As Iowans, we tend to believe life is good. After all, we live in a state with safe communities, solid schools and an affordable lifestyle. But do we dream of a better, more socially dynamic Iowa?
There are a number of important issues facing the state that must be addressed — Iowa’s privatized Medicaid fiasco, the state’s inadequate mental health system, concerns about the Department of Human Services, the status of the state’s budget and K-12 education funding.
While all these issues are of critical importance, you might be surprised that none of the above would make my list of the top five most pressing issues facing our state. That’s because the root cause of all these issues can be traced back to an absence of genuine leadership.
Somewhere, somehow, elected politicians have come to believe that leadership is merely ramming through your party’s agenda. Worse yet is that, when faced with issues of critical importance that might not fit nicely into a political party’s campaign handbook, you merely kick the can down the road and hope things improve.
Genuine leadership is the complete opposite. Instead of governing with the next election cycle in mind, the focus is on a long-term vision. Decisions are made knowing that they will be judged not only by the commitments made, but by how new initiatives perform.
Air, soil and water stewardship
Iowa already has a water-quality crisis. Our rivers, streams and lakes are filthy — contaminated with bacteria, chemicals, animal waste and eroded soil and plant materials. This is the lasting legacy of industrial agriculture.
We have to supplement our exhausted soils with increasing amounts of artificial nutrients leaking into our waters.
As more people opt to live in metropolitan areas, and as climate change continues to impact Iowa, the more reliant we will become on surface water utilities to provide them safe, clean and abundant drinking water.
Whether it is dealing with high levels of nitrates in the water or the new emerging threat of cyanotoxins, or some other contaminant such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria or hormonal disrupters, water producers are under increased pressure to meet water demand under less than ideal conditions.
The only way we will ever be able to improve water quality meaningfully in this state is to embrace a long-term approach that recognizes limited public resources and lasting producer responsibility.
Some have suggested that the differences between rural Iowa and the more urban population centers have been overstated. The problem is that the divide we have all talked about for decades is about to widen in a dramatic fashion.
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Iowans’ Ideas is a new guest opinion series, speaking to the key issues of today and future for the state, as seen by one Iowan.
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Iowa is experiencing a population concentration and consolidation in our metropolitan areas. This reality strains every facet of life in rural Iowa. As more people leave rural Iowa for the cities or to be a short drive to communities that offer all the amenities one wants, rural Iowa is being left behind.
It impacts a rural community’s ability to fund its local schools as well as sustain quality health care and other basic necessities.
What is essentially occurring right before our eyes is the difference between the haves and the have-nots is widening. If you live in rural Iowa, you are in jeopardy of losing the basic services you depend on. If you live in an urban setting, you are experiencing more rapid growth and access to more and more services and amenities than ever before.
Except to the outside world, we are no longer a “rural state.”
Funding our state universities
Iowa is fortunate to have three outstanding public universities; each plays a vital role in providing Iowa’s skilled labor force as well as future leaders.
It’s a bonus that we can accomplish it all without sending our children out of state for the educational opportunities they require.
Year after year, however, our three public universities are asked to do more with less, find cost savings and, by the way, don’t you dare think about raising tuition.
These universities are an investment in our future, not some antiquated bureaucracy that can be pared down or eliminated.
Not only should we educate young Iowans who choose our state universities, we should strive to provide communities in which university graduates want to join and become contributors.
In addition, we should strive for academic freedom and not accept threats of defunding “edgy” institutions such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, which are critical to Iowa’s public universities.
Think like a community
As Iowans, we long have prided ourselves in being middle Americans — working hard and enjoying a lifestyle of moderate measures. Yet we’ve become tribal in our divisions and focus on short-term, personal gains.
We’ve let our infrastructure fall behind. For example, we use public “economic development” dollars for local or regional “shiny objects,” such as anhydrous ammonia factories. But we fail to recognize that much of the public contributing to these private enterprises — which are dependent on public incentives — receive no benefit from taxpayer subsides.
Let’s invest public dollars in publicly owned facilities.
As with most Iowans, I am proud to call this state home. But there is great risk in continuing our complacency.
Instead of looking out across this state and being satisfied with how things are today, I look out and see tremendous opportunity on the horizon.
I believe once we demand genuine leadership, we will be able to seize the opportunities in front of us.
l William Stowe is the chief executive officer and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works.