Here’s why I’m still hopeful about Iowa’s future

January 3, 2022 8:00 am

There’s reason to hope for brighter days ahead. (Photo by smshoot/Getty Images)

A friend sent me an email recently, remarking on a recent column, and said he wasn’t sensing “defeatism” from my view of recent events in Iowa.

He said that was “laudable” — but he wasn’t feeling optimistic, to say the least. He said he was thinking about leaving the state before it turns into “Arkansas North.”

I hope he doesn’t leave, but I don’t blame him for being fed up. It’s easy to find reasons for pessimism. The next wave of COVID-19, the omicron variant, is now the dominant strain in the United States and is spreading fast. Iowa hospitalizations due to the virus surged to new highs for 2021 before starting to level off last week. And yet the party in power in our state seems determined to support and encourage those who refuse vaccination for no better reason than “Nobody can tell me what to do.”

The majority in the Iowa Legislature, faced with a chronic workforce shortage, appears poised to keep trying the same strategy that hasn’t worked before: Massive tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy and corporations that can’t understand why they can’t find workers for their low-wage, no-benefits jobs. Meanwhile, to keep the budget balanced, lawmakers will have to continue shortchanging public school teachers, higher education, the environment and water quality.

It would be easy to get discouraged. But this is the season of hope. Sometimes we have to search for reasons for optimism, but reasons always appear to those who look.

I’m grateful that safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines are abundantly available in Iowa and there are plentiful supplies of face masks, hand sanitizer and yes, toilet paper. I’m beyond thankful that my family and loved ones have chosen to be vaccinated. The vaccines might not entirely ward off infection, especially the new variants, but they are still working to keep most who are fully immunized out of the hospital and the morgue. Things could be so much worse. We have the tools to defeat COVID-19 — we just need leadership to get over the mental block that keeps too many from using them.

I am appreciative of the billions of federal dollars that have flooded into the state, first from the Trump administration’s direct payments to Americans in late 2020 and then larger packages from the Biden administration in 2021. While Iowans might disagree over how that money should be spent, I have been glad to see Gov. Kim Reynolds investing millions in child care, affordable housing and children’s mental health. Her party didn’t support the federal COVID aid approved this year but there’s no getting around the fact the governor gets to spend the money. These are the sorts of investments that support Iowa families and workers. Maybe if policymakers see that, they’ll do more of it.

I am optimistic that the bipartisan infrastructure package will not only repair some long-neglected roads, bridges and airports in Iowa, but also demonstrate in a concrete (pun intended) way that positive things can happen in Washington when the parties work together. Hey, it could happen!

The larger federal Build Back Better package still faces challenges, including the size of the price tag. Still, I am encouraged that ideas like expanded health care, reduction of prescription drug prices, support for child care and universal pre-K, and clean energy incentives are part of the discussion. I am particularly hopeful that Americans push their elected officials for the proposed $35 per month cap on insulin.

Finally, it gave me hope to see larger-than-usual voter turnout for the city and school board elections in 2021. Yes, some people were engaged for reasons I disagree with, including banning school mask mandates and trying to discourage the teaching of issues related to racial justice.  And some county auditors pointed out turnout would have been even higher if the Legislature hadn’t changed absentee voting deadlines and rules, leaving hundreds of legal voters on the sidelines. Maybe more Iowans will flex their new, off-year voting muscles in the midterms and encourage the people they elect to stop trying to make it harder to cast a ballot.

See? It’s not so hard to be upbeat. Now, if I could just channel some positive thinking toward losing (again) the pandemic pounds.

Thanks to all of you who have clicked on my columns and other Iowa Capital Dispatch stories this year and to the editors and news directors who have seen fit to share our work with their readers. May you have a safe, healthy and prosperous new year.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.