In a surprising turn of events, Republican challengers are putting an obscure vote on water bottles at the center of their attacks on Iowa Senate Democrats. Follow me after the jump for background on this year's equivalent to the non-existent "heated sidewalks" of 2010.
Some version of the water bottles attack has appeared in radio and/or television commercials against Democratic Senators Mary Jo Wilhelm (SD-26) and Tom Courtney (SD-44), print advertising against Jeff Danielson (SD-30), and direct mail targeting Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (SD-08), Brian Schoenjahn (SD-32), and Steve Sodders (SD-36).
Here's the gist of the Republican message: store owners across Iowa report that some people are abusing food assistance benefits, buying large bottles of water, dumping out the water in the parking lot, and walking right back inside to collect the $7.50 bottle refund. The worst part is that this behavior is completely legal. [Insert Republican Senate candidate's name] would vote for a law to stop this abuse. But [insert Democratic state senator's name] failed to vote against letting people on food stamps take water bottles and return them right away to collect the deposit.
The first wave of ads featuring this attack left some people scratching their heads. What are they talking about?
As with the bogus heated sidewalk claim, this charge stems from a Republican amendment that would have had no real impact, even if Democrats had approved it.
Bottle deposit returns came up in May 2011, when the Iowa Senate debated the health and human services appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012 (House File 649). Republican Senators Merlin Bartz and Brad Zaun proposed the following amendment (excerpt):
The department [of Human Services] shall submit a request to the United States department of agriculture for authorization for a waiver, pilot project, or other approach for restricting the use of food assistance benefits, as administered by the state under the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program, for both of the following: food items that are taxable and the deposit portion of the cost of food items sold in a container that is subject to a deposit.
The Senate rejected the Bartz/Zaun amendment S-3337 on a party line vote (pdf). Later the same day, the Senate approved the health and human services budget bill on a party-line vote.
Senate Democratic caucus research staff provided the following background information to Bleeding Heartland. In 2008, the Iowa Department of Human Services had requested a waiver to stop the use of food assistance benefits to purchase bottle deposits. The federal Food and Nutrition Service denied that request, saying the government was focused on implementing "stricter penalties for people proven guilty of abusing the bottle deposit policy." At the end of this post I've enclosed a letter from the Iowa Department of Human Services confirming those events.
Iowa has not pursued a similar waiver since 2008 because there is "no indication [federal officials] will be changing their opinion on this issue." So, even if the Senate had approved the Bartz/Zaun amendment, Iowans receiving federal food assistance would still be able to buy big bottles of water.
In recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped up its enforcement of rules against the improper use of the supplemental nutrition assistance program. Iowa store owners or anyone else who knows about the abuse of food assistance benefits can call this toll-free fraud hotline: 1-800-831-1394.
I have no idea whether this line of attack will turn a significant number of voters against Senate incumbents. Ever since Ronald Reagan successfully demonized "welfare queens," Republicans have tried to exploit anger toward people who abuse public assistance programs. A GOP-controlled Senate wouldn't be able to change federal policy on buying bottle deposits, but why let reality get in the way of a campaign talking point?