Iowa Democrats becoming the party of local control?

“Local control” has long been a rallying cry for conservatives who oppose taking governing decisions away from school districts, city officials, or county supervisors. However, Iowa Senate action this week rejecting a ban on traffic cameras is the latest sign that Iowa Democratic lawmakers are more likely than Republicans to respect this principle over centralized standards.

A proposal to ban cameras for enforcing traffic laws pits civil libertarians and some conservatives against city governments and the Iowa State Police Association. Several Iowa cities issue tickets to the owners of cars photographed speeding or running red lights, regardless of who was operating the car at the time of the violation. Other cities and counties are in the process of approving traffic cameras.

A bill banning traffic cameras appeared likely to die in the Iowa legislature’s “funnel,” but Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen kept the proposal alive by referring it to the House Appropriations Committee. House members approved House File 2450 in early April; Bleeding Heartland discussed that floor debate and vote here. Nine Democrats crossed over to support banning traffic cameras, while 11 Republicans opposed the bill favored by most of their caucus. It’s no coincidence that House Republicans representing Council Bluffs and Cedar Rapids voted against banning traffic cameras. The cameras produce approximately $3 million in annual revenue to each of those cities.

While the Iowa House vote on traffic cameras didn’t fall strictly along party lines, it’s striking how few Republicans hesitated to impose the state’s judgment on local officials. That bill threatened to blow a huge hole through some city budgets.

Key Democrats in the Iowa Senate quickly signaled that the traffic camera ban was going nowhere:

Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, has assigned House File 2450 to the Senate Transportation Committee, which chairman Sen. Tom Rielly, D-Oskaloosa, said is not scheduled to meet again this year. Rielly, a former mayor, said he viewed the issue as a local decision for communities seeking to improve the safety of their roadways and intersections.

Kibbie said that likely means the bill’s chances for seeing Senate action before the 2012 session ends as “pretty slim.”

H.F. 2450 was preserved for debate as a House Appropriations Committee bill before winning approval by a 58-42 vote of the full House on Tuesday, but Kibbie said he did not consider the measure to be a budget issue because it deals with the transportation chapter of the Iowa Code and the Senate Appropriations Committee “has got plenty to do without working on that bill.”

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, predicted the traffic camera bill “wouldn’t fare very well” if it came to his panel, agreeing with Rielly that it was a “home rule issue.”

Republican State Senator Brad Zaun vowed to attach an amendment about traffic cameras to a must-pass budget bill later in the session. He has had a bee in his bonnet about this issue ever since he got a speeding ticket from the city of Cedar Rapids for a violation committed by his son.

During Senate debate over a wide-ranging budget bill on May 1, Zaun offered this amendment to ban “automated traffic law enforcement systems” and require local authorities to stop using existing cameras as of July 1, 2012. Zaun’s amendment didn’t come to a vote, because Democratic Senator Rob Hogg raised a point of order that the proposal was not germane to the bill. Senate President Kibbie agreed, ruling Zaun’s amendment out of order.

Most of the Republican-proposed amendments to that budget bill, House File 2465, failed on party-line votes. The Senate Journal for May 1 (pdf) contains all the roll calls and details on the debate.

That same budget bill illustrated a longstanding dispute between Republican and Democratic lawmakers over education funding. Democrats favor more state money for K-12 schools as well as flexibility for those who set school district budgets. Rod Boshart reported on the most important changes senators made to House File 2465:

In the end, senators voted 26-22 – along partisan party lines – to approve the $2.785 billion approach favored by majority Democrats that included a 4 percent “allowable growth” increase for K-12 schools for the 2013-14 school year and fully funded local government property tax credits for next fiscal year by using $55 million out of a newly created taxpayer trust account. […]

The House-passed version did not include any K-12 school “allowable growth” money and rejected efforts to fully fund the property tax credits using a one-time source – an amendment offered by Sen. Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, during Tuesday’s Senate floor debate that failed by a 22-26 margin.

During the 2011 legislative session, House Republicans pushed for zero allowable growth in K-12 education budgets for two years in a row. Only after months of budget negotiations did they finally agree to no growth during the current academic year and 2 percent growth during the 2012/2013 school year. Democrats had pushed for 2 percent allowable growth in both years, on the grounds that school district leaders should be able to decide whether to freeze their budgets or expand them to address rising costs. School district administrators and board members overwhelmingly favored the Democratic approach to the issue.

To be clear, Iowa Republicans still pay lip service to the concept of “local control” in education. The 2010 Iowa GOP platform contains these planks:


We call for more local control and less state and federal control of public schools. Parents must have oversight of the educational process including school curricula, discipline, and grading systems. Public schools should be accountable for providing a quality education. […]


We demand abolishment of the Iowa Core Curriculum/Education guidelines.


We support the elimination of the Iowa Department of Education and of the U.S. Department of Education.

However, the Republican-controlled Iowa House has taken no steps toward eliminating the Department of Education and has tried to restrict some local decision-making in education. In March, the House approved House File 2380, a broad education reform bill, on party lines. That legislation includes various new requirements across all school districts: annual teacher evaluations; end-of-course exams for all high school students; college-entrance exams or career readiness assessments for all high school juniors; and eventually, new rules on retaining third graders who can’t read. The House bill creates an advisory council to review the state’s core curriculum. Conservative education activists view Iowa’s current core curriculum as a tool for secular and liberal indoctrination. They would prefer total repeal of the core curriculum but appreciated House Republican efforts to resist expanding it. Senate Democrats and Governor Terry Branstad advocate strengthening those statewide academic standards.

Some Iowa conservatives were alarmed by a different House bill, which would limit school districts’ control over their own calendars. Iowa law now states that the K-12 school year is supposed to begin during the week in which September 1 falls. Most school districts evade that restriction by getting a waiver from the Department of Education.

As start dates have crept earlier into mid-August in recent years, businesses in the tourism industry have sought legislative action. They found a sympathetic audience in House Speaker Paulsen and Governor Branstad.

House File 2462 would prevent most Iowa school districts from starting regular primary or secondary school classes before the fourth Monday in August. The House approved this bill by 56 votes to 44, with both caucuses divided on the issue. The House Journal for April 10 (pdf) contains the roll call. Note that most of the House GOP leadership team voted to restrict local discretion over the appropriate time to start the school year.

House Republicans supporting the bill: Rich Anderson, Rich Arnold, Chip Baltimore, Clel Baudler, Peter Cownie, Betty De Boef, Cecil Dolecheck, Jack Drake, Joel Fry, Julian Garrett, Pat Grassley, Chris Hagenow, Lee Hein, Lance Horbach, Dan Huseman, Stew Iverson, Jeff Kaufmann, Steve Lukan, Glen Massie, Steve Olson, Ross Paustian, Kim Pearson, Dawn Pettengill, Scott Raecker, Henry Rayhons, Tom Sands, Renee Schulte, Jason Schultz, Tom Shaw, Jeff Smith, Annette Sweeney, Dave Tjepkes, Linda Upmeyer, Jim Van Engelenhoven, Guy Vander Linden, Nick Wagner, Ralph Watts, Matt Windschitl, Gary Worthan, Kraig Paulsen

House Democrats supporting the bill: Ako Abdul-Samad, Ruth Ann Gaines, Curt Hanson, Bruce Hunter, Dan Kelley, Kevin McCarthy, Helen Miller, Dan Muhlbauer, Jo Oldson, Rick Olson, Tyler Olson, Brian Quirk, Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Mark Smith, Kurt Swaim, John Wittneben

House Republicans opposing the bill: Dwayne Alons, Mark Brandenburg, Josh Byrnes, Royd Chambers, Dave Deyoe, Greg Forristall, Bob Hager, Mary Ann Hanusa, Dave Heaton, Erik Helland, Ron Jorgenson, Jarad Klein, Kevin Koester, Mark Lofgren, Linda Miller, Brian Moore, Dan Rasmussen, Walt Rogers, Chuck Soderberg, Jeremy Taylor

House Democrats opposing the bill: Deborah Berry, Dennis Cohoon, Mary Gaskill, Chris Hall, Lisa Heddens, Chuck Isenhart, Dave Jacoby, Anesa Kajtazovic, Jerry Kearns, Bob Kressig, Vicki Lensing, Jim Lykam, Mary Mascher, Pat Murphy, Janet Petersen, Sharon Steckman, Todd Taylor, Phyllis Thede, Roger Thomas, Andrew Wenthe, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, Cindy Winckler, Mary Wolfe

Given the extensive research suggesting that students forget lots of material over long summer vacations, I find it absurd to put the tourism industry’s desires ahead of local school boards’ judgment regarding the calendar. Even if I personally favored later start dates, I would support leaving that decision up to local policy-makers. But don’t take this liberal’s word for it: the Iowa Association of Christian Schools opposed efforts to restrict early school start dates for various reasons.

Although some Iowa Senate Democrats favor the mandate for later K-12 start dates, House File 2462 is not advancing in the upper chamber. Senate Government Oversight Committee Chair Tom Courtney has said his committee won’t take up the bill, and Senate President Kibbie (who backs the idea) says the proposal wouldn’t be germane to any budget bills.

Property tax reform is another area where Democratic lawmakers have been more inclined to respect local government concerns. Bleeding Heartland discussed the differences between the Iowa House and Senate property tax bills here. A long list of Iowa cities and organizations representing local governments and school districts oppose the House Republican approach to cutting commercial property taxes, which the Iowa House approved in February on a straight party-line vote. Groups like the League of Cities and Iowa Association of Counties also opposed Branstad’s property tax reform plan. The Senate Democrats’ approach to reducing commercial property taxes would not undermine local budgets.

Both Iowa Republicans and Democrats have shown disdain for “local control” in the context of agricultural zoning at the county level. An Iowa law adopted in 1995 prohibited counties from restricting the size of farm operations, paving the way for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to dominate Iowa livestock production. Advocates for cleaner water and sustainable farming practices support “local control” in this area, because some county supervisors would restrict new potential sources of air and water pollution. The Iowa GOP platform is firm on this point: “We support statewide site standards for livestock facilities and oppose excessive local control laws which would create 99 different sets of rules for Iowa’s farmers.” Branstad has made clear he’ll never allow local governments to zone agricultural facilities.

Many rank-and-file Democrats support local control over factory farms, but Democratic leaders did nothing to advance agricultural zoning while controlling both chambers of the Iowa legislature and the governor’s office from 2007 through 2010. The Iowa Democratic Party’s 2010 platform calls for giving “County Board of Supervisors authority to veto/approve [CAFOs] with state regulation,” but those are just empty words.

Sometimes state government has compelling reasons to override the judgment of local decision-makers. For instance, I supported a 2008 bill to require paper ballots in Iowa, which forced some counties to abandon touchscreen voting machines. I also support statewide academic standards in a strong core curriculum. This post isn’t intended as a sweeping endorsement of the “local control” concept. I just find it interesting that Iowa Republicans are less likely to stand up for home rule. On that note, I still believe some state legislators or local governments should have challenged the constitutionality of Branstad’s executive order banning project labor agreements for any public project.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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  • Great write up

    State’s rights is everyone’s friend when it fits the point of view that we agree with.  It’s issues like these that make me believe even more in a living Constitution on both the state and federal levels.

    We need liberals and conservatives on the bench who believe that the law can at least change somewhat to fit the times and its why I have a much easier time follow Sam Alito’s logic on the Supreme Court as opposed to Antonin Scalia.  

  • Wide angle view

    I really appreciate this wide angle view of the legislature.  Its interesting how individual legislators can find themselves on both sides of the issue.  For example, Dave Heaton was the driving force behind one of the most proscriptive parts of the education reform bill – retaining 3rd graders who can’t read, but he voted against the later school year start date.

    In education, I think that the Republican leadership wants to weaken public education in general, and teacher’s unions in particular, but they don’t have their own caucus on board yet.