DES MOINES — Prior to the 2016 election, political advocacy groups funded by billionaire brothers from Kansas donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates for the Iowa Statehouse and reached hundreds of thousands of Iowa homes via campaign mailers, phone calls and door-knocking.
And during the recently concluded 2017 legislative session, those groups provided templates and advocated for multiple conservative bills that were passed into Iowa law.
Throughout the 2017 legislative session, Iowa Democrats accused their Republican counterparts of passing multiple state laws that were the will of out-of-state groups funded by Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists and big-money conservative donors from Kansas. The Democrats said those conservative initiatives weren't desired by Iowans, not even Republican Iowa voters.
Democrats charged throughout the often-contentious legislative session that Republican-supported bills that reformed public-employee collective bargaining, workers' compensation, medical malpractice and asbestos claims were not the priorities of Iowans, but instead were the priorities of the Koch brothers and two groups they fund — Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“The Koch brothers and corporate backers — they’re the ones who want this bill, not the people of Iowa,” Democratic state Rep. Bruce Hunter of Des Moines said during the three-day debate on the collective bargaining bill.
Iowa Republicans deny their marching orders came from the Koch brothers or their political organizations, but the data shows the imprint of the Koch brothers and their groups are all over the 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature, starting with the 2016 election that produced all-Republican control at the Iowa Capitol for the first time in two decades.
Koch Industries’ political action committee donated $46,000 to Iowa Statehouse candidates in 2015 and 2016, according to state campaign finance records. All but $500 of that money went to Republican candidates.
The largest donations went to Republican leaders: $7,500 to state Sen. Bill Dix, who after the election became Senate majority leader, and $5,000 to House Speaker Linda Upmeyer.
And donations ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 went to Republican chairmen of key committees and candidates in competitive districts that were crucial in flipping control of the Senate from Democrats to Republicans.
Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy organization funded by the Koch brothers, also was heavily involved in the campaign leading up to the 2016 election.
While the group does not divulge its spending, it says that during the 2016 campaign in Iowa, it made 718,408 phone calls, knocked on 52,903 doors and sent 318,048 mailers.
Americans for Prosperity also was active during the 2017 session, lobbying legislators and drumming support for some of the GOP’s biggest bills, including the public-employee collective bargaining reform.
Met with great opposition from Democrats and public-employee unions, the bill, which has been signed into law, greatly reduced the benefits for which public employees can bargain.
Multiple bills introduced by Iowa Republicans were carbon copies of model legislation offered by another Koch-funded group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
The organization calls itself “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.” Among the membership services it provides is model legislation for state lawmakers to introduce.
Few bills introduced this year by Iowa Republicans followed ALEC models to the letter, but many were ideologically similar.
A bill that limits claims for asbestos-related injuries was written with very similar wording to ALEC model legislation on the subject.
The Iowa bills on collective bargaining and workers' compensation reform were not copied from ALEC models, making Democrats’ accusations that ALEC wrote the bills erroneous. But the bills were similar in intent to ALEC model legislation.
Accusations of influence
Republicans deny that their 2017 legislative agenda was written by out-of-state groups, including those funded by the Koch brothers, as Democrats claim. Republican legislators said their reform bills were needed to update Iowa laws and were desired by the Iowans who voted the GOP into control.
“Senate Republicans moved bills through this chamber focused on economic growth and improving career opportunities for Iowans,” Dix, of Shell Rock, wrote in an emailed statement. "Democrats’ efforts to portray this agenda as a bizarre, grassy-knoll conspiracy theory show how fully and completely out of touch they are with the priorities of Iowans."
Dix in his statement turned the tables on Democrats, accusing them of being beholden to union donors.
“The real story is how Iowa Democrats were showered with approximately $4 million from public sector labor over the last two election cycles,” Dix said. “It is no wonder Democrat Legislators are totally committed to their union bosses.”
A spokesman for Americans for Prosperity said the organization reached out to Iowa voters during the campaign and then advocated during the session for conservative policies that Iowans wanted.
“The impact that (Americans for Prosperity) had on the 2017 legislative session is based on the work that we’ve been doing across the state for several years,” said Drew Klein, the organization’s state director and Capitol lobbyist. “We have focused much of our efforts on having real conversations with Iowans, whether at our events or on their doorsteps, about the issues that need to be addressed.”
Klein was the focus of a partisan dustup when he was photographed with Terry Branstad as the state’s Republican governor signed the collective bargaining bill into law. The bill signing was not advertised as a public event, and upset Democrats decried Klein’s presence and photo as a victory lap for Iowa Republicans and Americans for Prosperity.
Klein said Americans for Prosperity will be back in 2018 pushing for “comprehensive tax reform.”