WEST BRANCH– David Johnson knows about small town Iowa and small town government. After four years on the West Branch City Council, he also understands that a lot of the issues facing Iowa’s small towns and their governing bodies need to be addressed at the state level.
To that end, Johnson has announced his bid to run for the Iowa State House in 2012.
The 2011 redistricting process for Iowa’s state legislature puts Johnson, as a resident of West Branch, in House District 73, which includes portions of Johnson and Muscatine counties and all of Cedar County, beginning in 2012. It also makes him an opponent of incumbent Representative Jeff Kauffman (R-Wilton), who is currently serving House District 79.
Though he was born in Chicago, Johnson’s family moved to West Branch when he was eight years old. He is an Army veteran of the Gulf War, and attended the University of Iowa on the G.I. bill. Currently, Johnson works in the University of Iowa’s Registrar’s office as a senior database administrator and a certifying official for G.I. bill applicants. He is married to Jennie Embree, and together they have three children, ages nine, three and four years old.
Since serving on the city council, Johnson has made a mission of providing transparency in government and helping average citizens understand how their votes and voices impact what happens in their communities and beyond. Increasingly, he said, people are gaining awareness of the power of their votes.
“But I think there is still a lot of education that needs to be done,” he said.
To assist the effort, Johnson created an Internet blog and webpage, “West Branch Council Watch,” (web.me.com/dajohnso42/CouncilWatch/Home.html) where he posts his own editorials about specific council issues and news items in the local newspaper, links to public documents, and videos of past council meetings people can review online.
“My intent is to give the citizens of West Branch all the information they weren’t getting from the city or weren’t getting from the newspaper. Some people didn’t agree with me and some people did, but at least it got them discussing the issue. I think that’s a major victory,” said Johnson.
Even in his announcement of his candidacy for the State House, first offered in a letter to the editor of the West Branch Times, Johnson called for people to engage in the decision making process in ways that can make a difference.
“Part of my goal has been to get more people locally involved, to run for city council,” said Johnson.
Beyond civic involvement, Johnson said his top priority is education funding.
“The Republicans pushed through a zero-percent [allowable] growth this year,” said Johnson, while Iowa Democrats sought a two percent allowable growth rate. The passage of the zero percent allowable growth reduced state support of Iowa’s schools by about $65 million.
“I find it not only unacceptable, but kind of immoral,” Johnson said. “Spending money on education does more than just educate our children for future needs; I also think funding education is a better stimulus for economic growth than anything the Iowa Department of Economic Development can dole out in grants.”
Johnson pointed to the Regents institutions like the University of Iowa to illustrate his point.
“Imagine what would happen to the surrounding communities if the universities went away. Economically, it would be devastating,” said Johnson. “To cut ourselves off in education is completely the wrong answer. I would like to see a five percent allowable growth in education every year.”
Johnson has other topics he called his “burning issues,” and next on his hot seat is Tax Increment Financing (TIF). TIF is a method by which local governments can help pay for current projects by capturing the increase in future tax dollars on newly developed or improved properties.
Johnson feels the City of West Branch has made some poor decisions using TIF agreements in the past.
“I understand there are certain times when TIFs are useful,” he said. “But, I think there is much more abuse in the use of TIFs.”
For example, Johnson said, sometimes small towns come out on the short end of the TIF stick when trying to negotiate with larger companies seeking to locate in their communities, and cities end up offering tax breaks and similar incentives at a disadvantage to the community as a whole. West Branch alone pays out between $750,000 to $1 million a year in TIFs, he said.
“This is coming from a budget that is around $3 million, so that’s a lot of money going back into our industrial area, and these are companies that make a lot of money.” Also, he noted, the use of TIF has a much farther reach. As cities activate TIF, it takes away potential revenues from other taxing jurisdictions like schools and counties. When counties don’t get their share of revenues, that affects other cities within the county, which receive less in county support. “I love these businesses and want them to prosper, but they don’t need these TIFs.”
Johnson isn’t one to propose the problem without offering a solution, including one for TIF reform.
“If a company comes into a community and they want a TIF district, I would like to see it mandated that every governing entity affected by it would have a vote in it; so it would have to pass with the city, the school board and the county,” he said. “I think if you did that, you’d have more input as to whether these TIFs made sense for the community. It forces the companies to really have to promote why this TIF is going to be good, and they’d have to make it crystal clear what they would do for the community.”
His may or may not be a popular suggestion, but Johnson doesn’t necessarily hang his hat on political popularity, said long-time friend and former school mate Deb Donahoe of West Branch.
“What I like about David is he is not a conformist. He’s not afraid to question the status quo, or bring issues to the public’s attention that might otherwise go unnoticed,” said Donahoe. “He is concerned with doing the right thing.”
In the case of utility rates, Johnson is adamant utility companies also do the right thing. When Alliant Energy asked the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) to approve a hike in electricity rates, Johnson lobbied to have the IUB hold a public hearing in West Branch to give citizens the chance to offer input. Johnson managed to arrange an unofficial hearing, at least, and IUB and Alliant Energy staff came to West Branch to hear people speak out against the rate hikes.
“The amount of increase they were asking for was preposterous, at a time when Alliant Energy was making record profits and shortly after the 2008 collapse of the economy. I thought it was a horrible time to ask for these rates,” said Johnson.
The result of this experience was an education about the process of utility rate increases, and Johnson’s subsequent ideas about how to change it.
“Within the state code, Alliant Energy is allowed to institute an interim rate hike before the IUB rules on [a proposed increase]. They ask for a rate hike generally in March. In April, they institute the temporary rate hike and it goes into affect until the IUB makes its ruling.”
If the IUB eventually rules against the increase, the energy company will be forced to reimburse its customers for the overage, with a small amount of interest.
“So, for Alliant, it’s basically a guaranteed loan at a low interest rate, off the backs of the working poor. I would like to eliminate the entire section of the code where they are allowed to institute an interim hike.”
Johnson is even prepared to take on some of the most difficult political issues that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to address; for example, tax rollbacks.
“Nobody wants to tell constituents that we’re going to start adjusting your property tax rates,” he said. The problem he sees is when the state legislator begins to play what he called “political football” with property tax rates– and particularly state lawmakers’ recent discussions on what to do with residential and commercial property tax rollbacks– is that it makes it difficult for municipalities to plan their own budgets.
“The timeframe the state gives cities to create their budgets, compiled with the fact we have to wait for the state legislature to come up with their number every year, makes it hard for cities to sit down and create a thoughtful budget,” said Johnson.
“I don’t know if I can change things, but I can certainly do my part in educating other legislators, specifically those who have never served in municipal government, why it’s bad to play this political football game and try to come up with alternatives.”
In the coming months, Johnson will also be taking notes on ideas from potential constituents, as he goes door-to-door in the Solon area to introduce himself and find out what concerns people in Iowa House District 73.
First and foremost, he wants people to know one thing about himself,
“I cannot be bought,” he said. He has launched a personal campaign against government officials who also belong to lobbying groups, and even against membership in organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council, a policy think tank that develops model free-market, limited government and federalism policies).“When you get elected, you aren’t there to represent the interests of lobbying groups or big business. You are there to represent the people of your town or your district. To add salt to the wound, their dues [in such organizations] are paid by state taxes. So, we’re paying for somebody else’s influence. I find that type of activity appalling.”
Johnson understands that if elected, his ideas for change will be put to the test in a political system that is long-standing and well-established. As the youngest of seven children, heated political discussions were a staple of his family’s dinner table, so the prospect of political battle at the next level does not worry him.
“It’s all part of freedom of expression,” he said.
Deb Donahoe respects Johnson’s ability to speak his own mind in such debates.
“David is a progressive, but he doesn’t latch on to every new idea that comes along,” she said. “He is pretty cautious, and is concerned about wasting taxpayers’ time and money so he likes to get it right the first time.”
But Johnson knows good government doesn’t always happen right the first time; there can opposition and criticism, and details to be hammered out, unattractive as they might be.
“Governing isn’t something where you can leave out the details,” he said. “Democracy is not easy. It takes work.”
And from now until November 2012, David Johnson is preparing to work for the people of House District 73. For more information, visit johnsonforstatehouse.org.