By Lori Lindner
SOLON– The Solon Public Library community room was nearly full last Wednesday as about 40 people came out to hear the two candidates vying to represent Democrats in the general election for Iowa House District 73.
The League of Women Voters of Johnson County hosted a forum between Dick Schwab of rural Solon and David Johnson of West Branch, asking questions submitted by audience members and from the League. Schwab and Johnson will run against each other in the June 5 primary election.
The candidates were allowed to give opening statements, in which Johnson said his combating the University of Iowa for equal application of its family leave policy led him to an interest in politics. While Johnson said he lost the legal battle, the war was won when the college eventually instituted its family leave policy for everyone.
“It gave me a clear vision that change can be made with one person,” Johnson said. Johnson currently works in the registrar’s office at the University as a database administrator and certifying agent for veterans going to school on the GI bill, as did Johnson himself. He served on the West Branch City Council from 2007 to 2011.
Schwab talked about the concept of servant-leadership, and how his service on the Solon Community School District Board of Directors for 12 years, being a member of the Scholarship America board, the Solon Dollars for Scholars board, the board of directors for Mercy Hospital and his involvement as an investor in small local companies, including his own organic farming operation, has afforded him opportunities to both serve and lead in the areas of education, health care, business and agriculture.
After their opening statements, mediator Polly Horton, on behalf of the League, asked the candidates how they would eliminate barriers to voting, and make sure that voter ID would not be mandated.
Schwab said Johnson County has been progressive in making voting and voter registration easier and he would continue to support similar initiatives.
“Most of that initiative has to come at the local level, and needs to be supported at the state level,” Schwab said, including actions like those in Muscatine, where the high school brought in political candidates to engage with students, talk about the importance of involvement in the political process and encourage them to register to vote.
Johnson said that any attack on people’s ability to vote is likely to come from a higher level, whether from the secretary of state’s office or other higher offices, rather than from the local level.
“In any case the legislature has to be mindful not to allow legislation to pass, such as voter ID requirements,” said Johnson.
The candidates were also asked about their positions on Tax Increment Financing (TIF), the TIF reform bill that passed through the legislature this session, and commercial property tax changes. Johnson said the community of West Branch has been abused by poor TIF planning.
“We do need TIF reform,” Johnson said. “TIF does not solely affect that governing body’s coffers. It’s also going to affect county revenue and school board revenue. In a sense, it is taxation without representation, and that goes against my grain.”
Schwab said he agrees on the need for TIF reform, citing Coralville’s decision to use TIF to move an Iowa City retail business as an example of an abuse of TIF. However, he said, he holds West Branch up as an example of using TIF to attract business to the community.
“They created their industrial park and leveraged TIF resources to do that, and TIF becomes a tool in a small town’s arsenal to attract and grow businesses,” Schwab said. “It does take money from local governments, but it really doesn’t affect the school funding because what’s not made up by local governments, because of rate equalization formula, every district gets the same amount per child regardless of their local tax revenues.”
Both Schwab and Johnson said they were pleased that the state legislature had not made any changes to the commercial property tax formula this year.
The candidates also responded to questions about state funding for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the state’s Lakes Restoration program and REAP (Resource Enhancement and Protection) funding.
Johnson said he knows the Iowa DNR is underfunded and understaffed, sharing that in West Branch, a creek runs through the middle of town and a mobile home park that has its own sewage lagoon. After periods of heavy rain, the lagoon gets full and raw sewage gets dumped into the creek.
“When this started happening, my wife and I called the DNR, and of course, the DNR will respond, but they respond three weeks later, when the sewage is already cleared out. It is a prefect example that the DNR does not have the resources to deal with that, so I would be in favor of increasing funding for whatever we can do to help boost the DNR’s activity,” Johnson said.
Schwab said as a former board chairman for the Johnson County Heritage Trust and co-chair of the committee to pass “Our Land Our Water Our Air,” a $20 million conservation bond referendum that authorized the county to purchase land to ensure future green space and protect the watershed, he is “a big believer in both our land and our water, and the DNR is an important resource to do that.” Schwab also said REAP funding will help protect Iowa’s “precious places that represent Iowa’s heritage.”
Regarding funding repairs for Iowa’s roads and bridges, Johnson said it is a matter of priority; governments should quit giving grants and tax incentives to private businesses.
“If we play the game of propping up corporate America with tax incentives and expect the rest of us to pay for it, we can expect to have crummy roads,” Johnson said. “Do we still believe in this philosophy, or are we going to fix what needs to be fixed and let private enterprise really be private enterprise?”
Schwab touched on three points he thinks are crucial to funding road repair. First, he said, an increase in fuel taxes is a potential source of revenue. “I think we can leverage the people that travel through Iowa on some of our major freeways. Fuel tax is clearly a source of revenue.” Schwab also said he would make sure that Iowa never missed out on federal matching dollars for roads projects, and also that the state legislature maintains its partnerships with local governments to do good planning for infrastructure and road use.
Regarding reform to Iowa’s mental health system, Johnson stated he would not force counties to participate in state regionalization of mental health programs because needs differ greatly from county to county, while Schwab said the state cannot continue to try to fix the problem in isolation or in a hurry. Neither candidate suggested what state resources they might dedicate to the reform.
Both candidates emphasized the importance of funding higher education.
Johnson said his first focus would be on reducing costs for higher education.
“We have a state house mostly that is mostly Republicans, and they are not interested in funding education. We need to change the argument to let them understand…when you invest in education, you reap the rewards immediately, especially in District 73,” Johnson said, offering up the economic impact of the University of Iowa. “Funding education is the ultimate shovel-ready project. Monetarily, it makes sense.”
Schwab said the state has a problem in that only 35 percent of Iowa’s post-secondary students graduate in five years. “We should be providing strong direction from the legislature that it’s not just getting kids into post-secondary education, it’s getting them to complete it.” Schwab touted community colleges as “jewels,” and a nice bridging mechanism from high school to college, and said regional academies are a good way to for small school districts to leverage the resources of college-level professors and resources to get “outstanding education and dual enrollment credit.”
The candidates also answered questions about fair share legislation– both candidates support it, but differed on the details; working across the aisle at the state level; and voting their values. Each was asked to list three things they would do to help small communities in District 73. Johnson said his priorities were TIF reform, properly funding K-12 and higher education, and cracking down on abuse from the Iowa Department of Economic Development. Schwab said his top concerns were funding education and ways to keep schools viable in small communities, helping towns keep their small businesses open, and placing an emphasis on value-added agriculture.
Finally, the candidates were able to reiterate how their personal experiences will help them as a state representative.
Schwab said growing up on a farm, his deep involvement with the Solon school board and his tenure on several boards and organizations that promote education, businesses and health care will serve him well.
Johnson said city council experience was a much better training ground than a school board, since a city council has issues coming from different departments rather than a school board’s single mission. He said as the youngest of seven children, he had to go to war to get his education through the GI bill. Johnson said he felt he was more capable of winning the election because 60 percent of the district is in Cedar County, and voters will label Schwab as a “Johnson County wealthy elitist.”
In addition to the forum, the candidates each responded to identical questionnaires regarding their candidacy. The questions and their answers are reprinted in entirety in this edition.