Iowa politicians scurry to comply with ban on self-promotion
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Michael Fitzgerald, Iowa’s longtime state treasurer, in some ways has become synonymous with college savings and helping people find unclaimed property.
The Democrat’s smiling face and name have been highlighted in decades of promotional material — brochures, newspaper op-eds, television ads — that get the word out about two popular state programs he helped create. Large booths at the annual Iowa State Fair also include Fitzgerald’s image and the title he’s held for more than 30 years.
That could all change this year, after the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature quietly approved a ban on taxpayer-funded advertisements if they have a whiff of self-promotion for an elected official. The law goes into effect Sunday.
Fitzgerald, whose face or name is on several brochures at the entrance to his Capitol office, is convinced the law was directed at him. An outspoken critic of some GOP state policies, he noted the ban was tucked into a large unrelated budget bill and passed in the final hours of this year’s legislative session.
“It was absolutely politically driven,” he said.
But now the law could have unintended consequences. It may force leading Republicans such as Gov. Kim Reynolds to tone down promotional material, too. And it has set off a scramble to scrub photos of elected officials from booths at the state fair, set for August.
The law prohibits statewide officials and lawmakers from using taxpayer dollars to promote their written name, likeness or voice through various platforms like the internet, newspapers, television and radio. An official, who instead would need to tap campaign funds, may have to repay the state or face legal penalties if he or she violates the law.
The law has exemption language for some common communications, but it’s unclear whether that would exclude material such as a website promoting one of the programs. For now, it features Fitzgerald prominently.
Fitzgerald’s office estimates it will cost at least $20,000 to switch its booths at the fair. That doesn’t include the possibility of reordering brochures they had planned to pass out. The office also conferred with attorneys over whether the office’s logo was allowed on bank statements for the college savings program.
Reynolds’ image is on a range of promotional materials such as state maps. It’s unclear if that has to go, or whether her face and likeness will be allowed on her initiative to improve workforce development. Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate is also in the midst of advertising a new voter ID law that so far has included his name and face on some promotional materials. A spokesman said Pate’s office plans to change out a panel at its state fair booth, and the cost has been less than $2,000.
Such a law against excessive self-promotion would be unimaginable in some other states, where officials plaster their names on everything from a state bridge to a city welcome sign. Few states have entered this fraught territory, though some, such as Rhode Island, have self-promotion restrictions ahead of elections. West Virginia prohibits elected officials from sharing communication that references voting in favor of a candidate.
The headache of deciding how to implement the Iowa law has fallen on the six-member Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, which is now grappling with questions such as: Does a ban on mass mailings include email? How many people create a mass mailing? Can a state official even show up at the state fair? What if promotional material was purchased years ago, before the law went into effect?
Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Marion Republican who supported the measure, said her intent is transparency in state government.
“We want the credibility of the office to be behind whatever promotion the office is doing, regardless of who holds that office and their political party affiliation,” she said.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat who’s served as the state’s top law enforcement official for decades, plans to replace a booth panel at the fair and a mobile booth used to promote consumer protection efforts.
Lynn Hicks, a spokesman for Miller, said the office is moving forward because deadlines are approaching with the fair.
“We decided to go ahead and make the changes given the short time frame,” Hicks said in an email.
The board will release its first advisory opinion about the law on July 12. More opinions could follow.
“We’re trying to faithfully interpret the statute as the Legislature intended,” said Megan Tooker, director of the board. “But there’s terms that we have to define. I think the office holders, they want to comply.”