The Gazette’s editorial board is meeting with Democratic candidates for governor ahead of the June 5 primary. Although we don’t make endorsements in party primaries, we will be publishing issue Q&As with the candidates on Sundays before the vote. This week, we’re featuring John Norris, who served as chief of staff to former U.S. Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack, both while he served as secretary and governor, counselor to the United Nations for agriculture and former member of the Iowa Utilities Board.
• WHY ARE YOU RUNNING?
“I’m really worried about the direction our state is headed. We are not planning for the future and not investing in our future. We’ve really turned our back on some basic Iowa values, which are love of the land, a sense of community and that fundamental belief that public education is essential to make sure everybody has an opportunity in this state,” Norris said. “And I believe I’ve got the experience to help turn it around.”
• YOU’VE CAMPAIGNED EXTENSIVELY IN RURAL AREAS. CAN DEMOCRATS WIN OVER RURAL VOTES?
“It’s to all of our benefit to rebuild the rural Iowa economy, for the state to prosper as a whole. There’s no silver bullet, but there are building blocks. If we approach it that way, then we’ll have the capacity to earn back votes as Democrats,” Norris said.
“One, we know every rural community that wants to survive, at least the county seats or population centers, has to have a good hospital and good schools. Hospitals are being threatened by Medicaid privatization today. And the schools are under great stress given the level of funding,” Norris said.
“We know about 22 percent of Iowans don’t have access to broadband. There’s 12 rural counties where 40 percent don’t have access. That’s essential for business and industry. It’s essential if you want to attract people to rural areas,” Norris said.
Norris said he would use the Iowa Communications Network to fill broadband gaps, as well as refocus beginning farmer programs to help a new generation of young farmers growing local food. He’d leverage $2 billion in property taxes from wind turbines to create a county-by-county, locally administered program to fund community projects that “change the dynamic” in rural areas. And he’d push to help rural towns welcome immigrants.
• HOW MUCH WOULD YOU INCREASE EDUCATION FUNDING?
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“We’ve got some ground to make up. At least 4 percent as a starting point. We’re probably going to have to be at a higher rate for a few years until we bring the funding level up,” Norris said.
“We’ve got half of our babies born today are born eligible for Medicaid. Free and reduced lunch has doubled in the last 15 years. So if you’re a schoolteacher … and half of your children are arriving every day either food insecure or from a single-parent home working 60 hours a week because of low wages, or a domestic abuse home, or a substance abuse home, that’s a whole different set of challenges for that classroom teacher.
“Now you layer in the new English language learners you have coming into our schools, which is great for the diversity of our state. That’s another set of challenges for our schools and teachers. And then the kicker is we have no children’s mental health system,” Norris said. “You can’t look at that and say 1 percent allowable growth is going to get us where we need to get.”
• HOW CAN WE AFFORD HIGHER FUNDING AMID BUDGET PROBLEMS?
Norris blames budget issues on a proliferation of tax credits and exemptions for business.
“Farm income last year was 50 percent of what it was five years ago. But I think it’s too easy to blame it on that, because we’ve passed a number of business tax credits uncapped in the past five years that have contributed more than the downturn in the farm economy. Business tax credits have gone up 300 percent since 2007 and 2008,” Norris said.
“We should always strive to have the lowest tax rates we can, but we’ve got too many exemptions. We’ve made too many exceptions. Back in the 80s, there was a clamor for catching these tax cheaters. Well, they’re not cheating anymore. They’re just hiring great lobbyists,” Norris said.
“We have to, at a minimum, cap business tax credits. But I would like to see many of them turn into deductions. So if you’re not paying taxes in this state, you don’t get a check from taxpayers to subsidize your business,” Norris said. “I want to redefine economic development. Economic development means helping meet the human needs of Iowans, not the special needs of a few businesses and corporations. So the emphasis is more on job training, so you get businesses that need higher skilled workers to grow.
• WHAT’S YOUR WATER QUALITY PLAN?
“We’ve got to have a revenue stream, and that’s the place to start. We have to expand public research. Zeroing out the Leopold Center is the opposite of what we should be doing,” said Norris, who favors raising the state sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund created by voters in 2010. He also favors raising a per-ton tax on farm fertilizer, with proceeds going for on-farm conservation projects.
He’d use state dollars to share the cost of conservation measures with farmers.
“We’ve got to have measuring and monitoring so we know if we’re making progress. If we’re making progress at an adequate level, let’s keep doing what we’re doing. If not, then those sources of the nitrate and phosphate problem have to be held accountable,” Norris said.
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• HOW WOULD YOU IMPROVE IOWA’S MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM?
“The intensity on the fate of our mental health system is way above anything else in this state right now,” Norris said.
Short-term, Norris favors taking steps to clarify care objectives and equalize funding for the multicounty regions now managing the system, with budgets locked into an outdated, inadequate levy rate.
“Long term, we have to get away from a property-tax-based funding stream for mental health. I don’t have a solution for that right now, other than I think it’s going to be necessary,” Norris said.
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