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Playing it straight, taking heat

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In the midst of this Burger King election cycle, famous for its Whoppers, flame-broiled over pants on fire, it was surprising to pick up my paper Monday and see a politician being criticized for telling the truth.

At a Cedar Rapids fundraiser Sunday, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patty Judge panned Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s contention here last week he’s not optimistic the city will get federal funding for its east-bank flood control system. I couldn’t make Judge’s event, but The Gazette’s James Q. Lynch was on the scene.

Judge said she would “never give you the kind of answer” Grassley gave at a Cedar Rapids Daybreak Rotary meeting.

“What I would tell you is, ‘I don’t know if I can do it, but, by god, I’m going to try to do it as hard as I can,” Judge said, according to Lynch’s account. “I would try to buttonhole everybody, I raise the phones, I would be beating on the doors at FEMA, I would be seeing what is possible to do to get assistance that you deserve.”

FEMA likely would direct Judge to the Army Corps of Engineers, which actually is the agency responsible for funding flood control systems.

I have no doubt Judge would be a hard-charging, phone-raising buttonholer. Her flood recovery efforts as lieutenant governor clearly helped Cedar Rapids.

But never giving us an answer like Grassley’s means never telling us what’s really going on. Is that what Judge is suggesting? Her campaign insisted Monday it’s really about Grassley becoming the “face of obstruction and partisanship,” in Washington, making him less effective.

Like it or not, and like him or not, Grassley’s assessment of Cedar Rapids’ funding chances is accurate. Congress authorized $73 million to fund 65 percent of an east bank control system. But it’s up to the corps to fund authorized projects. And, not surprisingly, in a nation with no shortage of infrastructure needs and seemingly no break from waterlogged natural disasters, Cedar Rapids’ project is slipping down the pecking order.

Even in 2010, when the corps finished its feasibility study of Cedar Rapids’ protection options, east bank flood walls and levees barely cleared the critical cost-benefit line, meaning the project’s 50-year benefit exceeds its cost. As the cost of the city’s project keeps growing over time, there’s a chance its price tag eventually will exceed its benefit.

And, as Grassley mentioned, a ban on congressional earmarks means he can’t simply insert funding for specific projects into spending bills.

So Grassley’s assessment of the money is, well, on the money. And knowing the true lay of the land allows local leaders to shift their attention to plan B or C. Federal funding isn’t dead yet, but its prognosis isn’t good. Pretending otherwise wouldn’t do anyone any good.

I get that Judge is seeking to contrast her approach to Grassley’s, arguing she would be a much stronger advocate. Trouble is, anyone who has watched this flood protection funding process closely knows successes have come slowly, through meticulous lobbying and lawmaking. Failures have been about bureaucratic realities, not a lack of effort.

Surely Judge can find reasons to be critical of Grassley that don’t involve condemning him for actually committing honesty in politics.

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

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