BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – He was just settling into retirement when a political opportunity came knocking on the door.
Literally packing for a trip to the Mexican Riviera, Jeff Kurtz of Fort Madison, was approached by several people asking him to run for the seat being vacated by Jerry Kearns, a Keokuk Democrat who announced in the spring he wouldn’t be seeking re-election to the House.
Jeff is opposing Jeff Reichman (R-Keokuk) for the 83rd District seat in the Iowa House of Representatives.
Kurtz was taking his wife on a 10-day cruise this past winter and decided to not ask her about the run prior to the vacation so it didn’t weigh on them on the trip. But he said on the way back home, he sprung the idea on her.
“We were sitting in an airport in San Francisco and I said, ‘Honey, what would you think about me running for Jerry Kearns’ seat. I’ve been asked to do it.’ She looked over at me and said, if it doesn’t involve too much work for me, I don’t care what you do. And I said, well I’ll take that as a yes.”
Kurtz is a retired engineer and labor union leader with the Santa Fe Railroad and then later the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
He started with the Santa Fe railroad in April of 1974 and a year later was promoted as a locomotive engineer in Chicago. He lived there for about five years where he met his wife. The couple married in 1979 and in April of 1980 the couple moved back to Fort Madison.
In 1982 he was elected to an office with the railroad’s Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainman Union Local 391 and then stepped aside after his three-year term. He had planned on retiring from the union work then, but took an alternate legislative representative. In the union that is the position that handles political duties and safety.
“I was going to be the alternate, but in January the guy who took the spot died of a heart attack, so I ascended into that position at that point.”
Kurtz said it was then that he began to develop relationships with the state union board. He said he became friends with chairman and secretary/treasurer of the state legislative board. In the summer, Kurtz agreed to run for the 1st vice to the chairman and then the chairman stepped down and he quickly took over as chairman of that board, and has served on the board for more than four decades.
“That board oversees four railroads in the state and I got my baptism by fire right away with some of the safety issues we had,” Kurtz said.
He then held that position until 2014 when he retired from the board in April, but then stayed on with the railroad and retired officially in October.
Kurtz said he helped with some of the safety issues as a retiree and maintained those Des Moines contacts. He was actually helping with some issues when the possibility of running for the Iowa legislature opened up.
“The people at the railroad really encouraged me to do this along with other union members and other political activists.”
Kurtz had three boys graduate locally, one from the public schools and two from the former Fort Madison Aquinas, and said the state is falling behind in educating its citizens.
He said the party line for the Republicans is out of touch with the taxpayers of Iowa.
“In 2008, in the middle of the Culver administration education funding was 45.8% of our state budget I believe,” he said. “From there until 2015 as Republicans started gaining control, it’s now down to 40.7% so when people say we’re not cutting the budget, we are cutting the budget.”
The 1% allowable growth public schools received last year doesn’t even allow inflation and doesn’t compensate for population growth, he said. He agreed that the state is spending more actual dollars on education, but as a percentage of the state’s budget and considering inflation and student population, that argument is leaving children behind.
“We have to keep moving forward, we can’t move backwards. This is our future. These kids being productive is what’s going to take care of me in my old age.”
Kurtz said Iowa has to start thinking differently when it comes to tax breaks and credits.
“I’m not against tax cuts and tax credits, but I am when it fosters corporate welfare and giving taxpayer money to people who don’t need it,” he said. “Like we did with Apple last year. We just handed them $20 million and then gave them another $113 million in tax breaks and credits. When we talk about how were going to fund mental health, education, medicaid, it can’t be that way.”
Kurtz said the recent announcement of $127 million budget surplus was a byproduct of dangerous cuts.
“Look what we did with education mid-year, and corrections mid-year, and we still have this Medicaid debacle. And a month ago (Gov. Kim Reynolds) just gave Medicaid insurers $103 million, so most of that’s gone anyway. We also have to look at next year, where there’s another $104 million hole shot in the budget. Last year we had to get into the rainy day fund for $140 million. We dodged a bullet once and we think we’re Superman. We can’t keep doing this,” he said.
He said long-term planning and consistency is the key to keeping the state financially healthy. But he said using proposed online sales tax for additional state revenue is still something to be investigated.
Kurtz said the Iowa Public Employee Retirement System may need to be calibrated to become fully funded, but he said converting those accounts and that program to a 401K is the wrong idea.
“From what I’ve looked at, things need to be tweaked all the time and if it needs to be tweaked so be it. We did that frequently with the railroad, but to go in a direction of a 401k – no. The people that are going to eligible, and those that are currently on IPERS now, don’t want that. There is no reason for that and it works fine the way it is.”
He said the Chapter 20 overhaul that took place in 2017 was supposed to just have a been a few tweaks, but didn’t end there.
“There are times when we’ll need to tweak it, but they said that, too, with Chapter 20 and they completely demolished it,” he said. “We have to be careful when they say ‘We’re going to make a few changes’ – let’s look at past history when they’ve said this.”
Kurtz said he worries aobut IPERS because if something drastic were to happen to IPERS it would put the $21 million annually that the retirement system brings into Lee County and $1.8 billion in the state in jeopardy.
“If we roll the dice this could have serious, serious financial repercussions especially in a place like this where we’re still suffering.”
Kurtz said the privatization of public health services in Iowa has done a great disservice to the those in need.
“I hear stuff all the time about people getting jerked around by insurance companies, especially the privatized care, because those companies don’t have to be as transparent as the state did,” he said.
Kurtz said Iowa’s Medicaid Director, Mike Randol, doesn’t have the best track record.
“Everything we’re hearing is that they’re losing money. We’re hearing that people aren’t getting coverage they should and they’re actually dying because of this. That’s because there’s no consistency in the system and there’s not going to be when there’s no accountability,” he said.
“Those companies’ purpose is to make money and they make money by not paying claims,” he said.
He also indicated state Medicaid administrative costs under the state-run program was 3 to 4% and now that figure has climbed to 12 to 15%.
“12 to 15 percent is more than 3 to 4% I don’t care what kind of math you use,” he said. “Capitalism… I get it, but this is more like highway robbery than capitalism.”
Rural Iowa Initiative
Gov. Reynolds has launched an Empower Rural Iowa Initiative with task forces aimed at bring ideas and solutions to the table next year on issues such as connectivity, investment, and growth. Kurtz said the effort could be sincere and not just an election year stunt.
“You can’t get inside her head, but from what we’ve seen from her in the past, I’ve been skeptical. What I will say is that if this is the case, we need people that will hold her feet to the fire,” he said. “A good example is the Iowa Energy Plan. That was a pretty good plan. It was really good and then this year they passed a bill that would slash what utility companies are able to do with investment in alternative energy. This is what I’ve been saying about consistency. They come up with something decent and then they undermine themselves.”
“I don’t want to try and judge her motives, she might be pure on these motives, but past practice tells you they’re not consistent and if they see a path for a short-term gain, they’ll go after it. The one thing they are consistent with is they’ll go after the short-term gain every time.”
The state passed a bill in January that earmarks $282 million for water quality issues including $156 million for farmers to use cover crops, bioreactors, and buffers to help deal with nitrate and phosphate run-off into Iowa’s waterways.
Kurtz said it’s a step in the right direction but there was no firm commitment to funding it.
“When we talk about water we also need to talk about the health of the soil. Hopefully we’re moving in the right direction and I don’t think this bills does a lot, but it does say they recognize there is a problem.”
“I’m not in this to be the prom king of Lee County.
“I can’t think of anything I hate worse than trying to raise money. I don’t want to be the guy who says you need to elect me and I’m gonna do this for ya and I’m gonna do that for you…Now give me ten bucks. At my age I’m doing all right. I’m doing this for other reasons and I’m not going to get rich off it. This should be something where you’re not running to get rich.”
“(Politics) is more polarized that it’s been in the past, but if you look back at our founding fathers there’s was some really nasty stuff there. People say when I’m knocking on doors, go in there and get something done. Don’t just go in and put your fingers in people’s chest and tell everybody how tough you are.”
“The biggest thing for me is we’re dangerously understaffed in corrections. That’s an issue of saving lives and that’s in the short-term. We have to bring back funding for corrections. You can throw law enforcement in there, too, because that’s saving lives. You could throw mental health in there, as well. People I’m talking to are saying this a bigger issue than they thought. We have people handling it that aren’t trained to handle it. We’re putting the people impaired in danger and the people around them in danger and we’re putting the people who have to deal with this like law enforcement, corrections, nurses, hospital staffs. We’re putting them in danger, too.”
“We should use government where government works and we can make a determination that we use the free market where that works. To be a pound-the-table socialist or a pound-the-table capitalist..I just don’t think that’s the way to go. It’s messy, but that’s why you elect people. You elect them for their vision and how they understand the issues.”