Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Race for governor opens a debate over closure

Campaigning against Fred Hubbell, Gov. Kim Reynolds has called into question his commitment to rural Iowa, citing the times decades ago when the company he led — Younkers — closed several locations in smaller cities. Yet Reynolds has a long and more recent record to look at, including championing with then-Gov. Terry Branstad a measure to defund Planned Parenthood, which led to the closures of health clinics in four communities. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Campaigning against Fred Hubbell, Gov. Kim Reynolds has called into question his commitment to rural Iowa, citing the times decades ago when the company he led — Younkers — closed several locations in smaller cities. Yet Reynolds has a long and more recent record to look at, including championing with then-Gov. Terry Branstad a measure to defund Planned Parenthood, which led to the closures of health clinics in four communities. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

When Fred Hubbell, the Democratic nominee for governor, was chairman of Younkers department stores in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the chain closed some of its smaller stores in smaller Iowa cities. Republicans have pounced on those closures as evidence Hubbell cares little about rural Iowa.

“If you think eliminating jobs in rural Iowa is the right way to lead, then you don’t know Iowa,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said during remarks last month in Boone.

It’s a line of attack that’s popped up repeatedly during the opening weeks of the campaign, alongside pointing out “Prince Frederick” is wealthy. And it’s fair game. Without a record as an elected official, Hubbell’s record as a businessman certainly deserves scrutiny. Stores were closed and jobs were lost. The buck stopped with Hubbell.

But it’s also fair game to recall and consider the wide array of closures spawned through decisions made by the Branstad-Reynolds administration. It’s a long list.

There was the decision by Team Branstad in 2011 to close 36 of the state’s 55 Workforce Development field offices, replacing them with computer kiosks. Gov. Terry Branstad and others insisted the new system would better serve Iowans seeking employment help. He vetoed a bipartisan legislative measure intended to keep the offices open. By 2017, Des Moines Register reporters found the kiosk system largely had been abandoned.

In 2014, Team Branstad made an abrupt, unilateral decision to close the state juvenile home for girls at Toledo. Rather than fix a litany of problems at the facility, Branstad simply shuttered it and scattered its clients to the wind. Some ended up in a Wisconsin facility where they were abused and mistreated, according to federal lawsuits filed in 2017.

In 2015, Branstad moved to close two mental health institutes at Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. Although the administration’s arguments that the facilities were outdated and inefficient had merit, advocates warned against swift closures with no concrete plan for transitioning to a better system. A bipartisan bill aimed at slowing down the closures was vetoed by Branstad.

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In the months after the closures, three Clarinda clients died after being moved to nursing homes.

Branstad-Reynolds enthusiastically encouraged lawmakers to defund Planned Parenthood clinics across the state, leading to the closure of four women’s health facilities in Sioux City, Burlington, Bettendorf and Keokuk. Republicans turned away federal funding for Planned Parenthood in the name of stopping abortions, even though none of the money could be spent on the procedures.

GOP lawmakers instead used $3 million in state money to create a new Family Planning Program with a database of providers that don’t offer abortions. Trouble is, that list included numerous providers that don’t offer family planning services. Dozens had no address or phone number. State records show far fewer women now are accessing family planning services, including pelvic exams and tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

Privatization of the state’s Medicaid program, a move made unilaterally by Branstad and now championed by Reynolds, has resulted in numerous payment delays to health care providers, pushing some to the brink of closure. A clinic in Colfax is the latest to sound the alarm.

The University of Iowa’s dental college has closed the door to taking any new Medicaid-covered patients due to low payments and confusing rules spawned by the move to managed care.

Just this week, the UI announced the closing of seven education and research centers, including its 67-year-old Labor Center, which provides research and data on workers’ rights and workplace issues. They’re among several university research institutions put on the chopping block in recent years, including the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, which now exists in little more than name only.

A series of funding cuts for state universities are being blamed — cuts signed into law by Branstad and Reynolds. Sluggish revenue growth has busted the budget repeatedly over the last few years.

Despite that, what remains wide open for business is the Statehouse tax cut factory, which has churned out cuts, credits and exemptions over the past 20 years sapping revenue to the tune of billions of dollars annually. In May, Reynolds signed another round of cuts totaling $2.1 billion over the next six years.

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Maybe you’re fine with all of this. And maybe you don’t think Reynolds deserves blame for Branstad’s decisions. But she’s tied herself so tightly to Branstad’s agenda, leadership style and donors that it’s tough to argue she’d govern any differently, or that she opposed any of these moves. Even after Reynolds admitted mistakes were made in privatizing Medicaid, she stuck with the program.

Bottom line, Hubbell closed some Younkers stores. Painful, to be sure, for employees and communities.

And the Branstad-Reynolds administration supported or ordered a long list of closures denying important services to thousands of Iowans in cities and towns across the state, in some cases over the objections of advocates and bipartisan legislative majorities. Their budget priorities led to more closures and more denied services.

That’s the record. Voters will have to decide which seems like the right way to lead Iowa.

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

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