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IA Sen. Bill Dix (R) and Rep. Mark Smith (D)

posted on January 10, 2014

Enjoying majority, enduring minority.  Republicans and democrats splitting control of Iowa's General Assembly, each strategically leveraging minority status.  We're questioning Republican Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix and House Democratic Minority Leader Mark Smith on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Iowa legislators preparing for convening the 2nd session of the current General Assembly are also planning political strategy.  It's tricky because neither party controls the legislature.  In the House of Representatives, House republicans hold a 53-47 seat majority but Senate democrats have a 2 vote edge there.  Of course, the majority road is the easiest.  But the loyal opposition plays a strategic role on many key issues.  Shell Rock Republican Bill Dix leads his party's Senate minority.  In the House, Marshalltown's Mark Smith leads the minority democrats.  Gentlemen, nice to have you back on Iowa Press.

Dix: You're welcome and Happy New Year.

Smith: Thank you, it's nice to be here.

Borg: Nice to have you.  And joining the conversation, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Representative Smith, you've had this job since August.  Why did you want it?  And what do you intend to do with it?  Because you don't have the votes to accomplish your goals.

Smith: Well, first of all, Kay, it's a great honor to have this ability to lead a caucus.  And so I wanted the job because the things that we want for a better Iowa will be the things that I promote and have the opportunity to promote.

Henderson: Senator Dix, you've had this job for a little bit more than a year.  Why did you want it?  And how do you intend to accomplish things in the Senate, which is controlled by democrats?

Dix: I'm really excited about the opportunities that we have here in Iowa. We really need to adopt policies that will enable all Iowans to pursue prosperity and increased prospect for income and the republican caucus that I lead and am a member of, they all come here with those kinds of hopes and expectations and are looking forward to how we can build on the successes of the last legislature.

Borg: But what she's asking is, you're not in the position where you can leverage any power in the Senate because you're minority and you lead the minority.  Why do you want that job?

Dix: Without question there are moments of frustration in that and I certainly look forward to the elections in 2014 and an opportunity for Iowans to send back a couple more republicans so that we can do that.  But be mindful, we are all there doing our work and we're going to do everything we can to change the hearts and minds of other legislators to advance those agendas.

Obradovich: It's an election year and the majority leaders have agreed to shorten the legislative session, at least move up the deadline so that bills go through faster.  And it sounds, when you talk to them, like the train is leaving the station and they're going to keep speeding up right out the door and onto the campaign trail.  You two gentlemen, as minority leaders, the clock is the thing that you control, right?  So Representative Smith, do you slow things down in order to make your points?  Or are you going to also want to be out on the campaign trail?

Smith: Well, again, being very clear that we want to restore the middle class in Iowa.  There are certain issues that we will fight very passionately for.

Obradovich: Such as?

Smith: That we want the skilled workforce development activities that we started last year would be an example of that.  We feel that that skill gap is causing Iowans to have low incomes here in our state.  So improving that is something that we'll be working for.  But the important thing here, I've assured Speaker Paulsen that we will not stand in the way of legislation where we have good support on both sides of the aisle.  We'll work to move that forward as quickly as possible.  It will be when we get into some of the areas that we disagree that we then will exercise the clock and will press because we don't think those things are good for Iowa.

Obradovich: And Senator Dix, you don't do as much lengthy debate in the Senate as they do sometimes in the House.  But how are you going to make your points that you want voters to understand where there are contrasts out on the campaign trail?

Dix: As I look at the work that we need to accomplish this year for Iowans I really believe it is taking the attitude that we had last year frankly and building on it.  Keeping high expectations is very important and I think moving forward with the expectation that we can and we must do even better in order to advance opportunities for Iowans.

Henderson: Are there issues on which you're going to draw a line and say, okay, we're going to control the clock and we're just not going to let you pass this?

Dix: Yeah, I don't know if those kinds of tactics necessarily are productive.  Let's focus on finding common ground and standing up for the principles that we believe in.  And we believe strongly that a good, that increasing opportunities for Iowans is dependent upon making sure that we don't spend more than we're taking in and that we advance a tax code that allows for people to pursue their hearts and dreams.

Henderson: Representative Smith, are there issues on which House democrats are going to draw the line and say, not on my watch?

Smith: Yes.  Well, first of all, with what you're asking, back to what Dean asked to Senator Dix, that the role of the minority is to, we often work in tweaking things and this kind of effort that we've had in this last session where a number of pieces of legislation came out with bipartisan support, that we will work in that direction as long as we have a meaningful role in that development of the legislation.  But the Human Service budget last year required democratic votes to be passed and we become very important when things like that are required of us.

Henderson: Gentlemen, there's been a lot of talk this week about the Fair Board and its decision to okay, we're going to have people buy tickets to buy food and drink on the fairgrounds and then they have rescinded that decision.  At the heart of it is the finances of the fair. Senator Dix, do you think legislators will get involved in this and maybe audit the fair or audit the vendors out at the fair?  Because the allegation is that vendors are skimming.

Dix: Well, I think the Fair Board has acted swiftly to re-think their view of how to best handle this and I'm happy to hear that they have made a decision to take a step back and look at other alternatives.

Henderson: Do you think the finances of the fair should come under scrutiny?

Dix: Finances should always be carefully scrutinized in making sure that no one is being troubled by it.

Henderson: Representative Smith, you're shaking your head.

Smith: Absolutely.  If we're talking about state dollars, public monies, the people's money we always should be frugal with that and we should always be accountable for the monies.

Obradovich: Let's talk a little bit about the priorities that the Governor is likely to bring to the table.  He has listed several things that he indicates that he believes will have bipartisan support.  We sat at a table earlier this week and all legislators said, yes, these issues have bipartisan support.  The Home Base Iowa, which deals with jobs for veterans, expanding broadband opportunities across the state, an effort which the Governor started last year on preventing or stopping bullying, especially on the Internet and also some concerns about the Renewable Fuel Standard, which I think he just wants the legislature's help to publicize those.  First of all, Representative Smith, are there things within -- the devil is often in the details -- are there things within those priorities that you think democrats are going to want to get involved and tweak the Governor’s ideas, for example?

Smith: Yes.  We will want to tweak the ideas and these initiatives are good initiatives.  They are expensive initiatives with the broadband initiative and it's something that Senator Sodders has worked a good deal on in the Senate and we'll have a bill on the Senate side, we'll be following that very closely as we work through those issues.  The Home Base Iowa program is an excellent program.  I had an opportunity to have a long conversation with Congressman Boswell earlier this week who is going to be one of the co-chairs and I think that is going to be an excellent venture.  But we have worked hard on making sure that we address those issues and we'll continue to work on the veterans issues.

Obradovich: Are you going to be pushing the Governor to spend more money than you think he is going to offer on some of these proposals?

Smith: Well, we don't know what he's offering yet and we will know that toward the end of August -- end of January, a little bit of a temperature difference there.

Obradovich: We hope.

Smith: Yes. We will be talking about that when we know what he is going to be proposing.

Obradovich: Okay. And Senator Dix, republicans have not always gone along with all of the Governor's spending priorities.  As you think about the broadband, for example, a very expensive, possibly expensive program, are you expecting republicans to be looking for ways to save money?  On bullying I think republicans were the ones who were sort of holding back on that issue last year.

Dix: Yeah, I see that what the Governor is proposing is something that really there is broad support for within our republican caucus.  We are going to be very mindful that the people of Iowa expect us to pass a budget that spends less than what government brings in, it's how they need to do things in their own personal families.  So we'll continue to do that.  One of the things that has been important in the past and the state has not always made these choices that I think we need to make sure is that we shouldn't be using one-time money to fund ongoing programs and that is really the key.  So making sure that we do a sensible budget re-examining our priorities and if there's new proposals like the broadband initiative that we can improve the lifestyles and opportunities for Iowans, we're definitely supportive of that.

Borg: Senator Dix, I believe it was you who just a few minutes ago referenced possible changes in the tax code this session.  I'm mindful of in the House where the republicans hold the majority, the Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen says, this is going to be a session, using a football metaphor, of first downs, not touchdowns.  So do you see that as no major adjustments in the tax code?

Dix: You know, I think we should aspire to build on what we started last year, a significant, arguably the most substantial property tax relief bill in the history of Iowa and we should take the lessons that we learned there in working together to advance even more opportunity for Iowans.  It's important that we maintain our competitiveness as a state and really put policies in place that encourage hardworking Iowans to invest and create new opportunities with innovative ideas for the future and not penalize them through the tax code.

Borg: Representative Smith?

Smith: Well, this has been a lousy decade for the middle class.

Borg: So what does that mean though, what you're going to do?

Smith: Well, what it means is that anything that we do in terms of tax changes we wanted to improve the conditions for the middle class in our state.

Borg: Does that mean increasing the gas tax to build better roads might help the middle class as well as everybody else?

Smith: I don't think that there is the votes to increase the gas tax in the House.  And we have not had good leadership or clear leadership from the Governor on the tax, gas tax increase, what he wants to do in that regard.  There have been a number of proposals that have come out.  I don't see that -- we were talking about income tax and if we talk about changing the income tax system we're interested in improving that for the middle class.

Borg: What about the gas tax, Senator Dix?

Dix: I think one thing that we need to remember, first of all, the foresight that previous legislatures had in offering the people of Iowa an opportunity to make those funds that go into the road tax constitutionally protected and anything that we do with respect to future enhancements to those revenues available for road funding should be protected by the constitutional amendment there.  As you look at future road improvements I believe Iowans are beginning to realize there are some long-term consequences but most Iowans today --

Borg: Long-term consequences of what?

Dix: Long-term consequences to the amount of funding that is projected under current law.

Borg: Long-term consequences to keeping the gas tax moderately low.

Dix: Long-term consequences to the quality of the roads that they drive on and expect.  And so -- but at the moment most Iowans appear to me to be relatively satisfied with their roads and they're not putting a lot of pressure on us to increase the gas tax.

Henderson: Another transportation related issue, the Iowa DOT recently passed rules of the road for its state roads, meaning that you have to prove if you are a city that has a traffic enforcement camera on an interstate or a state-maintained highway, that it's a safety measure, it's not a revenue generator.  Representative Smith, do you think legislators will get involved in this fight again over traffic enforcement cameras?

Smith: I don't see that this will be a priority issue in the session.  Again, we always can see things that come out of nowhere when we're back into session.  But I think the Department of Transportation put forth good guidelines in that area.

Henderson: Do you think the legislature should enact legislation that would restrict the fines and fees that cities charge for these? That has been tried in the past and it has never come to fruition.

Smith: Again, I think most of those should be local decisions.  What I think we've had some concerns about some of the communities going way overboard with that.  Let's see what happens with these guidelines that are put forth by transportation, would be my idea with it.

Henderson: Senator Dix, what are your thoughts in regards to this issue?

Smith: I don't like the traffic cameras.  I think it's part of a trend and another example of how government continues to try to peek into our personal lives and our personal constitutional guaranteed freedoms.

Henderson: So if you had your way --

Borg: -- cash cow for municipalities?  Is that the way you're seeing it?

Dix: You know, I think there has been a lot of data brought forward that supports that claim. From my perspective, I think we're better served with law enforcement defending our laws.

Henderson: Do you envision a time though when the legislature would muster enough support to pass a ban on traffic enforcement cameras in Iowa?

Dix: I don't know exactly where all the legislators are at on that.  I know given an opportunity I would vote to remove them.

Obradovich: Senator Dix, republicans and the Governor haven't always seen eye-to-eye on the best way for the state to promote business.  The Governor has, for example, asked for more money often times for economic development incentives to give directly to businesses.  Then republicans have been at least initially willing to give.  What is your view going forward?  And where do you see your caucus coming down on whether to approve more business incentives?  Or whether you'd rather offer incentives more through the tax code?

Dix: I've been supportive of tax credits and some of those initiatives that we've seen over the past years with incentive dollars.  But I have also been critical of some of those efforts because really what they are, they are a symptom of a tax code that is not competitive.  So rather than government picking winners and losers, it seems to me that Iowans who are pursuing opportunities in their own lives to try to improve their income and move up the ladder would be much better served if we would simply offer a tax code that rewards, whether it is employers here in Iowa or employers, job creators from outside our state, to come and locate here and provide an opportunity for every Iowan to increase their income every single day.

Obradovich: And Representative Smith, democrats have been working to try to direct efforts towards small businesses, local businesses and trying to leave out perhaps large corporations or perhaps things that are national franchises, etc.  Is that something that you will continue?  And if so, do you see any sort of bipartisan accord here on economic development?

Smith: Well, we're going to have to have a bipartisan accord.  As Dean mentioned coming in, we're one of three states that has divided legislatures so we have to do that if we're going to do that.  We need to have a very robust economic development program here in Iowa that enhances the small businesses.  And I think the key point to that is the workforce development, that our studies show that we could continue to reduce our unemployment here in the state if we had a skilled workforce.  So more of an emphasis on the pre-K through 14 education is what we need to be doing as a basis for this.

Obradovich: And also part of the workforce is higher education and the Regents universities have come and asked for an increase in order -- the caret there is that they could freeze tuition again for another year if the legislature provides adequate funding.  Is that something that you think democrats will want to do?

Smith: Yes, I do believe that we will want to do that.  We feel that there are strong benefits to having a quality Regents program in our state, a quality community college system and then, of course, we have 25 private colleges in the state as well that produce a very good workforce for our state and the surrounding area.

Obradovich: And Senator Dix, do you have any concerns about, again, increasing funding for Regents considering that there are other competing priorities as well?

Dix: I firmly believe that it should be considered a high priority and we should find a way to fit it into our budget and spending less than what we bring in.

Borg: What does that business climate that both of you have been talking about, Senator Dix first of all, does that include an increase in the minimum wage?

Dix: You know, we've had discussions about the minimum wage many different times over the years both here at state government --

Borg: But is now the time?

Dix: -- and federal government.  Well, you know, let's be honest, if you look at low income Iowans, as I talk with them they're telling me that their standard of living has not been improved by the government coming in and mandating that there should be a minimum wage set.  What we need to do rather than talking about old ideas, which can still be a part of this conversation, I'm not saying no to that, but let's look at some new ideas, some new approaches that first of all accept and help us all understand that taxing income hurts opportunities for Iowans.  It is a penalty on productivity.  Second, let's look at how we modernize our tax code so that it encourages innovation, creative thinking, rewards opportunity for all Iowans.  And third, that modernization is going to also make sure that employers, job creators are going to be able to come to Iowa and provide not just a job, but a career where Iowans can go to work every day and hold the promise of increasing their income.

Henderson: So rather than raise the minimum wage you think the state should get rid of the income tax?

Dix: Yeah, I think we should have, in this environment we should have the discussion of how we modernize our tax law --

Henderson: Does modernizing mean get rid of the income tax?

Dix: I said, first of all we recognize that taxing income is a penalty on productivity.  So let's find a way that we can reward through our tax code and those changes that kind of productivity and innovation.  It's a new idea that I believe holds great promise.  And let's find a way to make Iowa a great place -- we have rich land -- let's make it a promising place for everybody who wants to come and work.

Borg: Can I paraphrase what you're saying there as rather than raising the minimum wage, tax less of what people do earn?

Dix: I think --

Borg: Is that what you're saying?

Dix: Yeah, in essence you could phrase it that way.  But more than anything let's have a discussion -- we have split control, republican and democrat in the Senate -- about how we could modernize our economy and not penalize that growth and opportunity.

Borg: Kathie, you had a follow up or two, I could see it in your eyes.

Obradovich: Well, I'm wondering as I'm thinking about this how would cutting income tax help somebody who is making the minimum wage, can barely make ends meet, in fact has trouble keeping 40 hours because a lot of employers are keeping people at low wage jobs from getting enough hours in order to earn benefits, etc.  I mean, Representative Smith, is this something that you see as being helpful?

Smith: First of all, I do support raising the minimum wage and we will have bills in both the House and Senate that call for a raise in the minimum wage.  We last did it in 2007 here in our state.  And so it's time for us to do it again and help more Iowans be able to provide for their families without having to work more jobs.  Now, Senator Dix said that we should look at new ideas and I whole-heartedly agree that we should look at new ideas.  I think that the arguments against raising the minimum wage are the same old arguments that we have heard always on raising the minimum wage whenever we come to that point in our society.  The emphasis again I think needs to be on this pre-K through 14 education and we should have a goal that all Iowans have training beyond high school because that's where we're at now, that is what is needed in our state.

Obradovich: I was just going to say, aren't those old arguments though, they keep coming back because some of them are true?  There are very low margin businesses that can't afford to pay more to their workers and still be -- they will cut those hours and will cut those -- is there some sort of unintended consequence to raising the minimum wage?

Smith: Well, I think that this gets into some of what Senator Dix was talking about with the changes in how we look at taxation.  We advocated on our side of the aisle for improvements in the earned income tax credit and the key word there is earned.  These are people who are earning but making low wages.  So further expansion of that would be one way that we could alleviate those kinds of concerns.  And then the concerns that you talk about with businesses, the change that we made in the property tax is huge on businesses here in Iowa and improves that climate for them through some of the ways that Senator Dix was talking about.

Henderson: Representative Smith, you have joined a lawsuit with three other legislators and the president of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Workers, the Union that represents the largest share of state workers, about the Governor's decision to close the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, which has housed in the past up to 50 or 70 troubled teenage girls, now has about three left.  January 16th is the closure date for that.  Hasn't the horse sort of left the barn on this?  The place will be closed next week.  What do you hope to accomplish with this lawsuit?

Smith: Well, I think that it is very important that the constitution of Iowa be followed and that we make sure that the constitution is followed in this case.  So there are three things that I am very concerned about.  First and foremost, these young people who need these services and are going to end up with out of home, or out of state placements for these children.  I firmly believe that Iowans care for Iowa's children the best.  So that is one concern that I have.  A second concern that I have is equal access, that we have a facility for boys in our state, what are we having in terms of girls if we do not have this facility?

Borg: And then your last point because we're running out of time.

Smith: Okay, sorry.  Last point is that, how does this impact the item veto power of the Governor if he signed into law the appropriation for this facility and then closes the facility after doing that?

Borg: I have to say we're out of time.  We'll be taking this up again.  Thanks so much for being with us today.  Next week on Iowa Press turning the tables questioning Hiawatha Representative Kraig Paulsen, Speaker of the republican controlled House of Representatives and Council Bluffs Senator Mike Gronstal who leads his party's Senate majority.  So we're talking to the majority leaders next week, Gronstal and Paulsen, special broadcast from the Iowa legislature, same times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: Bill Dix government Iowa legislature Mark Smith news politics taxes