What’s the matter with Iowa?

FILLERS

BY JOHN CULLEN

Why do Iowans keep electing worthless people to represent us?

A perfect example is Steve King, our eight-term congressman who is expected to win reelection in November. There are many reasons he should not represent us in Washington, but the biggest reason is he hasn’t done a thing for his western Iowa district in his 16 years as our congressman, except to bring shame and humiliation upon us by his racist rants. He is ranked as one of the least effective members of Congress. He has sponsored 94 bills since 2003, none of which have made it past committee.

The only thing he’s good at is shooting off his mouth with opinions that make us look like bigoted hicks to the rest of the nation.

Since King has been our congressman, we have watched as our young people have fled western Iowa for just about any place else that offers better opportunities. Farm houses where families were nurtured have been knocked down in favor of hog houses full of stink.

King has done nothing for his birthplace of Storm Lake. Lake restoration and development of King’s Pointe were accomplished through the good graces of two Democrats, Governor Tom Vilsack and Senator Tom Harkin. When they retired, the spigot went dry as Governor Branstad shut off lake restoration and water quality efforts. The voters of Iowa agreed to a constitutional amendment for a sales tax increase that would benefit lakes, rivers and recreation, but the tightwads in the state capitol have refused to enact it.

The four-laning of Highway 20 from Early to Sioux City — which may be finished in 10 years, at the rate they’re going — is being paid for not by anything King got us in Washington, but from an increase in Iowa’s gasoline tax a couple of years ago. Its main benefit seems to be to allow an expressway out of the state by our young people. Meanwhile, old washboard Highway 71 that leads us to Highway 20 rides like an ad for shock absorbers.

Stupidity isn’t confined to Northwest Iowa. Two years ago the gun nuts of Pottowatamie County defeated their State Senator Mike Gronstal in his bid for re-election. As Senate Majority Leader he wielded enormous influence and was the second most powerful man in the state, after the governor. Gronstal was a one-man economic development department for his community, revitalizing a once moribund Council Bluffs with money from casino gambling and luring big tech firms like Google to build facilities there. Apparently all that progress was too much for Omaha’s eastern suburb.

Nothing illustrates Iowa’s decline better than our loss of population relative to the rest of the nation. In the 1930s Iowa had 11 congressional districts. Now we’re down to four because other states have grown much faster than we have, hamstrung by a tradition of hidebound politicians who have done almost nothing to enhance the livability of Iowa. Most of our growth has come in Des Moines, Iowa City and Ames, the most progressive regions in the state. Conservatism has brought stagnation to the rest of Iowa.

From 2000 to 2010 Iowa population grew 4.1%, half the nation’s growth rate of 9.7%. Iowa has had the slowest growth of our Midwestern neighbors. Minnesota, for example, grew over 10% in the same period. Even the Dakotas and Nebraska are growing faster than we are! Our bright young high school graduates are fleeing the state for better opportunities elsewhere. Our legislators’ response is to starve education, healthcare and the environment, while giving big tax breaks to corporations, in a race to the bottom against the likes of Kansas and Arkansas. We can’t afford to hire state troopers and prison guards or keep the courthouses open.

Young people don’t care about taxes when they can enjoy a higher standard of living and have more fun in Denver, Chicago, Kansas City or California.

And once the young people leave Iowa, their parents follow them. Our Baby Boomer friends have left Storm Lake for Minnesota, Chicago, Colorado, Kansas City and DC so they can babysit their grandkids.

Our politicians have stood by as most of the towns in the Fourth District have emptied out. Our only metro area, Sioux City, has dropped in population from 85,000 to 82,000 since 2000. Pocahontas and Sac counties are two of the biggest population losers in the state, with losses of 6.3% and 5.1% respectively since 2010. When I started out as a cub reporter in 1972, every town in the county had its own school. Fonda had two high schools, one public and one Catholic. Now they’ve all been consolidated. There is just one high school in Pocahontas County and one in Sac County.

Only three areas in northwest Iowa are growing: Storm Lake, Sioux Center and Dickinson County, and in the case of the first two, it’s primarily because of immigration that serves the packinghouse industry. Dickinson is thriving because it’s home to Iowa’s Great Lakes, where public officials allow the public to have fun.

The main businesses in most of western Iowa’s towns are the nursing homes.

If we were to follow Steve King’s lead and toss all the immigrants out, Storm Lake’s population would be cut in half, our packinghouses would close as would three-fourths of the businesses on Lake Avenue.  Dozens of school staff would be laid off. That would be real progress. At least we’d have our white European “culture” back — without any money or people to celebrate it.

It’s long past time that we quit electing people who are holding western Iowa back. They promise prosperity but it never comes. We build one new house a year in Storm Lake while Waverly does that in a week. You can’t ride a bike or jog around the lake without endangering your life because our supervisors have rejected repeated pleas for a safe recreation trail.

Our state legislators — so concerned about cherishing Iowa’s “family values” and ridding the state of our new residents — still find time to chase young women around the state capitol while strangling budgets for schools. They privatized Medicaid which resulted in Iowa spending hundreds of millions of dollars more than before, with ruinous results for patients and the facilities that serve them. Because of the Medicaid mess, North Lake Manor nursing home in Storm Lake closed, and our well-respected Faith, Hope & Charity home for special needs children was forced to sell out. We have a governor who can’t balance the state’s checkbook and a legislature that doesn’t know how to cultivate prosperity.

I borrowed the headline for this column from a famous 1896 editorial in the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette by William Allen White. In it he lambasted the backward thinking that caused his state to lag behind the rest of the nation. Unfortunately, Kansas never learned its lesson from White’s editorial and it is still in a big funk today, basically bankrupt 122 years later while Iowa follows its lead.

I hope Iowa doesn’t make the same mistake. But as long as we keep electing charlatans like Steve King, don’t bet on it.