An email from Iowa State Senator Matt McCoy

I don’t write politicians much, but when I do I know not to expect a response. If there is a reply it’s usually in the form of an impersonal message receipt thanking me for my participation. I’m a peon, nobody important. I have no bribes or money to offer them. So imagine my surprise when I saw a response from Senator Matt McCoy in my inbox yesterday. (See the email I sent him last Friday.)

At first I didn’t open it. Its fresh white color stood out against the gray of older, read messages, but I resisted the temptation to click and open it, the knee-jerk reaction I have with most other emails. Was it truly a personal response? I logged out and reread my email post, wondering what he could say in defense of himself.

Maybe it’s from my training as a journalist, but I wondered if I had gotten my facts straight. There is nothing more damaging to a politician or public official than facts, and nothing more damaging to a journalist than bad research and poor information and sources. (The sources thing is a different story though. News stories are only as reliable as the sources they use. If a source gives bad or ill informed information than the whole story suffers.) Accusations better be supported by facts and evidence, and after sending my email to McCoy on Friday I realized I was poorly informed regarding cuts in higher education in Iowa and the state’s income and property taxes; I had no facts or evidence to endorse the claims I made blaming his “tax relief” ideals for starving the state’s educational coffers. So I decided to a little research before opening the email.

I know all too well by experience that Iowa, like most states, has less and less money to spend on its public school system. But, to be frank, I’m unsure what’s causing the drought. It’s true my tuition more than doubled while I was in college. If I remember right, the first semester of my freshman year cost a little more than $1,200. Nearly five years later I cut a check for over $2,800 to pay my final term U-Bill. (The tuition and fees charged for the 2007-08 school year was $6,293, or $3,146.50 per semester. This academic year in-state tuition rose to $6,544, or $3,272 per semester.) Trivial spending and out of control administrative salaries played their part in the increase, I’m sure, but I suspect their roles were minor compared to the main reasons, which I don’t know. Could it have been a decrease in income and property taxes?

According to the Iowa Department of Revenue’s website, state income tax was lowered in 1998 from a range of .4-9.98 percent to .36-8.98 percent. Between 1975 and 1987 the income tax range was .5-13 percent. Though I can’t find the actual numbers (maybe I shouldn’t rely on Google so much and actually get off my ass and go to the library), it was after this cut that I remember the chaos beginning. Earlier this decade the Iowa State Board of Regents imposed double-digit percentage tuition increases, the heaviest in decades. McCoy was an Iowa senator at the time, so I felt comfortable with my charge despite having no evidence at the time.

(Between July 1, 1992 to June 30, 2008 the sales tax in Iowa was steady at 5 percent, and I was unable to find historic figures for property tax rates, which vary depending on the type of property and its value.)

There could have been other factors involved, including a shift or increase in where Iowa’s public funds were spent. After all, this was the same time when good ol’ Tom Vilsack created the Grow Iowa Values Fund, which offered $503 million worth of grants and incentives, as well as tax breaks, to corporations in hopes of creating high-income jobs. A half billion dollars just given away to big business! Nonetheless, this is a simple financial fact: government funding decreases when tax receipts decrease. Lower taxes means less money for infrastructure, social services, hospitals, police and fire departments (a.k.a. state homeland security), and schools.

The irony of this is McCoy is an advocate for education and increased school funding. It makes no sense to me. He’s a champion of “property and income tax relief,” belongs to a party that gave large corporations like Wells Fargo a free pass to siphon state money (get this: through the Export Trade Assistance Program (ETAP), the state of Iowa offers government funded reimbursement for up to 75 percent of a company’s international marketing efforts), but he supports increasing educational funds. Here’s what I don’t get: how the fuck do you increase educational funding when there’s less and less money to do so? Once again Iowa is facing a large budget gap that needs to be completely closed (Iowa law requires that the state budget be balanced no matter what), so increases in educational funding will become the stuff of wet dreams.

Unlike McCoy, I’m not intimate with the intricate ins-and-outs of the state budget or the history of state funding since the mid-1990s, but I decided whatever his email said in defense wouldn’t be convincing. Who was he to accuse my college alma mater of thinking “a $200 million painting is more important than keeping tuition low”? How dare him.

I logged back into my account and opened his email:

To: The Quiet Man
From: McCoy, Matt [LEGIS]

Dear [Quiet Man]:

Thank you for contacting me concerning my comments regarding the sale of the Pollack mural at The University of Iowa. I appreciate your concerns. As you know, this isn't the first time the issue has been discussed. Following the Board of Regents' initial mention of its sale, they approved obtaining a new appraisal of the work.

I have continually tired to develop ways for loan forgiveness for college students and to find ways to pay their college loans. As the discussion regarding the selling of the painting developed, it appears that money raised from such a sale would have to stay with the museum, stay in their endowment, or be used for the purchase of additional art work.. It makes no sense to sell it unless the Regents decides they want to acquire other pieces. In retrospect, I regret bringing up again the issue of selling the Pollock that had been initially raised by a member of the Board of Regents.

We should be able to freely discuss and dialogue on difficult decisions that need to be made. Some ideas are better then others but know that the ultimate goal of keeping student tuition low is worth pursuing.

Matt McCoy

State Senator Matt McCoy
Senate District 31
Representing south & west portions of Des Moines

Damage control. I’m sure everyone who wrote him regarding his “Mural” comments received the same email. Frankly, I applaud his effort. He manned up and admitted he should have kept his mouth closed. Look who was ill informed. It takes guts for a politician to admit he was wrong, so a few quick claps go out to the Democrat of Iowa Senate District 31. Thanks for writing back.

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