads.
Making matters worse for this particular minority was being under the thumb of Senate Majority leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs), who is renowned for both his liberalism and his penchant for using parliamentary maneuvers to avoid votes on hot-button issues. It didnâ€™t take long for Sen. Whitver to experience this approach, â€œThe first thing I saw when I got there was him changing the rules to not allow a majority of the Senators to bring up a bill.â€ When asked his thoughts on these tactics he joined the near unanimous chorus of Republican anger towards Gronstal, saying, â€œThe ones that I really had a problem with were the ones that had the votes to pass. On same sex marriage, I think we had the votes to bring it up with a majority, and then to get it passed.â€
Despite these circumstances, Sen. Whitver deploys a perspective that allows him to take it all in stride:
â€œYeah itâ€™s frustrating in the short term, but I have taken a longer view about being in the Senate. Itâ€™s a four year term and if I was just looking at the next election I could say, â€˜Ok, Iâ€™ll vote for that property tax bill,â€™ but Iâ€™m going to look at the big picture. A lot of those 26-24 votes draw a line in the sand and say, â€˜This is what Democrats want and this is what Republicans want, and this is our agenda going forward.â€™ So yeah, it is frustrating to go in there every day and vote no and see something pass, but in the long term I think we are setting up our agenda and what we are trying to accomplish pretty nicely.â€
In a political minority, this is what success looks like.
In a state that President Obama carried by 9.5 points, and without a majority in both chambers, fully implementing a Conservative agenda was simply not realistic. In this scenario much of your work is done around the edges and in ensuring bad bills donâ€™t pass. Sen. Whitver summed up the inroads the Party made, and how he sees the political landscape going forward, the following way:
â€œI think we accomplished three major things, though bills didnâ€™t necessarily get passed out of it. The Democrats admitted that we needed commercial property tax relief and were passing bills talking about it. They admitted we needed the late term abortion bill, they didnâ€™t pass the bill we wanted, but they were on record saying that we need to do something about it, and they agreed we need to limit spending. So three of our major priorities, they agreed with. We didnâ€™t get the exact bills we wanted, but I think that shows that our message is the right message.â€
Not only is it the right message, more importantly, a look inside the reasoning behind the votes shows it is a genuine message backed by principal and strong will.
The real story for Conservative Iowans is found in uncovering the reason why more bills failed to pass on major issues. In the case of tax reform, â€œnot good enoughâ€ was the why. In the case of SF 525, apprehension to expansive government and cautious foresight were the why.
I think that all concerned Republicans would agree that if the fight is waged on the principals of lower taxes and smaller government, we will gladly take a drawâ€¦for now.
Part 2 of this interview will publish Monday August 8th. Among the issues it will cover are: the battles looming once the next session is gavaled in, the state of public education in Iowa, the politics of Medicaid, and Iowa’s illegal immigration problem.