Iowa: Small State with a Big Tax Watchdog Group

Published September 1, 2005

Iowa may be one of the smallest states–just five congressional districts and a population of 2.94 million–but it can boast the nation’s largest state taxpayer advocacy group, Iowans for Tax Relief (ITR).

Across the country, there are other strong state taxpayer advocacy groups, but none can claim more than 50,000 members and four full-time lobbyists working their state capitol. Iowans for Tax Relief stands toe-to-toe with the state teacher union and other well-heeled groups that usually lobby for increases in state spending and taxes.

In for Long Haul

“I think one of the reasons we have had success and have been around so long is that we do not have citizen initiatives or referendums in Iowa,” said Jeffrey Boeyink, ITR’s secretary. “We knew the only way to make positive changes was to work with the legislature, and that takes time.

“Most groups burn out as soon as their initiative is done. We started with the idea we’re going to have to be around a long time, build a big membership base, and have the same tools our opponents use to influence policy.”

The group got its start in 1978 as a wave of tax protests swept the country. David M. Stanley, currently ITR’s chairman, founded the group by going from town to town, holding dinners and meeting with people in homes, businesses, restaurants–wherever was convenient.

Within a year, the group had a lobbyist in the state capitol and members in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Five years after that, ITR created Taxpayers United, a political action committee.

ITR does not charge membership fees. Members contribute whatever they like.

“Not all contribute, but many of the ones who don’t are great citizen lobbyists,” Boeyink said. “They send the postcards, send the emails, make the phone calls, talk to others, and that is very important work.”

String of Victories Achieved

Before long ITR was able to claim significant successes.

“We have deductibility of federal income tax from state taxes. No tax on a tax was one of our founding issues,” Boeyink said. “We also have the option of filing separately if you’re married. They tried to eliminate that in the late 1980s. That was a huge rallying cry. We jammed the capitol phone lines with people in support of our position. That issue helped put us on the map.”

In 1987 ITR lobbied for and won a major victory for Iowa taxpayers when the state’s top income tax rate was slashed from 13 percent to 9.98 percent.

In 1995 ITR sponsored a presidential candidates forum, attracting eight candidates and more than 50 national media outlets.

Two years later, at ITR’s urging, the state income tax was cut by 10 percent across the board, and the inheritance tax was repealed for lineal ascendants and descendants.

Since then the state has repealed the residential utility tax and has granted “back to school” sales tax holidays.

Membership Launches Political Career

Stewart Iverson Jr. of Clarion, Iowa has been a member for more than 20 years. When he joined he had no idea his involvement with ITR would lead to a political career that now has him serving in the Iowa Senate as Republican floor leader. He has been in the Iowa General Assembly for 16 years.

Iverson learned of ITR through his banker, who invited him to a meeting.

“I had never heard of the group,” Iverson said, “but my banker invited me to go. David Stanley was putting on the meeting. I listened to what their causes were and liked what I heard. The basic premise of their cause is to watch how tax dollars are spent and watch out for taxes that might be raised. I am not a believer in raising taxes. Government should live within its means. I have worked closely with ITR throughout my political career.”

Steep Tax Hike Averted

Iverson credits ITR with helping to stave off numerous tax hikes in recent years, including last year’s proposed doubling of the state cigarette tax, from 36 to 72 cents a pack.

“The governor [Democrat Tom Vilsack] said we should raise the cigarette tax to pay for Medicaid,” Iverson said. “People realized it was just a way to grow government. ITR helped get that message out.”

Another influential supporter of Iowans for Tax Relief is State Rep. Jamie Van Fossen (R-Davenport), chairman of the Iowa House Ways and Means Committee.

“When ITR speaks, the legislature listens,” Van Fossen said. “There are all kinds of groups wanting a piece of the taxpayers’ buck. ITR is the only group that sticks up for the taxpayer, whether it’s income, sales, or property taxes. That’s why they have such a large membership. Our Farm Bureau does a great job on property taxes, and there are other groups that have their particular area of interest, but there is no other group that does all of the big taxes, and no other group that can go toe to toe with the teachers.”

Van Fossen said lawmakers also know ITR will stand behind candidates throughout an election.

“If you’re a pro-taxpayer candidate, they’ll support you all the way,” he said. “Those candidates and their opponents both know that.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.