Guest Columnist

The tragedy of a missed opportunity

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, Tuesd
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP)

I am still in a state of disbelief after reading Rod Boshart’s recent article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette in which state budget chief David Roederer and Gov. Kim Reynolds do a victory lap over our state’s $305.5 million fiscal year budget surplus.

They both remind me of Joaquim Phoenix’s character, Commodus, in the Russell Crowe film, Gladiator. After a leisurely journey to the battlefront, Commodus, the son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, leaps from his armored carriage, sword in hand, and exclaims, “Father, have I missed the battle?” To which Aurelius solemnly replies, “Son, you’ve missed the entire war.”

In a time of staggering suffering and hopelessness, it appears that Roederer and Reynolds have missed the COVID-related war that has absolutely devastated small businesses, young parents with children at home, or single parents thrust into the position of choosing whether to keep their job or supervise their children. But, according to both of them, the good news is that we still have a rainy-day fund that’s fully funded, and a budget surplus to boot.

But here’s the thing: the rainy day fund does not belong to the state, Gov. Reynolds, or Mr. Roederer. The fund belongs to taxpayers. Presumably, it has been accrued and safeguarded for such a time as this; the this of which is the complete and total dismantling of the lives and livelihoods of small business owners, single moms and dads, poor children, and urban and rural families clinging to the margins throughout our communities.

Small business owners, self-employed workers, lower economic strata families and children are suffering, mostly in silence and without any expectation that the leaders of our state have an inkling of what is actually happening in their lives. But here’s the ultimate irony: the governor received $2.896 billion to address COVID-related expenses, including $1.25 billion from the CARES Act for the state of Iowa. And, yet, tragically, that equivalent rainy day assistance is left untouched.

But there still is time to use the fund for Iowans that have managed to hang on during this COVID war. First, the governor can do what should have been done in April 2020 and use the resources at her disposal to make every K-12 classroom a safe learning environment. In addition to sanitizing supplies for every classroom, each district needs a legion of contracted employees to regularly sanitize every classroom in every building several times a day; and counselors to begin addressing the significant brain health trauma created by this pandemic. Teachers need to teach and form children, and should not be concerned for their safety or the safety of the children in their care.

Second, using sound fiscal strategies, the governor should use up to $500 million of the fund to leverage low-interest capital in order to provide $1.5 billion to $2 billion of five- and 10-year, no-interest and partially forgivable loans to small businesses that have a viable future but no short-term revenues to support that future. Future tax revenues from supported businesses will replenish the fund.

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Third, extraordinary broadband and technology intensive investments need to be made across our state. In particular, rural communities and poor children in rural and urban environments have been intellectually devastated by lack of access to broadband and computers. Additionally, to make up lost ground, our state needs to find a way to move to an 11-month, K-12 school year which, of course, includes increasing teacher’s salaries to a highly competitive level. These, too, will require extraordinary investments in infrastructure and vision.

We are in a moment which requires bold and decisive actions from our leaders. With these investments, and others like them, there still is a chance for Gov. Reynolds to be remembered more like Aurelius, who won the war, rather than Commodus who missed the battle entirely. If that’s the case, and I hope that it is, we all win — as Iowans.

Jeffrey Bullock is president of the University of Dubuque. jbullock@dbq.edu

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