The prospect of property tax reform in Iowa dimmed tonight as a two Democrats joined with 21 Republicans in the Senate to defeat a plan that was advanced by leading Democrats.
The two major political parties have been quarreling about the proper approach to property tax reform for years. Tonight’s Senate debate featured a good share of partisan finger-pointing. Republican Senator Randy Feenstra of Hull suggested the Democrats’ plan wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
“You know we’re full of rhetoric here. We’re absolutely full of rhetoric,” Feenstra said. “We always talk this game, ‘We’re going to help business. We’re going to help get jobs,’ and yet very little ever happens.”
Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, riled Republicans by mentioned they had joined Democrats last year to support a $200 million property tax relief measure.
“But tonight when you have a chance to vote for a property tax package that is almost twice as big, a number of you — I get the feeling — are going to vote no,” Quirmbach said. “That is going to be a real interesting contrast for your voters next fall.”
The jockeying to lay the blame began a few weeks ago, when Republican Governor Terry Branstad first suggested Senate Democrats would be seen as the culprits — an assertion he repeated in Decorah earlier today. After the bill’s defeat, Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal told reporters “it is hard to tell at this point” what can be done to bridge the partisan divide.
“Last year a bill that by the Republicans’ assessment wasn’t as good passed 46-4 in the senate,” Gronstal said. “How, when we moved their direction, their number of votes declined…I think that’s kind of a surprise.”
Gronstal suggested the governor’s rhetoric was “not productive.”
“Sounds like the governor’s already started the election process, from what I heard about his comments earlier today,” Gronstal said. “Alleging what I agreed to — how in the world would he know when he was never in any of the meetings?”
Gronstal told reporters it has been Branstad’s staff, not Branstad, at the negotiating table.
“I have, beyond this bill, offered several other ideas…to the governor’s staff and indicated to them I’m open to considering some other approaches, but I’m basically getting stonewalled,” Gronstal said.
Senator Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, suggested Iowans are “sick of the partisan games” being played on this issue.
“What’s really frustrating to me is this really isn’t true property tax reform,” Zaun said during last night’s debate. “We haven’t even talked about the assessor.” Zaun has a beef with the way county assessors handle property tax calculations.
Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, suggested the bill would force cities to make dramatic cuts in services, like police and fire protection.
“Senate Republicans, you have the opportunity to kill a property tax bill for 2012 tonight because I’m voting no and, if you join with me, we can kill this bill,” Hogg said. “We’re doing it for apparently different reasons. You don’t think $350 million in property tax cuts is enough. I think it’s way too much.”
Other Democrats argued their approach — which employed a tax credit for property taxes a business pays — was geared toward Main Street rather than Wall Street. Republicans countered that a job is a job, regardless of who the employer might be and the tax breaks should go to all businesses, regardless of size. Senator Roby Smith, a Republican from Davenport, got emotional as he spoke of a woman he met at his local Walmart.
“I said, ‘Do you enjoy working here?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘Are you glad that you have this job?’” Smith said. “…She grabbed my hand and she looked in my eyes. She said, ‘It puts food on my table and a roof over my family’s head,’ and I think that says something.”
Legislators made other decisions today that advanced several bills to the governor’s desk. Only a few components of the state budget remain undecided, but a major sticking point remains as Republicans press for restrictions that would prevent state tax dollars from going to Planned Parenthood to cover cancer screening, women’s reproductive health exams or tests for sexually-transmitted diseases. Democrats have resisted that proposal, along with another that would bar the state from covering abortions for Medicaid patients in cases of rape or incest.
It is possible and even likely that the 2012 legislature could end Wednesday, however, especially if legislators abandon the idea of passing a property tax reform plan.