Iowa Sen. Roby Smith can't have it both ways in the upcoming legislative session.
Smith can either stand by his pledge to end Iowa's unjust school funding formula or back his party's crusade to cut taxes.
What's it going to be, Senator?
Smith, like the rest of the Legislature's ruling GOP, will face significant pressure to back tax cuts -- in some form -- when the Legislature gavels in this week. In fact, there can be no doubt that the heat is already on the GOP's rank-and-file.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has just one session to distinguish herself from her predecessor, Terry Branstad, prior to her re-election bid in November. Senate leadership has dubbed this moment of total Republican dominance a "once-in-a-generation opportunity." And taking Iowa's tax cuts even further has long topped the state GOP's list of priorities.
It's exceedingly likely that the still-nebulous tax cut plan would ultimately carry a price tag, even if the federal tax overhaul pumps a little more cash into state coffers. Over the long haul, it would sap revenue from an already troubled state budget. Even if those putting faith in the transformation power of state tax cuts are correct, it would take years for the economic growth to pay back the immediate loss of potentially tens of millions of dollars from state coffers. And that's a big if.
Smith, last year, was a driving force behind the Senate's attempt to correct the historic injustice that is Iowa's school funding formula. Davenport Community School District misses out on more than $2 million in state aid every year because an inequitable, draconian law that limits its per-pupil spending at levels below its neighbors. The Davenport district is the poster child for change to a system cemented in backdoor deals made four decades ago and affecting dozens of districts statewide. Superintendent Art Tate faces expulsion from his profession because he protested the system that designates his students second class.
The Senate's proposed 10-year fix, which cost $20 million in its first year, died of neglect in the House. It sat on a shelf, never moving out of committee, because the House GOP couldn't find the cash to pay for it. Smith's effort in 2017 was laudable. The bill wasn't perfect, a fact Democrats were quick to point out. But it was attainable in the political moment. It won't be if, suddenly, an already cash-strapped state goes about bleeding its coffers even further. This reality is even more pointed when considering the other special interests -- such as the so-called "school choice" crowd -- that will this year walk into the Statehouse seeking cash.
Smith isn't alone in this zero-sum struggle between fealty to party dogma and commitment to a constituency demanding action. House Republicans Ross Paustian, Norlin Mommsen and Gary Mohr also represent the Quad-Cities. Yet, among them, only Mohr has shown any legitimize interest in fixing what amounts to systematic injustice. In fact, Paustian has, in past years, been a roadblock, due to his unwavering allegiance to Iowa Farm Bureau.
Smith, though, has more to lose than all of his House counterparts combined. He's chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee, and it's no secret that leadership positions quickly disappear for those who buck the party line. Smith is just 40 years old and a relative heavyweight, by Iowa standards, at fundraising, facts that those within his political orbit cite when building a case for his political future. Smith's represents what can be described as a swing district -- Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won it by less than a point in 2016 -- and 2018 is an election year for Smith. And he just so happened to be the propellant behind the Senate's doomed attempt to treat public school students in Davenport and Maquoketa as if they mattered as much as those in other districts.
Smith's calculus, then, is more complicated than others when the push to cut taxes comes to a head early in the upcoming session. Bucking his party would be a risk, one that could threaten future political aspirations. But a passionate rebuke of any tax cuts that don't fix Iowa's inequity in school funding would show his political independence to voters in the Quad-Cities.
Smith could be a good Republican soldier, thereby maintaining relationships with Senate leadership and a governor hungry for an ideological win. Or, he could build a coalition that opposes tax cuts until Iowa's unjust educational funding formula is addressed.
That choice is Smith's and Smith's alone.