Republican State Sen. Mark “Chickenman” Chelgren championed and voted for a tax break that saved his businesses hundreds of dollars while costing the state tens of millions in lost revenue, according to an investigation by the Associated Press and Center for Public Integrity into state lawmakers whose legislating has personally benefited them.
The change Chelgren and other Iowa lawmakers approved in 2016 to the state’s tax code allowed his manufacturing and wheelchair parts businesses to avoid paying sales taxes on some manufacturing-related supplies, including saws and cutting fluid, the investigation found.
Chelgren defended his vote, telling the AP and CPI it was for good tax policy, that his business background was an asset to the Statehouse, and that the money his businesses are saving as a result — a few hundred dollars a year — was negligible. “We have way too many people who have been in government their whole lives and don’t know how to make sure that a payroll is met,” he said.
However, according to several people who contacted the Informer when we reported on Chelgren in the past, the senator’s businesses have faced a variety of financial problems. The Ottumwa warehouse where his six former and current businesses were all headquartered has been listed as being for sale for many months, and in 2006, when he moved away from the town of Vinton, his wife sold her flower shop, leaving behind thousands of dollars of unpaid debts. (Chelgren did not previously respond to our requests for comment about his businesses, aside from suggesting that we published fake news while we investigated how he opened a firearms manufacturing business despite having a domestic violence arrest on his record.)
According to Iowa Senate rules, lawmakers are supposed to refrain from participating in supporting legislation that would conflict with their personal interests so as not to risk diminishing the public’s trust in state government.
Jerry Parker, a Democrat who serves on the Wapello County Board of Supervisors in Chelgren’s district, told the AP and CPI that the senator should have done that when the Legislature considered the tax break. “We have to keep the public’s trust,” he said. “If they see us benefiting financially from votes that we make, the perception is bad for all elected officials.”
A separate article published as part of the reporters’ investigation listed 10 other state lawmakers with “entangled interests,” including Iowa state Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, a Republican who owns Kraayenbrink Financial in Fort Dodge. In an April Senate floor speech, without mentioning his company, Kraayenbrink advocated for a bill that has since allowed more companies to sell retirement investments to teachers. The senator now manages $150,000 in savings for seven teachers through the investment program, which he told the AP and CPI nets him about $400 in annual fees. “It’s in the best interest of the client to have more choices and to have professional help if they want it,” Kraayenbrink told the reporters, denying that his vote for the bill created a conflict of interest.
You can look through documents detailing the financial interests of other Iowa lawmakers of both parties at CPI’s database.