Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Who would govern the best state the best?

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Already our campaign for governor has given Iowa a new state motto: “Our Magazine Rankings We Prize and Don’t You Dare Complain.”

Maybe you’ve heard Iowa is the best state in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings. Our lofty overall scores in health care, education and infrastructure, based on data crunching and surveys, took us to the top. Grab your oversized “We’re No. 1” foam finger and wave it with pride, Iowans.

Unless you’re a Democrat running for governor, that is.

“We’ve been to all 99 counties. We’ve been listening to people for over a year now. And we’re getting a lot of input from them about how dissatisfied they are,” said Democratic nominee for governor Fred Hubbell when he and other hopefuls were asked about the U.S. News ranking at a debate just before the June 5 primary.

Hubbell pointed his non-foam finger at budget mismanagement, too little support for education and health care and extreme partisan legislation perpetrated by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and the GOP Legislature.

“So what you are saying is that Iowa is not the best state in the nation as a place to live?” asked debate moderator Kathie Obradovich, editorial page editor for the Des Moines Register.

“Absolutely,” Hubbell said.

Republicans pounced, smacking Hubbell on the nose with a rolled-up magazine. But not U.S. News, which halted its print edition in 2010.

“Fred was asked if he thought that Iowa was the best place in the country to live and what did he say? ‘No,’” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said at her Roast and Ride fundraiser afterward. “Are you kidding me? We have a gubernatorial candidate … who doesn’t think this is the best place to live. I have never heard anything more ludicrous in my life.”

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“Well, Fred, if you don’t think Iowa’s the best place to live, then you just don’t know Iowa,” Reynolds said, piling on.

It’s a phony-baloney attack, but par for the course. The great I-love-Iowa-more-than-you contest is hardly new. So which candidate can eat an ear of sweet corn, a tenderloin and a slice of Casey’s breakfast pizza all while singing a duet with Maddie Poppe? The next governor, that’s who.

That said, Hubbell made it way too easy. He and all Democrats on the ballot for other positions must do a better job tempering their understandable outrage with some much-needed optimism.

Elected officials are supposed to love magazine and online rankings of best states and cities, etc. Maybe Hubbell missed that day in politician class.

“We can all be proud when Iowa’s strengths are recognized nationally. This is a great state, with a great future,” Hubbell could have said, instead. “The problem is we have a governor and a Legislature who refuse to recognize some truly serious problems we face, let alone offer solutions. They’ve made some problems worse. And that’s putting our future in jeopardy.”

That’s a lot more honest than Reynolds’ sneering cheerleading, and more hopeful than a sour scolding from Freddy Downer. The best state does face problems. Want proof? Just ask U.S. News.

The U.S. News report also waves plenty of red flags. On education, Iowa ranks 33rd in college readiness, 26th in educational attainment and 32nd in low debt at college graduation. We’re No. 36 in growth of our “young population” and 26th in net migration. Our brains just keep draining.

Stubborn employment gaps by race and disability each land us at No. 36, while our equality in jailing ranks a dismal 39th according to U.S. News. Our bridge quality ranks 49th, our drinking water quality is 26th and we’re No. 38 in terms of health risks from pollution.

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Even after throwing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks, credits and exemptions at various businesses, Iowa has only the 46th best business environment, U.S. News says. Perhaps a new series of corporate tax cuts will turn the tide. Or maybe we should explore new approaches after more than two decades of aggressive giveaways and incentives.

Speaking of GOP tax cuts, even before they become law, U.S. News said Iowa’s short-term fiscal stability ranks 36th, behind Mississippi.

And maybe our Statehouse policy model shouldn’t be Kansas, the nation’s 29th best state, according to U.S. News, with it’s No. 42 economy and No. 39 overall fiscal stability. And yet, it’s where the GOP apparently takes its cues on tax policy and Medicaid privatization.

The burning question isn’t whether Iowa is the best place to live, or which politicians can slather us in buttery tall corn platitudes, it’s who would do the best job governing the state. We’re eager to see if Reynolds has an actual agenda beyond lampooning her opponent. Hubbell’s right, it’s how Iowans see the state and its prospects that matters most, not some prized rankings in a magazine.

The next big rankings come out in November.

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

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