By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb., 11, 2024 – Bills have been introduced in both houses of the Iowa legislature raising questions about how Iowa’s public libraries are funded and managed. And when those measures were vetted by committees this past week, both hearing rooms at the State Capitol were packed with people opposing the bills. The discussions were heated.
It may have been the biggest public uprising for Iowa libraries since Prof. Harold Hill and Marcellus Washburn sneaked up on River City. You surely remember their nefarious plot aimed at Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson’s “Music Man.”
So, I arrived early and got a front row seat Saturday morning at one of those “legislative forums” that most legislators have with their constituents, this one at the Welcome Center in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Gardens in Jefferson.
Rick Morain (left), moderator of the legislative forum in Jefferson, opens the session Saturday with Rep. Carter Nordman (center) and Sen. Jesse Green.
When Rep. Nordman, who is 25, and Sen. Green, who is 39, introduced themselves again to the voters, Green noted, “I think it’s kind of neat that Carter is the youngest member in the Iowa House and I’m the youngest in the Senate.”
If you know me, you know I love having the youngest legislators in each chamber representing me. Remember, I’m the guy who believes that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, among many other problems they have, are both too damned old to be running again for the nation’s highest office.
So anyway, both Nordman and Green first won their seats in 2020. In their fourth years in office, they’re both still learning a lot.
I think one lesson they’re going to learn in this session is that you don’t really want to pick on Iowa’s libraries.
Iowa’s people expect their city councils or county boards of supervisors to fund the libraries, adequately, if not well, with tax money. The libraries’ boards of directors generally include some of the most respected people in our communities. They do more than adequate oversight, thank you. Our chief librarians know a whole lot more than most higher-ranking public officials think they do. And those librarians are very well-connected in our communities.
It is likely that Sen. Green and Rep. Nordman do not yet understand that.
After all, neither has a library card. I asked.
“I had one at the Harcourt library as a kid,” Green said, mentioning his hometown, “but not now.”
“No,” said Nordman. “Used to.”
Both were quick to say they respect the positive impact libraries have on communities.
Representative Carter Nordman.
Green said he thinks more city council oversight and involvement could bring spending efficiencies. Nordman said that would not be moving away from “local control,” which has been as much a hallmark of libraries as is their providing books and services free to the public. “After all, what’s more ‘local’ than a city council?” he said.
Both were very strong saying the changes the new legislative bills propose have nothing to do with wanting to control what books are available in libraries.
“One of my biggest disappointments to us (in the contentious debate the past week) is how the Iowa Library Association has conducted itself in this,” Nordman told the crowd, with a real edge in his voice. “They have lied to their members, they have lied to city councils, and even have lied to the public. We (legislators) don’t care about the contents of our public libraries – period. The ILA has said it’s about contents. It is not.”
That strong comment prompted some grumbling from the crowd of about 30, but things stayed cool.
That’s been a tradition at legislative forums in Greene County, where the moderator for years has been Rick Morain, now the semi-retired editor & publisher of the Jefferson Bee & Herald newspapers. He gathers questions from people attending, insisting they be written on note cards and not asked orally. “We’re not in debate mode here,” Morain said in starting the discussion, which he indicated would be informational. “This is not the floor of Congress, so let’s keep it civil.”
He wound up with a stack of two dozen questions, about half of them about the bills concerning the public libraries.
Morain, as a moderator, keeps the legislative forums civil.
There were also multiple questions about two other topics – legislative proposals to reform spending by the Area Education Agencies (which provide special services to Iowa students) and better environmental stewardship.
On other matters, both legislators said they expect significantly more resources are going to be put in mental healthcare programs, as well as a major boost in salaries for public school teachers, especially those in their early and middle career years. Raising teachers’ pay “is a priority of mine,” said Nordman. “I think teachers deserve a pay raise. And with Republican budget management that we’ve had the last 10 years, we can afford it.”
He said there’s another school change he’d favor, although he didn’t indicate there’s been any bill proposed for it. “I’d be fine with banning cell phones in schools completely,” he said. “I’d vote for that.”
Both Green and Nordman are seeking re-election this year, and so far, both are un-opposed, as far as I know.
Actually, I’ve been asked a half-dozen times by Democrats to run against one or the other of them. My answer has been versions of “no,” “absolutely not,” and “hell no.” Back at caucus time, I added a complicating factor. I became a Republican again myself, hoping to help along the presidential campaign of Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and also former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. What I really am is an “Anybody but Trump-er.”
Now, back to legislative politics.
Green and Nordman are way more conservative than I am. I’d say they think older than I do, but they’ll argue that.
I kind of like watching them in action. They’ve probably both got long political careers ahead of them, if they want them, especially in this section of Iowa that, at least right now, is so overwhelmingly Republican.
Another thing that is going to be fun to watch: They’ve got to be two of the most eligible bachelors in Iowa. Neither has ever been married. Neither is dating anybody regularly now. Both are decent looking.
“At 25, I think I’ve still got some time,” said Nordman, who lives outside Panora, is a financial advisor, and has a degree in business and leadership from the University of Northern Iowa. Before the Iowa House, he served three years on the parks & recreation board in his hometown of Adel.
I believe Green’s answer to my question about his bachelor status, at 39, was something like, “Well, we’re always looking!” But besides legislating, he spends a good bit of time farming near Harcourt with his dad and brother, and he teaches in a Lutheran church school in Boone. He graduated from Southeast Webster High School, and did college work at both Emmaus Bible College and Iowa Central Community College. On the farm, he also raises bucking horses and longhorn cattle for use in rodeos, and for several years he was chairperson of the Dayton Rodeo & Community Celebration.
They both got as much media exposure this week on the committee discussions of the proposed library bills as they’ve had on any other issue in their legislative careers.
Bob Leonard, a well-known former radio newsman in southeast Iowa who in retirement is now writing columns (with me) in the Iowa Writers Collaborative on the Substack platform, attended both of the committee hearings. His interest was fanned by his service for a dozen years on the Knoxville Public Library board of directors.
He wrote that Green, who was chairing the Senate committee meeting, “thoughtfully listened and engaged library supporters in the Senate hearing. Nordman showed no such respect – only arrogance.”
Leonard went on – probably too far – with this: “So why are Nordman and other Republicans across the nation attacking our public libraries? It’s part of a broader effort many Republicans are making nationally to undermine our institutions and democracy. It also creates chaos and distraction, and pulls media attention away from other important matters.”
There’s some “shipoopi” in that, to invoke a term from that grand old library show, “Music Man,” that I referred to earlier.
And like I said, what happened in those committee meetings was also a learning opportunity.
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