Local Legislators take questions during weekend forum

State Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.

Varad Diwate

Ames residents had a chance to hear directly from local state legislators on a wide range of issues during the Legislative Wake-Up on Saturday.

The event was organized by the League of Women Voters of Ames and Story County and took place at the Ames City Chambers.

Legislators in attendance included state Reps. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, state Sens. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, Jerry Behn R-Boone and Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock.

“This forum is one of the events during the year to help educate voters,” said Linda Murken, co-chairwoman of the Ames and Story County chapter. “During the [legislative] session, we try to bring in legislators every few weeks to talk to their constituents, let them know what’s going on and take questions.”

The League of Women is a non-partisan organization that seeks to educate voters on public policy and encourage participation in government. Members of this group and the general public attended the event.

“I am a member of the League of Women Voters and I am also interested in several issues,” said Beverly Kruempel, an Ames resident. “It’s important that we have both parties represented and to have good audience participation.”

The legislators started with introductions and legislative updates. Members of the audience then asked questions on a variety of issues.

Childhood poverty:

Democratic candidates emphasized funding at all levels of education, while Republicans talked about job needs for those who have the necessary skills.

“Anytime we have done educational reform, my position has always been to address poverty issues,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “We will do a lot more to reform education if we change the institution itself.”

Behn said Republicans in the legislature have been working on job skills training, but job growth is only possible in the private sector if businesses have an incentive to hire.

“One of the best ways to handle poverty is to ensure individuals have skills they need and that jobs are available once they have the skills,” Behn said. “We have been working to improve the job climate in Iowa. … We have been looking for tax policies that will incentivize businesses to hire more people.”

Tax credits for firms involved in research

Republican legislators said they will look into this issue, but also emphasized the need for additional business incentives. Democratic legislators opposed state tax benefits for firms that already have research as a part of their business plan.

“It turns out there is only a small percentage of firms that benefit from this,” Quirmbach said. “For these firms, research is part of what they do to remain competitive. As a refundable credit, even firms that do not contribute to state taxes get research credit. That’s quite frustrating.”

Dix said he believes Iowa needs to restructure the tax system in the state.

“A lot of tax credits and incentives shine a beacon on the reality that we have a tax code in Iowa that’s not as competitive as it needs to be to reward people who make investments in our state,” Dix said.

Felon voting rights

Democratic legislators stressed the need to change the current state law that gives the governor discretion to restore a felon’s voting rights. Republicans defended the current law and pointed out that a constitutional amendment would be necessary for a permanent change.

“The point is there is a mechanism in place for felons to have their voting rights restored,” Behn said. “My understanding is that it is a lengthy process. Perhaps that should be streamlined.”

The Iowa Supreme Court said last week that it would take up a case to decide whether to keep a state law that bans lifetime bans on voting rights for felons. Iowa is one of three states that has a ban, and only allows the governor to restore the rights.

“The interest of the society clearly lies in giving ex-felons the right to vote as they have paid their dues to society and served their sentences,” Quirmbach said. “Restoring the right to vote is a critical part of their reintegration process.”

Voter ID law

Republican legislators defended this policy as a common sense measure, while Democrats said the potential downsides to having a voter ID law are greater than any benefit.

“We ask people to produce a photo ID to get on an airplane, to buy an adult beverage or to cash a check,” Dix said. “About 80 percent of Iowans think this is a common-sense measure and brings additional integrity to our system. So why not pursue it?”

Wessel-Kroeschell said the laws would disproportionately affect the most vulnerable.  

“With voter ID law, we disenfranchise the elderly, especially those who don’t have family, those who live in poverty, those without a driver’s license and potentially students,” she said. “We have a constitutional right to vote, but not a constitutional right to get on an airplane or drink alcohol.”

This was the second forum organized by the League of Women Voters in Ames. The next session will take place in March.