Dean Borg: Rebuilding Iowa. In just a few weeks, windstorms and floods created a new priority for Iowa's elected leaders beginning with Governor Chet Culver. We're talking with Governor Culver on this edition of Iowa Press.
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On statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, July 18th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.
Dean Borg: The 'Rebuild Iowa Advisory Commission' held its first meeting this past week. That 15-member bi-partisan group didn't even exist as we began the summer and as the legislature returned in mid-April and yet now that hurriedly convened commission is charged with gathering information and making recommendations for a possible special legislative session before fall. And, of course, it's all because of the weather. Tornadoes and floods ripping through Iowa this summer swept away roads, homes, bridges and other infrastructure. Some will estimate it's going to take $1 billion or more to repair. And as rebuilding is planned there is an unmistakable political component to leadership and funding. Governor Chet Culver is directing Iowa's response creating the 'Rebuild Iowa Commission'. We've invited him to the Iowa Press table today. Welcome.
Governor Chet Culver: Thank you, Dean, good to be with you.
Dean Borg: And across the table, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.
Mike Glover: Governor, if we can look at the aftermath of the weather that we've had this year and the aftermath of Katrina to which this is often compared there was a lot of discussion about places in New Orleans that just shouldn't be rebuilt, that should be dedicated to something else. Have you identified places in Iowa that just shouldn't be rebuilt?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, first of all, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all of the affected individuals, the communities across our state that were impacted by these horrific tornadoes and floods. 45,000 square miles, we evacuated 40,000 people from 35 cities. So, we still have to understand that there's a lot of pain and a lot of suffering that's still going on. And I'm doing everything in my power to address those urgent needs of our citizens and those businesses that have been affected. Mitigation will be a big part of our rebuilding discussion and planning. I think we have to be very smart. Our goal with the 'Rebuild Iowa Initiative' is to make our state even better and even stronger at the end of the day and safer for our residents and businesses. So, we have to really factor in the potential of this type of event reoccurring and we don't want to put people in harm's way.
Mike Glover: And there's been a lot of complaining by people who said they were assured that levees would hold, the levees broke. Let's be real. If I'm living next to a levee, next to a river shouldn't I understand that Mother Nature is going to come bite me occasionally?
Governor Chet Culver: First of all, I think we've all learned how critically important it is to have flood insurance. That was one of the real tragedies with these storms is so few people had any kind of flood insurance coverage. I think we need to do a better job of maintaining our levees. Frankly, it's not always been the highest priority. And that's understandable but I think this was certainly a wake-up call that we have to maintain those levees and invest in them like they did in the Des Moines area after the '93 flood, in particular Valley Junction. Without the mitigation in Valley Junction it is very likely that that entire business district and those homes would have been impacted again.
Kay Henderson: You mentioned the levees and the fact that we need to talk about rebuilding them and perhaps reinforcing them. How has the flood changed the conversation in Iowa?
Governor Chet Culver: I think dramatically. Again, no one really could have anticipated a 500-year flood event like we saw in Cedar Rapids, for example. So, I think all of us are going to be giving a lot more thought to the possibility of something like that happening again and as a result I think we will really look at the entire mitigation system statewide in a different way. And that means being very smart about our rebuilding efforts.
Kay Henderson: But what I'm getting at is people really didn't talk about storm sewers in many areas of Iowa, they didn't talk about electrical infrastructure in the same way they are, specifically, in Cedar Rapids. In some ways Cedar Rapids residents are having the same experience that many in New Orleans did. They're frustrated with their government. Is there going to be political fallout in places like Cedar Rapids where infrastructure has failed and really many people have had a long time waiting to have their electricity restored?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, I think the great news is that we evacuated 25,000 people from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We evacuated an entire hospital. No one was killed, thank goodness, in that process. We called up 4,000 members of the Iowa National Guard, it's the largest deployment since the Civil War. So, I didn't see that frustration. What I saw up there was a lot of people that were relieved to see that we were able to safely move them out of harm's way. Now, in terms of the recovery and the rebuilding effort, we understand there will be a lot of fair questions, there will be frustration but we're working around the clock with the officials in Cedar Rapids and Oakville and every other community that have been impacted to address these most pressing needs and that's why we established the 'Rebuild Iowa Commission,' that's why I established by executive order the 'Rebuild Iowa Office' and I appointed the Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge to direct that state agency so that we can quickly and efficiently respond and rebuild across the state.
Dean Borg: Just a quick follow up to Mike's question on are there areas where you think they should not rebuild. But there are a lot of people who had built there in the past, lost everything and now they're saying buy us out. It doesn't seem like that's going to happen for very many people. Where do you come down on government buying people's property in order to get them not to rebuild?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, those are very valid questions and concerns. The first thing you have to do is set up the structure so that you can effectively respond and help people in need. And that's why we took those important steps with the 'Rebuild Iowa Commission' chaired by General Ron Dartus and the 'Rebuild Iowa Office' directed by the Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge. We will put all of our state resources into recovery and planning.
Dean Borg: What do you think specifically on buying out? Philosophically do you favor that?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, it depends, it's a case-by-case basis. Every city has been affected in a different way. I'm going to Washington next week to work with our Congressional delegation, to touch base with administration officials and buyouts will be a part of the discussion. We have to figure out how much financial assistance we're going to get from the federal government for things like buyout before we know how many homes will be eligible and to what extent. So, that is why we are working around the clock to get these assessments done, to take what we know to Washington and buyouts will be a part of that discussion. And then that will determine how much and to what extent we're able to help those individuals that have lost everything.
Mike Glover: Governor, you said it's likely you'll call the legislature into a special session to deal with this flood aftermath. What can they do? What will you want them to do?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, a number of things. First of all, it will give me an opportunity to share with 150 legislators everything we know about this disaster, the entire scope of the damage, a complete and full assessment. We have 80 counties today that have been declared federal presidential disaster areas. We have assessment teams that continue to try to specifically determine the extent of all of the damage in each of those counties. Number two, we can do some very practical things quickly. For example, we have a state individual assistance program where individual Iowans based on income are eligible to up to $4,000 in aid. The problem is that law took effect July 1 where it bumped it up to $4,000 in terms of eligibility, the current law says it's $3,300. We could go in and have a special session and make that retroactive to prior to May 25th and then give hundreds of more dollars to those individuals that are struggling out there. We also have tax issues. September 1st property taxes are due. It's not realistic to think so many of these homeowners in communities like Cedar Rapids and Oakville are going to be in a position to worry about that and maybe we need to look at extending the property tax deadline, for example. Both of those things would take legislative action.
Mike Glover: And let's look at your legislative priorities over your first couple of years in office. You've had some top flight priorities. You spent a lot of money in a multi-year program to expand the alternative energy industry. You spent a lot of money over a multi-year program to increase teacher pay, to bolster early childhood education programs. Is it time to re-examine those priorities in light of what you're going to have to spend to recover from this flood?
Governor Chet Culver: No, we are going to remain committed to funding those priorities whether it's teacher pay or early childhood education or renewable energy related to the Iowa Power Fund. The good news here, Mike, is that our fiscal house is in order. We have $620 million in our reserve fund, our emergency fund today. By comparison after the floods of '93 they had $48 million in the reserve fund. Our fiscal house is in order, we will be able to both protect and fund our priorities and honor our commitments that we made to Iowa teachers and to Iowa kids in terms of early childhood education to making this state the renewable energy capitol of the United States, which is my goal and have sufficient resources to deal with the challenges related to the flooding.
Mike Glover: Will you have to use some of that reserve?
Governor Chet Culver: We will see. That will be another topic for discussion. I don't pretend to know exactly today where we want to draw down those resources. There are a lot of options on the table. That is the type of discussion I look forward to having with leadership on both sides of the aisle and legislators. The good news is there are emergency funds that we can tap if we need to. One other thing in terms of a special session -- right now a lot of the federal programs are based on a state or local match. Again, it's not likely or practical to think a city like New Hartford, Iowa is going to have a whole lot of money to match any program based on the complete devastation to that community. So, the legislature could step in and waive, for example, that local match responsibility. That would also take legislative action. So, there are a plethora of reasons why it's very likely in the early part of September we'll come together but I've asked the 'Rebuild Iowa Commission' to come to report to me within 45 days with a complete assessment and recommendations for what we might want to do at a special session. They have also been directed to provide that report to all the legislators within 45 days.
Kay Henderson: Long before the floods experts said Iowa's road construction and road maintenance fund was woefully short. Late last year you said there was no need at this time to raise the gas tax especially with gas prices so high. Given the damage to Iowa's infrastructure, the dozens of bridges which were swept away, is it not now time to re-visit the issue of raising Iowa's gas tax?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, I think there are three priorities for all of us elected officials at the state level. Number one, I believe that, as I've already said, we need to honor the commitments that we've already made to the people of Iowa related to teacher pay and other initiatives. Number two, we have to make sure that we address the needs of the people of this state based on the tornadoes and the flood and the destruction that occurred as a result. That has to be a legislative priority, I expect it will be and infrastructure should be a part of that discussion. I do not believe we should raise the gas tax. However, there are other options in terms of generating revenue to pay for significant infrastructure needs. At the same time we'll be drawing down potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance now and we have 1,500 miles of roads and 400 miles of railroads that were impacted by the flooding. So, we have to make this a part of our long and short-term infrastructure plan. The third priority is to be fiscally responsible. And I think we can do all three of those things if we work together in a bi-partisan way and we make these priorities ones that we can all share and set aside the partisan politics.
Kay Henderson: So, if you do not raise the gas tax what are the alternatives which you just outlined?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, there are a lot of different things that states have done to address infrastructure needs and you can look at things like bonding, for example, that is something that some states do. Other states have looked at privatization, frankly, I was just in Pennsylvania for the National Governor's Conference. Again, I don't pretend today to have the silver bullet in terms of finding those precious resources that we need to maintain our infrastructure. But there are a lot of options on the table. That has to be a part of our discussion. And finally, we took one important step last legislative session by increasing some fees. We're going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars already in terms of helping to fund those infrastructure needs. So, we're on the right track, we just need now with as a result of the floods and the tornadoes to invest even more in our state infrastructure.
Mike Glover: I'd like to get you to respond to what we're already starting to hear from some of your Republican critics who say that during your first two years in office you have pushed for and obtained excessive spending and that has left the state short of money to respond to this flood. How are you going to respond to that?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, it's pretty simple. We have more money in our cash reserves than ever before in our state history. So, while we have funded these important priorities that the people of Iowa elected us on, you know, we ran on a platform in 2006 that was related to job creation, renewable energy, education, economic development and we are honoring those commitments but at the same time we are maintaining our fiscal house. Again, by comparison in 1993, we had $48 million in our cash reserves, today we have $620 million. So, we are being very fiscally responsible and that has been one of my priorities. But that will continue to be a challenge. I'm not suggesting that it's going to be easy to maintain that strong economic position. But with our AA bond rating and the fact that it's a priority of my administration we're going to continue to work with the legislature to maintain that fiscal responsibility.
Kay Henderson: This past spring you vetoed a bill which was sought by unions regarding collective bargaining rules. This past week you appointed a task force to study the misclassification of employees hired by contractors. It's something that unions have sought. They argue that contractors classify workers as independent contractors to skirt wage laws and there is also an element of illegal immigration debate within this whole decision. Have you repaired your damaged relationships with the state's organized labor movement? If not, what are steps two, three and four?
Governor Chet Culver: I have a very good relationship with a lot of different groups out there. My job, frankly, is to try to bring people together. I ran for Governor to lead this state I love to the greatness that we all know is possible. That means at times you're going to have people that are upset with you. That comes with the territory. I am determined to lead and bring people together. And we have done that. We've brought business and labor together on some important issues. The minimum wage, for example, that took a concerted effort by the business community and the labor organizations to say, this is in the best interest of working folks. That's what we're doing on contractor reform, contractor registration reform. It's not uncommon for a governor to sign an executive order moving forward on an important public policy matter if it is not addressed by the legislative branch. This will bring some important attention on the issue of independent contractor reform because there are a lot of abuses out there. It's not fair to the workers. If they get injured on the job and their employer is not paying worker's compensation benefits when they go to the hospital they will learn that they're not covered for that injury. That is just common sense, it's about fairness, it's good for our workers and it's important to keep a competitive playing field for the businesses that are playing by the rules.
Mike Glover: And Governor, you're coming under some criticism from some Republican groups, the state gave some incentives to Microsoft to locate an operation here. Your critics say that you’re giving tax breaks to the world's richest man to bring a relative handful of jobs to the state. How do you respond?
Governor Chet Culver: It's an election year, you know, what do you expect?
Mike Glover: We knew it was coming.
Governor Chet Culver: Yeah, what do you expect? That's part of politics. And I ran one of my top priorities as Governor is to create jobs in every part of the state. We have had a great track record of creating jobs. Google has come to Iowa since I've been Governor, Microsoft has come to Iowa since I've been Governor. We've created 2300 new jobs just related to wind energy alone. City Corp yesterday announced that they're going to create 70 new jobs in West Des Moines. We are focused on job creation and economic development. We're having a lot of success. Our unemployment rate is nearly two percentage points below the national average. We're moving forward as a national leader in renewable energy. Our biofuels industry is continuing to be strong. We're transitioning into cellulosic ethanol which is very exciting. So, Iowa is positioned very, very well in terms of the economy in the future and job creation in the future. And finally, the Microsoft deal is a $500 million capital investment in our state. So, yeah, we might have to give them a little bit of a break in terms of sales tax over a 5 year period but in return we're having a $500 million investment in Iowa. And the best thing about it is it's all about information technology jobs that are going to attract young professionals to Iowa. Des Moines was just ranked as the ninth most livable city in the United States of America by Kiplinger's Magazine. That means we're doing something right including attracting high tech companies like Google and Microsoft to Iowa.
Kay Henderson: The statewide smoking ban took effect on July 1st. Do you expect some supporters of that ban to have political retribution enacted upon them at the polls in November? Do you expect some people to lose who supported that ban?
Governor Chet Culver: I don't. I think that, in fact, the people that supported that ban will probably get more support at the polls. The overwhelming majority of Iowans supported the smoking ban. I'm fighting for those hundred thousand workers in those bars and restaurants that today do not have to deal with the secondhand smoke that prior to July 1 they had to deal with. Those workers are 40% more likely to have a respiratory problem because they were forced prior to the ban to work in that environment. So, it's also great for families that want to take kids out. Like, in my case, John and Claire ...
Dean Borg: It could turn into a positive at the polls is what you're saying?
Governor Chet Culver: Absolutely, I think it really will and the same was true, frankly, with the increase in the cigarette tax. I ran on that in 2006, I promised a dollar increase in the cigarette tax and I was fortunate enough to win by 100,000 votes and I think I would have been in a lot more trouble if I didn't deliver on that promise. and I think Iowans will come out and show their support for those legislators that took that courageous stand to ban smoking in some of those venues.
Dean Borg: We're getting short on time.
Mike Glover: Governor, you've led us into the topic of just politics. As you have so accurately noted this is an election year. You were an early and ardent supporter of Barack Obama. He starts out most people say with an edge in Iowa. Is Barack Obama inevitably going to carry Iowa and get his seven electoral votes?
Governor Chet Culver: I feel very good about the campaign that Senator Obama is running in Iowa and across the country. And I will certainly do what I can to help and I did support Barack Obama. I think that he will lead our country forward. I think it is time for a change in Washington. Politics as usual is just not working. And I do think he's the right person at the right time to lead our country. I also have a lot of respect for John McCain. He's going to be tough, he's a tenacious campaigner. At the end of the day, Mike, it comes down to those two individuals. The two candidates you have to go out there and win the race and that means they have to perform well in debates and that means they have to put everything they have into getting across the finish line first and a lot of people will want to help both of them but ultimately it's the next 120 days which one of those distinguishes themselves and wins the presidency.
Mike Glover: And in the past few days Senator McCain has gone out of his way to be critical of Iowa and ethanol. What do you make of that?
Governor Chet Culver: Big mistake, it really is. President Bush and I just had a good conversation when he was here to help on flood relief about how critically important ethanol is and how Iowa is positioned so well to lead the nation when it comes to biofuels. I have no idea why anyone would not want ethanol and biodiesel as a great alternative to foreign oil that we're importing. It's a great alternative that will ultimately lead to thinks like cellulosic ethanol and it's great for our farmers who have been working for 150 years in the Iowa farm fields to help America succeed economically and this is a wonderful alternative and I have no idea why John McCain doesn't want to support it at a time when we're seeing record prices at the pump. It doesn't make any sense to me and we have a wonderful alternative whether it's biodiesel or ethanol or ethanol 85.
Kay Henderson: Are Democrats at a disadvantage in that the only statewide race is that of Senator Tom Harkin seeking re-election and it doesn't appear to be much of a race at this point?
Governor Chet Culver: No, I think it's going to be great to have Senator Harkin out there on the trail. He is also a very tough campaigner. He is running this race as if he's behind. He's focused. We're canvassing as we speak all across the state. We have hundreds of staff from the Iowa Democratic Party that are out there working to convey Senator Harkin's message and Senator Obama's message and our legislative candidates, we're getting them out as well and I think it's going to be a great year in 2008 in part because Tom Harkin is leading the Democrats at the top of the ticket.
Mike Glover: And the tightest race we've got in the state looks to be for control of the Iowa House where Democrats control 53-47. What can you do to assure the Democrats retain control?
Governor Chet Culver: Well, again, I have little doubt that we're going to keep control of both the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House. And, in fact, I think it's likely we're going to pick up seats. And I will work with leadership on the Democratic side, I will work with individual candidates. I enjoy campaigning. I love getting out there with the people and I'll certainly do my part to assist. And I look forward to a very spirited campaign this fall.
Dean Borg: We look forward to having you back soon so we can finish the line of questioning that we had today. I'm sorry that we're out of time. Thanks for being with us.
Governor Chet Culver: Thank you.
Dean Borg: That's Iowa Press for this weekend. I hope you'll join us next weekend at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg and thanks for joining us today.
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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by 'Friends', the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.