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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

March 12, 2018

Des Moines Register. March 8, 2018

Young professional’s message to Des Moines leaders: Make diversity more than a buzzword

Jovan Johnson carried a message for central Iowa leaders when he was given the Amy Jennings Young Professional Impact Award last month.

Johnson, the assistant director of employer engagement and internships at Grinnell College, wore a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt under his suit jacket. And he told the crowd about a meeting of community leaders he had recently attended.

“The first thing I noticed was very few black and brown faces present, which was disturbing,” he said. “How can we have a conversation about a community as diverse as Des Moines without having diverse representation?”

His question should prod our community into action. For all of Des Moines’ progress and accolades, its Achilles heel is its racial disparities. Studies such as “One Economy: The State of Black Polk County” show that a cavernous racial gap persists in education, employment, finances, business ownership, housing, leadership, health, criminal justice and other areas.

Such gaps should force us to ask: If Iowa is the best place in the country to live, according to U.S. News & World Report, why did it have the worst unemployment rate in the nation for African-Americans in 2015?

Such statistics are an embarrassment, and some of Des Moines’ power brokers are taking notice.

Capital Crossroads, the multi-pronged visioning effort for central Iowa, plans to include more diversity in its planning process and ways to guard against bias entering its decision-making.

It has also launched a “4 Equity Tool,” a series of four questions leaders should consider when considering new projects:

Have a variety of ethnic communities/people of color been informed, meaningfully involved and authentically represented in the process/decision?

Is there a group that benefits more than another because of this process/decision?

What could be one unintended consequence of this process/decision for ethnic communities/communities of color?

What action will be implemented to advance equity in this process/decision?

Nikki Syverson, director of Capital Crossroads, said the tool is a prototype and the group seeks feedback to refine it. Here’s one way it could be used: The group’s Natural Capital committee plans to seek out diverse voices as it plans to develop the area’s water trails.

Last month, a room full of business, nonprofit and civic leaders involved in Capital Crossroads heard a presentation on implicit bias — the notion that we all have unconscious attitudes that color our perceptions and actions. If you’ve ever involuntarily reached for your wallet or purse when encountering a black man, that’s implicit bias at play.

Des Moines civil rights lawyer Thomas Newkirk ran through a ream of studies showing the pernicious effects of implicit bias — from higher rates of school discipline to incarceration, to differences in how doctors treat African-American patients, to how employers view resumes that reveal race.

Are those disparities the result of outright racism by most teachers, police officers, judges, doctors, hiring managers and others? Newkirk doesn’t believe so. Instead of focusing on blame, he encouraged participants to think about their responsibility in recognizing their biases.

Surveys have confirmed that yes, Iowans are biased. Almost 18,000 Iowans took the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious attitudes, between 2003 and 2014. While most Iowans claim they are nonbiased when it comes to race, the test shows clearly biased beliefs in about 80 percent of the state’s counties, including both rural and urban counties.

And that’s why diversity matters. It’s not simply a feel-good slogan. A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has shown that belonging to a diverse group can lead white people to process information more thoroughly. This can keep biases in check.

Diversity can often be cheapened to tokenism, of course. Johnson referred to this in his acceptance speech: In the meeting with community leaders, “I felt like, as did others in the room, that we were placed in that room to be checked off as a voice of diversity.”

And even if groups like Capital Crossroads make genuine efforts to invite minorities to the table, will they come? The One Economy study shows that local African-Americans who were surveyed expressed deep-seated distrust caused by decades of bias. Overcoming that will take more than equity tools and training.

Izaah Knox, executive director of Urban Dreams, has seen distrust overcome. He helped launch an internship program for North High School students at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Some parents were reluctant to send their children downtown, however. They didn’t see people who looked like them, Knox said.

In response, John Forsyth, Wellmark’s CEO, invited the parents to tour Wellmark’s headquarters and ease their fears. The internship program is now going into its fourth year.

We all can make more efforts to listen to minority residents’ concerns and priorities and extend a welcome. More of us can learn about our own biases. Syverson said Capital Crossroads plans to roll out the implicit bias presentations later this year to city councils, public schools, banks, neighborhood associations, arts and cultural groups, landlords and others.

Johnson, meanwhile, says that after his speech, he’s been busy meeting with community leaders asking his input on engaging minorities. A transplant from Atlanta, Johnson said that instead of addressing social issues by looking to other cities, leaders in Des Moines must sit down with local residents and understand their unique experiences.

It’s good, he said, that more leaders are talking about diversity and inclusion. “But it’s also important to talk about it when we are not in the room.”

That’s the real test. Are we ready for a frank conversation about race?


Sioux City Journal. March 7, 2018

Farm states stand to lose in trade war

It’s hard to find supporters outside the administration for President Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum entering the United States.

Typical was this reaction on Monday from House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance with this plan,” AshLee Strong, a Ryan spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Trump wants to slap a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum. So far, the European Union, Canada and China have threatened tariffs on American-made products in return.

The primary reason we do not back the tariffs is their potential negative impact on farm country. Agriculture states like Iowa stand to lose in a trade war.

Consider these reactions from the Midwest:

- “Every time you do this, you get a retaliation,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told reporters last week. “And agriculture is the number one target. I think this is terribly counterproductive for the (agriculture) economy and I’m not very happy.”

- “Our farmers are the first target and we know that’s where the unintended consequences will fall is on our farmers and on our manufacturers,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said at her weekly news conference on Monday. Those “unintended consequences,” she said, could be “devastating” to Iowa and other agriculture states.

Iowa leads the nation in exports of pork, corn, and feed grain, ranks second for soybean exports, and is second for overall value of agriculture exports. If Trump moves ahead with his plan for steel and aluminum tariffs and other countries target U.S. agriculture products for retaliation, Iowa will feel the pain as much as, if not more than any state.

This, at what is an already challenging time for the farm economy. Net farm income fell 46 percent in Iowa since 2015, reported David Peters, associate professor and extension rural sociologist at Iowa State University, in a new publication, “Rural Iowa at a Glance.” American net farm income in 2018 is expected to fall to a 12-year low, according to USDA Economic Research Service’s most recent 2018 Farm Sector Income Forecast.

We urge all farm-state leaders, regardless of political party affiliation, to form a strong, united front of opposition to these tariffs.


Fort Dodge Messenger. March 7, 2018

Governor lauds career and technical education

Career and technical education (CTE) programs all across Iowa prepare students both for college and satisfying jobs. They bring together technical and academic training with hands-on learning opportunities in real-world environments.

In February, Gov. Kim Reynolds took note of the huge importance of CTE by issuing a proclamation making that month Career and Technical Education Month in Iowa. She invited Nathan Montgomery, a student at St. Edmond High School, to be present for the proclamation’s signing. He was honored by the governor because of role he plays in Iowa DECA. Montgomery currently serves as that organization’s statewide vice president of leadership.

Iowa DECA is a career and technical student organization. It helps prepares emerging leaders in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges.

The Messenger agrees with the governor that CTE programs make an important contribution as our state develops its workforce for tomorrow. Her proclamation helped spread the word about the significance of the CTE initiatives both in our state and across the nation. We also applaud Montgomery for his leadership role in Iowa DECA. That Reynolds asked him to be present for the proclamation signing was well-deserved recognition of his valuable work in that organization. We congratulate him on being chosen to participate in this event.


Waterloo-Cedar Falls courier. March 6, 2018

Big tax cuts could be fiscal train wreck

New legislation proposed by Iowa Republicans would dramatically change the state tax code, initiating some overdue reforms.

However, revenue reductions in proposals from Senate Republicans and, to a lesser extent, Gov. Kim Reynolds are cause for great concern.

We have advocated doing away with federal deductibility, which becomes more imperative with recent changes in federal taxes. Both proposals would gradually phase it out.

Iowa is only one of three states allowing federal taxes to be deducted. That makes both individual and corporate tax rates artificially high, a disincentive to business recruitment. Iowa’s 12 percent top corporate tax rate is among the nation’s highest.

Under the Senate bill, Iowa businesses with less than $250,000 in net income would have a 5.5 percent rate, while it would be 7 percent for businesses with more than $250,000.

But that would go along with curtailing and re-evaluating the willy-nilly bestowing of tax credits on individual corporations, which has soared from $153 million in 2005 to more than $427 million.

Iowa’s current nine individual tax brackets would be reduced. Reynolds wants eight, the Senate five. Nebraska and Missouri have three. Illinois has one.

Individual tax brackets now range from 0.36 percent to 8.98 percent (for incomes of $73,260 or above), the nation’s fourth highest.

The Senate would reduce the top rate by 2023 to 6.3 percent for those making $75,000. Reynolds would cut it to 6.9 percent for those with incomes above $160,965, while substantially increasing the standard deduction.

The Republican plan envisions $73 million in new revenues by 2023 by collecting online goods from out-of-state retailers. That initiative, which we have long supported, would help create a level playing field with local businesses that charge sales taxes.

But it comes with a caveat. A 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving catalog sales gave a pass to retailers without a physical presence in a state. It was last reviewed in 1992, a year before the internet was opened to commercial business.

The high court agreed in January to hear an appeal from South Dakota, which relies heavily on sales taxes. It is supported by 36 states and the District of Columbia, which cite revenue losses of $34 billion. The General Accounting Office — Congress’ investigative arm — estimated $8 billion to $13 billion last year.

The Republican proposals also would put Iowa more in line with federal tax changes.

While the Iowa tax code needs to be modernized, state government has a recent history of enacting various corporate tax incentives without commensurate economic growth, albeit amid a farm recession and slumping retail sector.

The U.S. Bureau of Analytical Analysis reported in November 2017 that Iowa was dead last in annual Gross Domestic Product growth at minus-0.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Iowa had a $927 million surplus in 2013, but last year reserves fell to $625.1 million — $112 million below the statutory maximum.

With minimal debate or public scrutiny Wednesday, the Senate rushed through its plan to cut taxes by $1.2 billion in 2023 when fully implemented. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency fiscal analysis predicted it would reduce state income by $1.1 billion that year.

For perspective, the current state budget is $7.2 billion, and Republicans are struggling to fill a $34 million shortfall, after making last-minute cuts to higher education, the judicial system and human services an annual ritual.

The Senate didn’t even contemplate the ramifications for FY 2019 with a predicted $208 million revenue loss.

Reynolds’ plan would reduce income taxes by a total of $1.7 billion between FY 2019 and 2023. She said tax reform must be done “in a responsible manner. I need to honor the commitments that have been made, for example, to education. I want to make sure that we can continue to fund priorities of our administration.”

The House leadership agrees.

The tax cuts, Republicans have stated, go hand-in-hand with shaping smaller, smarter state government, which they claim had been bloated. Indeed, some streamlining has been in order.

Yet “smarter” hasn’t always been evident.

We have a Medicaid privatization mess, a worst-in-the-nation mental health system, stagnant K-12 investment, depleted state patrol, huge autopsy backlog, deaths of foster children blamed on a depleted Department of Human Services, overburdened corrections system, ever-increasing university tuition and a judicial system that may need to cut county courthouses.

Tax-cut orthodoxy in Kansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana produced budget, education and public service disasters. The Senate didn’t heed those lessons. Given the inevitability of tax cuts, we hope the House exercises considerably more caution while following Reynolds’ blueprint.

The Iowa tax code is long overdue for reform, but it must be crafted carefully, incorporating the role of an efficient and responsive state government. Otherwise, you get what you pay for.


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