JOHNSON COUNTY– Though she is in the middle of her fifth term as a Johnson County supervisor, Sally Stutsman is preparing to take on more.
“Let’s get to work” has been Stutsman’s campaign slogan since she announced her bid for Iowa House District 77 last summer. The new district was formed by the Iowa Legislative Services Agency’s redistricting process in April 2011 as a result of population data acquired in the 2010 Census. District 77 includes the communities of North Liberty, Swisher, Shueyville, Tiffin, Oxford and Lone Tree, as well as rural townships in western and southern Johnson County.
Born and raised in Fort Dodge, Stutsman attended Iowa State University to earn a degree in sociology. There she met her husband Roger, an agricultural sciences student, farmer and long-time resident of Johnson County. The couple raised their son Michael on their rural Johnson County farming operation west of Hills, where they have Black Angus cattle, feedlot cattle, corn, soybeans and hay crops. Daughter-in-law Jessica has taken over an organic production piece of the Stutsman farm, carrying on the business after Michael lost his life in a combine accident in 2008.
Though a newly-formed district with no incumbent legislator, Stutsman is familiar with the territory and its people, which she feels has given her an advantage as she campaigns throughout the area.
“I’ve been around a long time, so it’s not been such a huge hill to climb to tell people who I am and what I’m about,” she said. “Basically, I’ve been door knocking for 17 years.”
Lately, Stutsman has been scheduling regular town-hall style meetings in the communities she hopes to represent if elected, meeting people in local restaurants, community centers and coffee houses. She has so enjoyed the personal contact that she intends to continue the practice if elected to the State House.
“I feel constituents need to feel comfortable with their elected officials, and the only way you do that is to meet them on their turf,” she said. “I certainly would be as accessible (in Des Moines) as possible, but I would like to continue to be out and about so if people have an issue they want to talk about, they can bring it to my attention.” As a supervisor, Stutsman has made her home phone number available to the public, and holds office hours in the Johnson County Administration building.
“That’s what I’ve been elected to do,” she said. “I want to hear from people about what’s on their minds.”
What has been on people’s minds as Stutsman has stumped through the district remains much the same, she said. Property taxes are always a point of discussion, primarily questions about how they will be used.
“People want to get a sense about how you are going to spend their money,” she said. “They want to make sure the schools stay in good shape, that their money supports K through 12 education and funding for the universities.” Those objectives fit into Stutsman’s priorities as well.
“I think it’s so important to have a strong education system in the state of Iowa,” she said. “Education is the basis for strong economic development in anything we do.”
Including keeping the farming community strong; she added. While farmers are concerned about increased regulations from the state level, they are also increasingly aware of the importance of research in agricultural practices, Stutsman said.
“They want to make sure the farm economy stays healthy, and that includes making funding available to ISU so they can research the best way to respond to problems like soybean rust,” she said.
Another source of many unanswered questions is the Iowa Department of Human Services’ (DHS) redesign of its mental health and disabilities funding system.
“People know the redesign is here and we are moving toward regionalization, but the legislature has not committed all the dollars it needs to work. Transition dollars did not get appropriated last session, and that makes people nervous,” Stutsman said.
But Stutsman has a good grasp of the issue, as she has already dealt with it on the local level. Johnson County is currently working to forge a services agreement with other Eastern Iowa counties as part of the state’s mandated regionalization.
“With my experience in working with mental health systems on local and state committees, I have a good understanding of how that system functions, how it all fits together and how decisions made in Des Moines will impact people at the local level,” Stutsman said.
“I want to make sure our most vulnerable citizens get the services they need. There are some good trends happening with DHS in tracking results and performance-based contracts, so we know we are spending money that has a positive impact,” she said. “And that’s what I am interested in; funding things that make a positive difference in people’s lives. Public safety is important, to make sure we have enough highway patrol on the road, and make sure the correctional institutions have what they need to keep everyone safe.”
Stutsman has served on many county-level and state-level committees that influenced legislative decisions over the last 17 years. That work has given her a solid understanding of the legislative process, from proposal to adoption of a new bill.
Stutsman named just a few of the committees that have afforded her up-close experience with some of the issues facing Iowans back in District 77, including serving as a supervisors’ legislative liaison for the Iowa State Association of Counties (ISAC), a member of the county’s case management services board, the ISAC representative on the Department of Human Services Council, and a member of the Road Use Tax Fund committee.
If elected, the latter will serve her well as the state level discussions of a statewide fuel tax continue in Des Moines.
“People are very concerned about the fuel tax,” she said. “I hear from groups who are surprisingly supportive of a gas tax, because those in the farming community know we have to have bridges and roads so farmers can get their products to market. And of course, L.L. Pelling is a big company in the district, and building roads is their bread and butter, so they are very interested to know what will happen with a fuel tax.”
Stutsman said it might be time for an increase.
“I don’t know how we can keep up with the roads and bridges without raising the gas tax,” she said. “The legislature has raised vehicle registrations, they’ve asked the Department of Transportation to find savings, and tried to do what they can. I think a fuel tax is the only thing left on the table. Once you get further behind in keeping up the roads, it gets very difficult to catch up. At least with a fuel tax, out-of-state travelers using Iowa’s highways and Interstates help share the burden.”
And unlike property taxes, a fuel tax can’t be used for anything other than road-related projects, she added.
It’s that kind of knowledge– the way budgets get put together, the complexity of state funding formulas and the impacts of state-level decisions on local governments’ finances– that Stutsman feels will help her step into a seat in the Iowa House and hit the ground running; get straight to work, if you will.
“To have that experience will be invaluable,” she said. “These are not the kind of things you learn overnight. It takes many years of working within a budget and understanding how public policy and processes work together, and my experience on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors will be an important asset to my work in Des Moines.”
Supporter Penny Jenn of Oxford said Stutsman’s wealth of experience and knowledge gained after 17 years of public service is the reason she will be voting for Stutsman Nov. 6.
“Sally is very genuine and passionate about the office she is running for,” said Jenn during one of Stutsman’s recent town-hall meetings at Shuey’s Restaurant in Shueyville. “She will listen to the people in District 77, and take their valued concerns and issues to the state legislature. I believe she has the knowledge and experience for this office.”
A candidates’ forum for Iowa Legislative District 77, featuring Stutsman and her Republican opponent Steve Sherman of North Liberty, will be held on Thursday, Nov. 1, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Coralville City Hall. The same forum will also host candidates for House District 73, Dick Schwab (D) and Bobby Kaufmann (R).