Behn, Thompson field soft questions at first ‘Coffee & Politics’

Pictured at the Feb. 2 ‘Coffee & Politics’ are (from left) State Senator Jerry Behn, State Representative Phil Thompson, and moderator Rick Morain.

The first Coffee and Politics of the 2019 legislative session, held Saturday morning at the Welcome Center at Thomas Jefferson Gardens in Jefferson, was a friendly gathering for State Senator Jerry Behn of Boone and freshman State Representative Phil Thompson of Jefferson. Both are Republicans, and of the 20 persons in attendance, most are known Republicans.

The legislative session is still young and although Thompson worked as a legislative clerk for two years, he said being an elected representative “is much, much different.” He said he has spent the last two weeks getting to know the other representatives and what issues are important to them.

He said that after hearing Gov Kim Reynolds’ priorities and seeing her budget proposal, they’re going through the budget “and seeing how that aligns with our communities’ needs…. For the most part I felt it’s a fairly responsible budget and a good starting point for discussion.”

Thompson’s committee assignments include state government, local government, labor, veterans affairs, and the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure (referred to as RIIF) committee.
Behn is starting his 22nd year in the state senate. He called it “an interesting time” in the capitol, noting a change in attitude now with the state showing a $100 million budget surplus compared to two years ago, when the state had a $100 million budget deficit.

He explained how federal income tax cuts have benefitted Iowa. Because Iowans can deduct their federal income tax payment on their Iowa tax return, if people pay lower federal income tax they have less to deduct on their Iowa return, giving the state added revenue. He said legislators are working to determine exactly how much money is available and how much should be spent in each area.

He named three priorities for 2019. First is education. Behn favors allowing state funds to go to non-public schools. According to Behn, the single biggest factor in the success of children is parental involvement. He claims the best way to increase parental involvement is to let parents decide where their children attend school.

Medicaid funding is another priority. He’d like to see the managed care organizations use the same forms to streamline claim processing and get providers funded more efficiently.
The third priority he named is job creation, although the example he provided was of job training and incentives for young people to get technical training and stay in Iowa. It did not concern creating new jobs.

Behn serves on the ethics, education, ways & means, rules & administration and natural resources committees.

Moderator Rick Morain opened the floor for questions after the officials opening comments.

The first question was whether having more women in the state legislature has had an impact. Behn answered that freshmen senators are always full of energy and good ideas, and that this year the 32 Republicans in the Iowa Senate are very diverse and talented.

Thompson said he hasn’t seen a culture change and that “it’s cool to see new faces.”

To a question about changes to the “bottle bill,” Behn said increasing the handling fee paid to redemption centers from one cent to two cents would be a 100 percent increase, which he “isn’t sure is appropriate,” but that he’d look at a proposal. He and Thompson both said it’s important for health reasons to get grocery stores out of the redemption business.

An attorney asked about talk in the legislature of changing the judicial nominating committee so all members are appointed by the governor, rather than having half the committee selected by the Iowa Bar Association. She asked their positions on adding more political appointments to a currently apolitical body.

Behn disputed that the judicial nominating committee is apolitical, based on what he calls “incredibly political comments by our chief justice.” He faulted recent rulings by Chief Justice Mark Cady for referring to the Iowa Constitution as a “living, breathing document” and said Cady’s rulings are “counter to what the founders talked about.”

He said the Constitution should be changed by an amendment process, not by “an activist judge rewriting or rechanging it.” He continued, “I even heard our chief justice mention the three separate but equal branches of government in the state of Iowa…. We don’t have three seperate but equal branches. We have three separate. Nowhere in our constitution does it say ‘equal’, but he (Cady) said it.”

He said he is in favor of changing the judicial nominating committee to eliminate the Bar Association’s participation. The entire committee charged with selecting and presenting judge nominees to the governor should be appointed by the governor.

Thompson agreed, saying the Bar Association has too much influence. He thinks the governor should have more control. He said changing the process is a legislative priority.

The two were asked about help for rural communities in revitalization, particularly in the area of housing. Thompson said Jefferson and Greene County are in a high priority region of the Iowa Finance Authority.

Jefferson city council member Dave Sloan asked about changing the maximum property tax levy cities are allowed to levy. It hasn’t been increased since 1975, and 80 percent of Iowa cities are at the maximum, Sloan said. Behn said there has been no talk of changing it. Behn mentioned the 1-cent SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision of Education) sales tax – school officials are lobbying to have the SAVE tax extended, preferably without a sunset.

Behn said he would vote for extending it, but not approving it in perpetuity.

Another question concerned the increased use of electric vehicles, and how the lost revenue from the 10-cent per gallon gas tax would be replaced. Thompson said the RIIF committee has that issue on its radar. Behn’s response – “If you tax the legislature with finding a way to tax something, we’ll find a way.”

An attendee suggested there should be a way to vote a state out of the Union, saying California should be dismissed from the Union because many regulations that are first approved there are later discussed for adoption across the country.

Another attendee suggested the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee should narrow down the number of candidates for president to reduce the amount of campaign advertising and solicitations for donations. Behn chuckled and said some people over-estimate his power.

Coffee and Politics was hosted by the Greene County Republicans and the Thomas Jefferson Gardens board. Behn and Thompson declined to name a date for the next forum, saying they don’t know their schedules more than a week in advance.

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