Last Monday I had the opportunity to talk at length with Representative Rod Roberts (R-Carroll) who is one of the seven Republicans competing for the GOP nomination to run against Governor Chet Culver.  Representative Roberts has served in the Iowa House of Representatives since January 2001.  He also serves as the Assistant House Minority Leader and is the senior member of the House Republican Leadership.  Representative Roberts also serves as the Development Director for Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in Iowa.

This will be the second in the series of three blog posts highlighting my interview with him.  If you would like to listen to the very raw audio of this interview, go here.  You can read part I of this interview on his motivation to run for Governor and his agenda here.

Shane Vander Hart: Governor Culver just last week (almost 2 weeks ago now) announced a 10% across the board cut to the state budget due to a predicted budget shortfall.  If you were to be elected governor how would you approach spending cuts?

Representative Roberts: You know, first of all, when you ask me a question like that I can’t help to go back and say, “This should have started a long time ago.”  Because one thing I’ve always stated fairly simply and directly back home and practiced it in my years of serving in the Legislature, and that is you have got to be careful in how you spend the people’s money.  This goes back to respect again, to the taxpayers, and there’s also a constitutional point that is important to me and that is that the legislative branch of government appropriates money. 

The Governor is to manage the budget and he has limitations on what he can do with it.  But when it comes to the problem that developed with our state’s budget, this didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t a week ago or last Wednesday morning when we realized we had this significant budget problem.  We’ve should have started a long time ago working with the Legislature in saying we’ve got to abide by the 99% spending limitation, which I always believed that’s the law, which it is, and short of putting it into the constitution, which is what we maybe ought to do from now on, is seriously propose getting it passed and put in the constitution so the people say you can’t spend more than 99%.  You should abide by that. 

We should have gone back and said, “you know what we’re going to have to go back and trim the budget, look for cost savings.”  As we did last session, House Republicans went through each budget, the work the people of Iowa think we do every year.  You actually go through the budgets and you go line by line and find areas where you can save money.  That was done 333 million dollars was proposed in budget cuts, working with the Governor… I think that the legislative branch and the executive branch can find common ground on how you bring revenue and expenditures back into alignment.

Now having said that, if you have a mess like this, that you have been responsible for – which it’s kind of an apples and oranges thing.  So I’d like to think it would have never have gotten that bad with Rod Roberts as Governor.  You know the Governor did, at that moment in time, the only thing he could do probably from his vantage point.  Because he had denied all the way up until last Wednesday that we had a serious budget problem, and if you’re in that kind of denial up until the last moment and then all of sudden you’re confronted with a problem that large – He immediately ordered a large cut to the budget that was, you know, a significant reduction in what was planned for.   And I think it was unfortunate for the people whose lives are going to be affected, and I’m not just talking about state employees, but when I think about the impact to local school districts that really caught people unawares – because even the best administrators anticipated maybe a 5% budget reduction, but 10%?

Shane Vander Hart: That’s huge.

Representative Roberts: Huge!  I mean that’s poor management, let alone poor leadership on the part of the Governor.  So it’s kind of hard to be apples to oranges on that because I would be proactive in anticipating; history tells you the economy has run in cycles, we knew that the revenue picture was deteriorating.  We should have reigned in our spending and been very cautious and prudent with spending, so we wouldn’t be caught in a moment like this.

Shane Vander Hart: Instead of increasing it (the budget) and taking federal stimulus money…

Representative Roberts: Absolutely

Shane Vander Hart: And blowing it up…

Representative Roberts: And for all the bragging… you know we made cuts to the budget, but you’re spending more in the general fund than you ever have, and that is what people look at.

Shane Vander Hart: It seems like much of the spending cuts needed to be made are within his (Culver’s) spending increases….

I’m a small government conservative.  I think there are things that on the state level that we should be doing that I don’t think we have any business doing on the federal level, but how would you as governor continue to shrink, or least manage, the size of government and not allow it to grow into this largess… this bloated thing that we are facing at the moment?

Representative Roberts: There are several ways to answer that.  Number one we go back to the 99% spending limitation.  That you abide by the law, that you only live within the revenue means provided by the taxpayers.  You don’t raise taxes on Iowans.  That’s the absolute wrong thing to do.  Not only in hard times or difficult times, which most people would say we’re entering a very difficult economic time, but even when times are good you don’t need to raise taxes in good or bad times.  We have adequate revenue and resources in place that we should live within the law and only spend 99% of what you take in.  That’s just good common sense, thrifty Iowa, you know, financial thinking.  That’s one thing.

Another thing, I think most people should be able to define, what are the priority areas of government when it comes to spending the people’s money?  What should government do that no one else can do, for the common good?  Whether you answer that from a constitutional point of view, you know… life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, you know the whole idea of personal property.  But for me, it means that government exists to protect the law abiding, peaceful, upright citizens and you punish the wrongdoer.  That’s a pretty raw definition of government.

Shane Vander Hart: So definitely emergency services and Department of Corrections and…

Representative Roberts:  and that goes out of that flows out of that, and that there you might call law enforcement/corrections, that’s right at the forefront.  Access to justice, that’s another piece to that.  Separate, but related to the first item.

The third thing I would describe as commerce, which you might put as infrastructure… roads, bridges, etc.  The things that need to be in place for the common good when it comes to commerce, the economy.  I think most people acknowledge that. 

I think in Iowa, historically and even today, people are willing to invest resources in educating our young people – the wide definition of K12 and  higher education, you know Iowans historically have said we invest resources there.  And of course with me, I’ve always been a strong proponent of making sure we advocate for parental choice when it comes to educating our children so private schools are important to me.  Home schooling, I’ve been supportive of all of those, even before I was ever elected to the legislature.  Because the last thing you want is the government controlling education as a monopoly.

Shane Vander Hart: What are your thoughts on the funding for pre-school, the pre-K programs now?

Representative Roberts: I was opposed to a four-year old preschool being rolled into the public school system, not only from the standpoint of cost, but the fact of the matter is you already had services provided for young children privately and in other ways.  We had enough on our hands trying to provide a five-year-old through 12th grade, and actually at the time, most school administrators would tell you we don’t need that too.  The resources that you had were limited, and now you just expand the scope of what we have to deliver.  And you’re going to try to add more dollars, but those dollars might be better spent by just putting the five-year-old, the traditional kindergarten through 12th grade.

Shane Vander Hart: So put them in a Head Start program or something like that?

Representative Roberts: Yes.  So I wasn’t supportive of the four-year-old program to start with.  Anyway you’re back to shrink the size of government…   I was asked not long ago, “How would you shrink the size of the Department of Human Services?”

And I looked at the individual and I said, “You do it through the budget… through money.”

He said, “that’s no answer!”

So well if you you’ve been in the legislature or in the government as long as I have; the only time this is ever possible is when it is economic hard times, and you do it through the money.  Because no one will ever be able to discover where you can do this when times are good.

Shane Vander Hart: Very true.

Representative Roberts: It is only in hard times.  Now you are seeing it with what the Governor ordered last week… 10%.  They will be forced or compelled to downsize.

Shane Vander Hart: Well even they… I saw in the Sunday Register… they’re suggesting, the Editorial Board, to drop, going from four mental health institutions to one.

Representative Roberts: Right, yeah.

Shane Vander Hart: I never thought I’d hear (actually read) the Register suggest something like that.

Representative Roberts: Well, it’s different now.  It’s different now.  Post 9-11 when we had some economic hard times, and Governor Vilsack at the time decided to go into this area of charter agencies, see if we could save money and do some streamlining.  There was a twinge of economic downturn at that moment, but we rebounded nicely.  And all of sudden… that’s off the table.  That’s history.  You know only when you have a serious downturn and true economic hardship time can you pull this off.  Only at that time.  Because everyone will fight you.

Shane Vander Hart: What would you do as Governor to help create private sector jobs?

Representative Roberts: I actually am a proponent, that I think eventually what you do is eliminate the business and corporate income tax in Iowa.  I’ve been in the Legislature long enough to see Vision Iowa, Values Fund, this program, that initiative, tax credits, incentive programs, film industry, etc. etc.

We’ve demonstrated that you definitely can effect economic activity by tax policy.  Tax something less, you get more of it!

Shane Vander Hart: Absolutely.

Representative Roberts: And actually the net revenue to the state of Iowa through that particular category of income tax is only about 250 to 270 million dollars, which yeah it sounds like a lot of money, however in the big scheme of things – imagine what it would do both in terms of the dramatic statement it would make about Iowa.  We’re open for business.  We are willing to demonstrate that by saying we’re going to eliminate our business or corporate income tax.  We’re serious about this.  We want you to come here and invest in your future.  I tend to think that is the kind of message that does attract business, and the offset of that would be if businesses were to come to Iowa because of that incentive – you’ve eliminated their corporate income tax, the benefit is that you’ll generate revenue through personal income tax and sales tax revenue.

So the net might be much smaller than what you are giving up in that $270 million in a year, but you are getting it back with increased business activity, people employed, and I think ultimately when you say that, that  is how you answer the question of 110,000 Iowans out of work – what do you do for those people?  You do what you can to create private sector jobs.

Shane Vander Hart: It seems like California is finally starting to get that.  They have a bipartisan proposal to eliminate corporate tax.  Now it looks like they are going to have a better business environment than what we do.

Representative Roberts: Well the irony is that is isn’t unattainable for us, and I know with a difficult budget situation.  You may think… “oh man that is way out there.” But I don’t think it should be for us, I think it should be a commitment, and I would make that as governor, that we should go down this path.  And I know you might take some barbs to start with.  “Oh you’re just looking at corporate welfare here.”  No!  I’m thinking about the 110,000 Iowans who are out of work.  They need jobs.  We’re not going to make them for them – private businesses will, and how do we get them to come to Iowa?  This is what we do, and I would make a hard pitch for that as it is in our long-term best interest and the best interest of these Iowans.  Maybe it’s not government’s best interest to start with, but it is in the terms of those families who are looking for someone to create a job for them.

Shane Vander Hart: Just a bonus question I thought of – what is your position on the federal deductibility issue?

Representative Roberts: Oh, we keep that.  We keep federal deductibility.  Absolutely.  They have absolutely destroyed any hope of ever saying… “well if you eliminate that it would be revenue neutral proposition in lowering our rates.”  And even then maybe you have to do a super majority to try and raise income tax rates.  But now, forget it, nobody who has been around and watched this will ever touch it again because the public reaction will be “they’re trying to raise our taxes somewhere.”  That’s permanently maimed.

Part III will focus on Representative Roberts’ position on marriage, abortion, education and criminal justice in Iowa.

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