This is the first year I’ve had the pleasure of covering activity at the Capitol in Des Moines on a regular basis. And on Wednesday night — and Thursday morning — I experienced my first of the famous late-night/early-morning debates.
In reflection, it makes sense. The topic being debated on the House floor from about 11 p.m. Wednesday until almost 3 a.m. Thursday was property taxes.
The issue of property taxes kept our House legislators up until at least 3 a.m. That’s only fitting because there are property taxpayers in Iowa who undoubtedly lose sleep over the skyrocketing property taxes they are responsible for paying.
For all the debate, there was some consensus among Republicans and Democrats. Members of both parties agreed that the bill really isn’t crafted in a way that immediately lowers property taxes. Cities and counties are not instructed to lower property taxes in the legislation.
They are, however, required to increase transparency. It’s a sort of new-age idea that the property taxpayer should have the benefit of cutting through all the variables (levy rate, valuation, etc.) and simply be able to see the bottom line.
Local elected officials must also take a supermajority vote at two public meetings to exceed a budget increase of more than two percent. The intent of this legislation is not to strip local control from local elected officials. Instead, it’s designed to prevent local elected officials from making the claim that they didn’t increase taxes when soaring assessments and unchanged levy rates drive taxpayer obligations through the roof. The new system enacted by this legislation will likely slow the growth of property taxes to more sustainable levels due to the increased transparency for the taxpayer.
At least half the debate in the House revolved around IPERS and whether this bill would provide a deathblow for IPERS. Yet just hours earlier, Sen. Tony Bisignano (D-Des Moines) voted for the legislation. Bisignano is a staunch IPERS supporter and defender, and he has a 93 percent lifetime rating from Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
So, according to House Democrats, one of two things happened: Bisignano either voted to gut IPERS or he voted for a bill that he did not read and understand.
At least that seemed to be the explanation from Rep. Wes Breckenridge (D-Newton). After Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Orange City) had pondered why Bisignano would’ve voted for an IPERS killer, Breckenridge responded.
“I can tell you, up until a few hours ago, multiple people I talked to across the aisle weren’t even aware of certain components within the bill,” Breckenridge said. “So when, Rep. Wheeler, you have somebody voting on the bill, we better check and see if they’ve been updated on all the things that have happened. I hope that that gentleman had been. But I know that what I thought was in the bill, what other people thought were in the bill were totally different until we sat down and looked at it.”
Bisignano served in the Iowa House from 1987-1993. He was in the Iowa Senate from 1993-97 and re-elected in 2014. He has spent a lot of time in the legislature and, in my opinion, is a sharp guy. I have enjoyed listening to his thoughts in subcommittee and committee.
Perhaps Breckenridge is right and Bisignano voted for a bill he wasn’t updated on, but it’s hard to envision a seasoned veteran making such a rookie mistake.
As much as I may disagree with Senate Democrats, I don’t recall many, if any, of them even bringing IPERS up during debate on the Senate floor. Is it possible every Senate Democrat and every Senate Democrat staffer missed it?
IPERS’ official communications also posted publicly regarding this legislation, likely due to increased call volume. Their response was simple: “We have received many questions regarding recently passed property tax bill, Senate File 634. This bill does not alter the employers’ obligation to pay the employer portion of IPERS’ contributions as established annually under Iowa Code Section 97B.11. This bill does not affect a member’s or retiree’s pension.”
According to a survey from Iowans for Tax Relief, more than two-thirds of Iowans believe property tax reform needs to be reviewed by legislators in 2019. The numbers were 70.7 percent of Republicans, 68.2 percent of Independents and 64.5 percent of Democrats.
Good luck finding many other issues where all three factions share the same view at least 64.5 percent of the time.
During debate in the Iowa Senate, Sen. Jim Carlin (R-Sioux City) said inflation has gone up 43 percent in the last 14 years. State government spending has increased 65 percent in that time. City and county spending has gone up 125 percent.
Everyday Iowans are being taxed out of their homes. That is the reality hitting many in our state.
It isn’t right. It isn’t reasonable. And it isn’t responsible.
This property tax reform bill is a good first step in the process of helping Iowans understand exactly what their property tax bill will — and should — look like from year to year.
Democrats in the House talked about lobbyist declarations. So-and-so supports, but so many others are against it.
But the lobbyists who matter most registered on the issue long ago. In November, those lobbyists were the voters of Iowa. Fifty-four Iowa House districts elected Republicans. Iowa voters elected a Republican Senate, a Republican House and a Republican governor.
Whether it passed at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., Iowans will be able to rest a little easier knowing that Republicans in the Iowa Legislature — and Sen. Bisignano — heard the pleas for property tax reform and listened to them. More importantly, they acted on them.
For that, all property owners in Iowa — yes, even those who receive IPERS — should be grateful.