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Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 16, 2018

Legislators wrap up forums

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Apr 23, 2018
Photo by: ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Students from Maharishi School congratulate Iowa Rep. Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant) Saturday on his 24 years of service in the Iowa House of Representatives. Heaton announced he will not seek re-election in 2018. The students are, from left, Ashtyn Soares, Neethu Yannanur, Heaton, Chase Winer, Jada Sparks and Matthew Park.

Saturday was the fourth and final Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce legislative forum of the year.

The four local legislators - Phil Miller (D-Fairfield), Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant), Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) and Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa) - answered questions from the audience at Best Western Fairfield Inn.

Unlike past forums that have focused on specific issues such as gun control or mental health, Saturday’s forum focused more on the legislators themselves, such as what life is like on Capitol Hill and who tries to lobby them to change their vote.

 

Part-time position

Maharishi School headmaster Richard Beall asked the panel about what it’s like to work only part-time as a legislator, and about what happens if they don’t pass a budget by the end of the session.

Legislators receive a per diem allowance while they work on Capitol Hill, but this only lasts until the end of the session. If legislators must stay extra days to pass legislation, all expenses come from their own pocket.

Heaton, who has served in the Legislature since 1994 and who will retire at the end of this year, said he can tell when it’s time for the senators and representatives to go home.

“The proposals start to get funny if the legislators have been in town too long,” he joked.

He said the eight months of the year that the Legislature is not in session are spent researching issues and listening to his constituents.

Taylor said he’s grateful the session is as short as it is, because “If we were there much longer, we’d accomplish less.” He said the tight timeframe forces the legislators to focus on the issues that matter most.

Taylor also expressed a desire to raise legislators’ pay so that the position would be available for young people who are not independently weathly.

Chelgren told the audience that Iowa’s Legislature was designed for farmers, which is why it meets in the winter months.

He noted that meeting four months out of the year might not seem like much but it’s more than some states that meet every other year. The state Legislature in four states - Texas, Montana, North Dakota and Nevada - meets only in odd numbered years.

Chelgren, who was elected to the Senate in 2010 and who is also stepping down this year, had a different attitude toward legislator pay from Taylor’s.

“Being a legislator should be a contribution to our community. We shouldn’t go with our hand out,” he said.

Chelgren said the Legislature should adopt term limits, and encourage older members to mentor young ones to replace them when their term limit comes up. He also suggested the Legislature should change its focus from one year to the next, alternating between working on the budget one year and on policy the next year.

Miller said he has realized in his first year in the House how little input the minority party has, and in Iowa’s case at the moment, that’s the Democrats.

“The debate is really between majority party members,” he said. “We learn about bills under consideration only the day before we vote on them. I read about them all day and night, and still we must rely on other legislators to understand them.”

 

‘Undue influence’

Audience member Paul Winer asked the legislators how often people try to lobby them and how often they feel this is “undue influence.”

Heaton said lobbyists play an important role on Capitol Hill because they provide information to legislators.

“You have to learn from them but also realize they have a point of view,” he said.

Heaton said legislators receive a large number of form letters and robocalls, and mentioned that those are not persuasive.

Taylor said he receives emails nearly constantly.

“I have 142 unread emails since I last checked at 10 p.m. last night,” he said.

Taylor agreed with Heaton about legislators needing to hear from experts, including lobbyists.

“I can talk about air conditioning all day, but if you ask me about health, I need to talk to a doctor,” he said. “I try to find a solution that pleases most people, even if I don’t agree with it.”

Chelgren said he has 1,000 unread emails, and that he often gets hundreds of emails saying the exact same thing. Like Heaton, he said sending form letters or emails to legislators is not effective.

“The best way to contact your legislator is to call them or speak to them in person,” he said.

Chelgren said he doesn’t view his role as someone who votes for whatever is popular at the time. Instead, he takes a management perspective, asking himself how legislation will affect Iowa years down the road.

“I know I’m not always going to please people, but I look out for Iowa’s future,” he said.

 

Solar energy

Lindsey Friend and Lewis Butler, both of the Fairfield-based firm Iowa Wind and Solar, asked the legislators to oppose Senate File 2311, a bill they said will hurt Alliant Energy’s solar customers. They said the bill allows utilities to charge solar customers higher rates, higher than those that were negotiated at the time the customer installed their solar array.

“Our concern is for the people who have already installed solar so that their saving expectations are met,” Butler said.

Taylor said he voted against the bill, and considered it “very damaging for renewable energy jobs in Iowa.”

Chelgren supported the bill because it includes changes to utility bills he believes are important.

“When we buy electricity, we pay 10 percent more than we use, for energy saving projects like smart refrigerators,” he said. “Utilities keep 20 percent of that for administrative expenses, and it’s not disclosed on the bill. This bill fixes that.”

Chelgren said the reason the bill would increase costs to solar customers is that it would change how they are remunerated when selling energy to the utility. Previously, solar customers have received the full retail value of the energy they sold to the grid. Chelgren said this has caused utilities to lose money since they have more costs than just producing electricity, such as maintaining the grid and paying for insurance. The bill would allow utilities to sell the electricity at wholesale value. He said remunerating solar customers for the full retail value of the electricity shifts the costs of producing it onto other customers.

The legislation would also cap the charge for energy efficiency programs at 2 percent of a customer’s bill. Heaton said the bill should have been broken into three separate bills because some parts make sense but others do not.

“Capping efficiency programs [at 2 percent of the bill] could take energy backwards,” he said. “You must submit rate increases to the Iowa Utilities Board. They’re the only ones who represent us, and this bill wants to bypass that. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. Where do we come in?’”

Miller said the “future of energy is clean sources such as solar and wind.” He feared the bill would kill small renewable energy firms, and energy would continue to be the domain of monopolies.

 

Nuclear power and climate change

Mary Tarnoff of the Southeast Iowa Sierra Club asked why the Legislature doesn’t regulate the energy monopolies better by allowing greater competition. She also asked if the legislators would agree to sign a resolution dealing with climate change.

Chelgren said the United States once had a robust nuclear energy sector, which would have eliminated lots of fossil fuels.

“I’m a free market guy. I want to see people create their own energy and sell it to the market,” he said. “I’m not in favor of giving them tax credits indefinitely. At what point do we expose them to the market? We can’t say we’re for the market and support tax credits for our pet projects.”

Heaton said nuclear power is not necessarily a cure-all since it produces waste that remains radioactive for years. He said nuclear reactors that use an element called thorium instead of uranium could provide energy with less harmful radioactive waste.

Miller said coal and natural gas plants are still needed to produce electricity, but added that the country must turn toward using more renewables.

Taylor supports nuclear energy, but “we need to make sure it’s safe, and right now it’s not safe.”

He noted that energy bills are quite low in America compared to other countries. Heaton said Iowa has the cheapest electricity in the Midwest.

 

Loans for small farmers

Rich Sims of Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors Inc. asked the four men if they would support state-backed loans for individual farmers, since they have more trouble getting loans that operators of larger confined animal feeding operations.

“I would probably not support state-backing if the banks don’t want to loan,” Chelgren said.

Heaton agreed, saying that if a bank wouldn’t take a risk on the loan, the government shouldn’t either.

“Life is not easy for farmers now with the tariffs between us and China,” Heaton said. “A tremendous amount of money is invested in CAFOs, and you need to export 40 percent of your pork to make it work. When we see a reduction in baby pigs, we’ll see bankers come, and then we’ll be on the edge of a lot of trouble.”

Taylor said it’s actually easier for farmers to get loans for seeds now than it was in the 1970s.

“With the advent of crop insurance, banks are comfortable making those loans, confident they will be made whole,” he said.

 

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