BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
As state legislators rubbed their eyes after debating into the early morning hours Thursday, a bill was being sent to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds desk that will do little to increase the transparency the state GOP says we need.
Senate File 634 was passed by the Iowa House just before 3 a.m Thursday morning. The emphasis of the bill puts a soft cap on the revenue growth of cities and counties in Iowa. Any proposed revenues from property taxes that exceed 102% of the current year’s budget must be approved with a supermajority of 67% of the elected board or council.
The bill is a shell of original bills proposed in an effort to make property tax information more transparent to taxpayers.
Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello told the Des Moines Register Thursday the goal was never to restrict elected officials’ ability to do their job.
“I firmly believe that we need to allow the cities to operate. I mean, there are reasons why they need to raise the taxes,” he told the Register. “I just want the transparency, so that whenever the taxpayer opens up his bill, he understands why it went up when the cities are saying they didn’t raise the levy.”
What will be in that tax bill? There’s nothing in the legislation that requires a letter explaining the tax bill to the tax payer. The bill says a public hearing is required and a super majority vote if revenues are proposed at a 2% increase or higher.
There’s nothing in here to provide transparency, that isn’t already being done. People now, without the bill yet being signed by the Governor, have the right to question their property tax bill. They even have the right to contest their assessment.
City and county books are open records and any resident can walk in and ask any questions they want. I do it all the time. Of all the budget votes I’ve seen in the past two years most didn’t exceed the 2% threshold and most were by unanimous votes.
This is a Republican controlled legislature telling local governments how to operate. They’ve already mandated minimum wages and mental health fund spend downs.
Democrats fought hard into the night to keep a 3% hard cap on growth which could have had immediate impacts on governments. They also fought off a 25% end fund balance, which would have limited local government’s ability to save for future needs.
The real winners in this fight appear to be the Democrats, unless of course something is buried deep in the legislation. A summary of the bill from the Legislative Services Agency wasn’t available Thursday afternoon.
There is also a viral concern on social media that the bill is, what Rep. Jeff Kurtz (D-Fort Madison) called an “indirect attack on IPERS and 411, which are retirement funds for public employees, police and firefighters.
A tweet from IPERS on Thursday read, ” Regarding recently passed property tax bill, SF 634: This bill does not alter the employers’ obligation to pay the employer portion of IPERS’ contributions as established annually under Iowa Code Section 97B.11. This bill does not affect a member’s or retiree’s pension.”
But any revenue’s that do get capped by councils or boards that can’t meet the supermajority for whatever reason, could impact a local government’s ability to pay fund those payments. Democrats contend now revenues for those contributions have to compete with other services.
I’ve listened to conversation with Lee County Supervisors where they stress yearly trying to figure out what gets cut from the budget, what can’t be done, and then prioritize what can be done with what’s left.
The city of Fort Madison is in the middle of serious budget constraints that have almost derailed several important community economic projects and are squeezing budgets of several important community resources.
In a nutshell, cities and counties can breathe easier knowing they still have control on any potential growth in revenues. The concern on my end is where is the increased transparency. Nothing happened here that provides additional access to information.
Ignorance isn’t bliss and the math isn’t that complicated. If your city or county reports its tax levy, which sets their part of the total property tax bill, is the same as last year, but your bill went up, either some other entity’s rate went up, or your valuation went up. But it’s all explainable with a phone call to the governmental agency. That was in place yesterday…and today…and will be tomorrow.
This bill won’t solve the problem of people not understanding their tax bill.
So it begs the question. What’s this all about anyway?
But maybe that’s Beside the Point.