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An urban pitch for water funds

Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett gives the annual State of the City address at the DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett gives the annual State of the City address at the DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

If Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett runs for governor in 2018, he’ll need to convince rural Iowa Republicans to back an urban mayor. It could be a tough sell.

It is, after all, the party of Gov. Terry Branstad, a farm kid from Leland, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, some farmer from Butler County, and U.S. Sen. Joni “make ‘em squeal” Ernst. Two of Corbett’s potential primary opponents are Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, a farmer, and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a native of tiny St. Charles, who was Clarke County treasurer and represented a rural state senate district. No one can accuse them of being city slickers.

Corbett shrugs off gubernatorial speculation. Too soon, he says. He’s simply pursuing policy issues he’s passionate about on behalf of his Engage Iowa think tank.

But as he spoke Tuesday evening at the Linn County Farm Bureau’s annual meeting, it was clear candidate Corbett would position himself as a bridge between the state’s cities and rural areas.

He told his audience on the county fairgrounds in Central City how much Cedar Rapids’ economic well-being relies on agriculture, with more than 1 million bushels of grain handled daily in the city’s big processing plants. The city’s health relies on jobs, paychecks and property taxes. Bucks for that grain, in turn, make their way back to farmers and small towns. “What’s good for you is good for Cedar Rapids,” Corbett said.

And that’s why Corbett urged the Farm Bureau to support raising the state sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to fill a voter-approved trust fund and provide tens of millions of dollars annually for improving water quality and curtailing farm pollution. Without a dedicated, protected funding stream, Corbett contends, water quality problems are a direct threat to agriculture.

New money, he insists, could fund cooperative efforts to clean up water, such as partnerships between the city of Cedar Rapids and upstream landowners along the Cedar River. Without funding, the fate of water quality could be left in the hands of federal regulators or judges deciding lawsuits like the one filed by the Des Moines Water Works.


“It’s time to close the door on lawsuits. It’s time to close the door on EPA regulations,” Corbett told the group. “It’s time to open the door on a new era of cooperation between urban and rural Iowa.”

In his 13 years as a state lawmaker, including five as House speaker, Corbett said all of the General Assemblies he served in had something in common. “Do you know how many times environmental funding was the No. 1 priority?” he asked. “Zero.”

Calling for a tax boost isn’t a common path to the GOP nomination, although Corbett argues for offsetting the increase with income tax changes. Iowa Corn Growers and the Iowa Soybean Association support filling the trust fund. The Farm Bureau isn’t on board. Northey is opposed to a tax increase, as is the Branstad-Reynolds administration.

Corbett’s taken his message to 50 counties. He’ll soon speak to a group of Farm Bureau presidents, and to the Iowa Corn Growers and pork producers. His Linn County audience seemed receptive.

“They didn’t boo me off the stage,” Corbett joked. A good sign, perhaps.

• Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com



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