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In the race for the Iowa House District 97 seat, Norlin Mommsen, a Republican legislator seeking his fourth House term, will square off against challenger Ryan Zeskey, of LeClaire, a newcomer to the political scene.

Mommsen, a farmer from DeWitt, serves on the House’s Agriculture, Appropriations, Education and Natural Resources committees and is the chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee.

A major focus of his work is water quality and soil health and to get land owners to invest in making soil healthier, because by doing so, improved water quality will naturally follow.

He acknowledges appropriating money entails walking a very fine line. He said there are hot spots in the state “that, in theory, if you wanted to make a bigger impact on water quality you’d throw (the money) there.” But at the same time, he said, giving more money to one county means another county or project will lose a portion of theirs.

He said that, too often, people forget Steve Olson (his predecessor in the District 97 seat) never showed him where the money tree is, he said with a laugh.

He does believe the state does a very good job overall in trying to be fair, and said he actually was surprised when he first got to Des Moines that he didn’t see the appropriations discrepancy he thought he would see.

One thing he’d really like to have happen are sunset clauses on approved legislation: Once something gets in place, it’s there forever, he said. Everything needs a sunset and to be looked at again. “If it’s good bring it back, if it’s bad make it go away.”

Agricultural issues tend to not be a target of opponents of the Republican-led Iowa Legislature, he said in an earlier interview with the Clinton Herald. He said opponents are more likely to cite concerns with education funding and collective bargaining. He points out that contrary to the way the Chapter 20 changes have been portrayed, the parties can negotiate more than salary and there is a list of items that can be negotiated if it is agreed to by both parties.

Collective bargaining actually was the topic that led off our discussion with Zeskey, a U.S. Navy veteran who worked in medical supply distribution and transportation before the pandemic. He said it is stark to him that actions taken by the Iowa Legislature for at least the past three years have been detrimental to the 97th District. He said the biggest detriment is the Chapter 20 legislation limiting bargaining rights for public employees approved in 2017.

He described it as the “A-No. 1 domino” that led to problems still cascading throughout the state: It removes rights of teachers and nurses and every public employee who doesn’t carry an authorized weapon, he said. Stripped of their bargaining rights, teachers now are being sent into the fray of the coronavirus pandemic by a governor who decided in mid-July that school districts must have 50 percent of students in the classroom when reopening in the fall – a directive that teachers can’t thumb their noses at, said Zeskey, who is the father of two young boys.

“We are in a situation now in Iowa where cases are exploding, kids are getting sick and (teachers) have no recourse, legally, to walk out or strike,” he said.

He also points out that the state is locked in a situation where schools are underfunded, because while the money they are given only takes inflation into account, budgeting for growth to cover things such as needed increased broadband access is not happening.

But Mommsen says the state has always worked toward increasing funding for schools and that during the last legislative session, the state allocated $100 million in new money for schools. Funding for kindergarten through 12th grades is 45% of the state’s budget. State funding for community colleges and institutions governed by the Board of Regents raises that percentage to 55%.

But in the end, Zeskey said, more needs to be done: It’s the actions taken by the Legislature as a whole he wants to change, he said. “I don’t think people are aware that one party decides how it’s going to be and the other party gets no say in it. I’m willing to go in there and have those conversations. I’m standing up to do that. I want to be in the room for those discussions.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of editorials exploring how local and state candidates’ policies would impact the Gateway area. The Clinton Herald will not be endorsing a candidate in these races. These editorials are designed to help voters decide which candidate would be better for their interests as individuals and their interests as part of a broader Eastern Iowa region.

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