Staff Columnist

Chet's big debt left a big mark in Cedar Rapids

Legion Arts was awarded $4.8 million for the purchase and restoration of CSPS Hall through Gov. Culver's I-JOBS program. The project includes enhanced versions of the existing theatre and gallery spaces. The construction of additional presenting, studio and educational space and the opening of an arts incubator on the ground floor, to serve small and emerging arts organizations as well as two to three ground floor retail operations. Photographed Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Legion Arts was awarded $4.8 million for the purchase and restoration of CSPS Hall through Gov. Culver's I-JOBS program. The project includes enhanced versions of the existing theatre and gallery spaces. The construction of additional presenting, studio and educational space and the opening of an arts incubator on the ground floor, to serve small and emerging arts organizations as well as two to three ground floor retail operations. Photographed Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As the flood anniversary passes, let’s pay our respects to Big Debt Chet.

It’s the nickname slapped on former Gov. Chet Culver by former Gov. Terry Branstad during the 2010 gubernatorial race. Branstad won, arguing Culver had bungled the state’s finances.

Exhibit A was I-JOBS, an $830 million bonding program Culver championed amid a Great Recession and in the wake of natural disasters walloping Iowa in the spring and summer of 2008. Branstad, longtime loather of bonded debt, dubbed it reckless, while never really saying how he would have responded to the disasters faced by Culver.

I-JOBS was flawed, to be sure. It was sold as a program creating as many as 30,000 jobs. But the state conceded in 2010 it created only 7,000. Culver is hardly the only governor to over-promise on jobs. Branstad vowed to create 200,000 jobs in five years, but reached that goal only by refusing to subtract jobs lost from his total. Slick.

I-JOBS probably should have been more narrowly focused on recovery needs, but spreading bucks to infrastructure needs across the state seemed like a good idea at the time. Even Chet’s big debt barely scratched our penned up infrastructure needs.

And it’s true Culver’s initial flood response was unsteady. He rankled many locals by refusing to call a special fall 2008 legislative session in response to the emergency.

But on this 10th anniversary week, it’s tough to swing a wet sandbag in this town without hitting a post-flood public project helped by I-JOBS.

The Paramount Theatre, downtown public library and public works building each received $5 million. Another $6.6 million went to the new central fire station. A new human services campus and the National Czech and Slovak Museum each received $10 million. The juvenile law center, county courthouse, Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center, African American Museum, Palo fire station and McGrath Amphitheatre all benefited from I-JOBS. Not to mention dollars that flowed to recovery efforts on the University of Iowa campus.

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Without state help, it’s likely many of these projects would have required more local debt, paid with property taxes. Instead, I-JOBS bonds are being paid back with gambling taxes. Imagine, Linn County actually getting back dollars it’s plunked into Riverside’s slot machines.

I’m betting I-JOBS will come up during the 2018 campaign, as Gov. Kim Reynolds points to how the Branstad-Reynolds team saved Iowa from its Culverian malaise. But it’s worth asking the governor how she’ll respond to the next round of massive flooding. It’s also a question for Democrat Fred Hubbell.

How can we stick to pay-as-you-go in an emergency when the state can barely cover its current priorities? Maybe we can plug our breached levees with tax cuts.

Branstad did, to his credit, sign legislation allowing the use of sales tax dollars locally for flood protection. But what about other costs future floods will spawn? The federal government will not be riding in to pay the full freight.

The next governor may have to face the unthinkable, as Culver did. It’s all political games and clever nicknames until the river crests.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com.

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