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Democracy

3/28/2022

A bill has been proposed in the Iowa Senate that would give enormous power to a minority in the Iowa Legislature.

Not a racial, gendered, religious or ethnic minority, but a minority that would constitute just one-third of either legislative house. 

The bill, Senate Study Bill 3064, which last week received approval from a Senate ways and means subcommittee, would require a two-thirds majority in each house of the Legislature in order to raise the Iowa income, corporate, sales, or use tax.

The measure can’t simply be voted in by the Legislature in order to take effect. It needs to be embedded in the Iowa Constitution as an amendment. Therefore it would have to be adopted by the current Legislature and then in exactly in the same form by the next Legislature, and then be approved by Iowa voters in a referendum.

Similar efforts have been tried before in Iowa, unsuccessfully. In 1999, after adoption in two successive legislative sessions, Iowans turned back an attempted amendment to require a three-fifths legislative majority to raise state income or sales taxes. That referendum vote was 205,317 “yes” and 222,126 “no”, or 48 percent in favor and 52 percent against.

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The three-fifths majority required in the 1999 proposal would have meant that only 40 of the 100 Iowa House members or 20 in the 50-member Senate could have successfully denied a tax structure that most of the House and Senate thought was necessary for the state to do its job.

The current proposal is even more extreme. Requiring a two-thirds majority means that just 34 members in the House or 17 in the Senate could halt a proposal. 

Note the word “or”. Even if a big majority of the members of one house—say 70 of the 100 House members—were to adopt a state tax increase, just 17 Senators could vote it down. 

It’s no coincidence that the amendment effort is underway in the same Legislature that just a few weeks ago enacted the largest tax cut in Iowa history. When that cut takes full effect after the next four years, Iowa’s annual state revenues will be reduced by close to $2 billion, or more than 20 percent.

This at a time when inflation drives up the price of everything, including the services and supplies the state pays for. 

How many Iowans could manage to get along on a huge reduction in their income while their costs rise substantially? How many businesses could do that either?

Senator Dan Dawson (R-Council Bluffs), chair of the Senate ways and means committee, who also chaired the subcommittee that advanced the proposed amendment last week, baldly laid it out:

“Any changes we’ve made here in the last few years, it’s all for naught if a simple majority comes in down the road to raise taxes back up.”

A synonym for that “simple majority” is “democracy”. If most legislators favor something, standard operating procedure usually provides that it is adopted.

It’s significant that the supermajority requirement proposal for a tax increase doesn’t also apply to tax cuts. The proposed amendment lets tax cuts be enacted by the feared “simple majority.” That’s how this year’s tax cuts happened.

There’s a reason why the Iowa Constitution stipulates that legislative districts be as balanced in population as possible, and why their boundaries change every 10 years to achieve that balance. It’s to give equal weight to every Iowan’s legislative choice. That way your legislator’s vote is worth the same as mine.

To permit only a third of the House or Senate to deny the considered judgment of the other two-thirds on tax policy makes a joke of the very concept of equal representation. Why should the vote of Senator John Doe from, say, Des Moines carry twice the weight of my Senator’s vote on tax policy, or on any other issue?

I want my legislator to wield the same voting power as that of any other legislator. No more, and no less.

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