Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, and Democrat Deidre DeJear participate in a gubernatorial candidate debate Oct. 17, 2022, at Iowa PBS. (Pool photo courtesy of Iowa PBS)
In their only televised debate, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds defended her record of managing the state budget as Democratic challenger Deidre DeJear called for more investments to address Iowa’s problems.
The gubernatorial candidates discussed their vision for Iowa ahead of the midterm elections, including the state budget, education system, and health care resources.
Reynolds did not detail specific policy proposals she would implement if reelected in November, but said she would plan to stay the course on what she and the Republican-controlled state Legislature have accomplished during her tenure as governor.
“I’m proud to what we’ve been able to do over the last four years,” Reynolds said during Monday’s debate on Iowa PBS. “I was honored to give the response to the State of the Union and really share Iowa’s story with the country. And so that’s what we’ll be running on. We’re going to build on what we’ve done over the last four years. I think the best is yet to come.”
Reynolds cited her administration’s performance in responding to extreme weather, the COVID-19 pandemic and financial hardships.
But DeJear said Iowans are telling her they need more help. She brought up declining scores of Iowa’s public school system, child care deserts and stories of families who are not able to receive needed medical care.
“Iowans want to see a stronger education system. Our state was once number one. Now we’re 18, 19 on the list and we know that is not where we belong. They want to see affordable and accessible health care and mental health care services in our communities,” she said.
She argued the additional spending would not require tax increases. “It does not mean more money coming from taxpayers, it means utilizing the taxpayer dollars that are already there, the ones that are being hoarded by our system,” she said.
DeJear has called for Iowa to use its budget surplus to address funding shortages in state systems. Iowa’s budget surplus grew to nearly $2 billion in the fiscal year 2022, the state reported in September.
Reynolds calls for school choice while DeJear calls for public school funding
Education has been a major focus for both candidates leading into this year’s midterm elections.
Reynolds highlighted her administration’s work on reopening schools during the pandemic and pledged to keep working toward her private school scholarship proposal. Her plan would allow parents to use state-funded scholarships to transfer their children from public to private schools.
Both of these issues are about parents’ rights to decide the best educational path for their children, she said. While she supports a strong public school system, Reynolds said measures like the scholarship program and the recent statewide open enrollment policies will help create the better schools across the state by encouraging competition.
“There was a superintendent in eastern Iowa who said, ‘I don’t agree with the legislation, but it’s passed, and let me tell you that I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure that we have the best school available, that the parents continue to want to go here and they want to send their kids here,'” she said. “And that’s really the kind of mindset that I think that we can that we can get to with great schools across the state.”
But DeJear said these programs do not help public Iowa schools improve. As the governor seeks to put education funds toward private schools, DeJear said, there are public schools in Iowa which opened this year without science or Spanish teachers,. Teacher shortages and declining test scores can be addressed by increasing funding for the state’s K-12 schools, she said.
Reynolds defended the state’s funding of public schools during her time as governor, saying education funding has increased year-over-year. She pointed to Florida as an example that better funding does not mean better schools: the state allocates $2,000 less per student than Iowa does, while ranking higher in math and reading proficiencies.
DeJear said small increases to funding mean little when Iowa schools are still not receiving the resources they need to best teach students.
“This is not a moment for us to talk about record investments,” DeJear said. “This is a moment for us to talk about how we’re going to take responsibility of this challenge and resolve it.”
The Democratic candidate also said she would increase higher education funding if elected governor. The Legislature previously funded three-fourths of Iowa’s Board of Regents budget, she said, but today only funds one-fourth. The lack of funding has made state colleges less affordable, she said, pointing to cuts to work-study programs. Tuition increased by 4.25% at Iowa’s three public universities this school year. DeJear did not commit to supporting a tuition freeze.
Making post-secondary education accessible is necessary to address Iowa’s workforce shortage, she said.
“If we want folks to fill these jobs, we have to make sure this pathway to access higher education is accessible and affordable,” DeJear said. “And that means that we take that onus and that responsibility at the state level and it starts at the governor’s office.”
Reynolds said she has taken steps as governor to reduce the high costs of college, but does not support measures like President Joe Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness program. The governor signed onto a lawsuit challenging Biden’s proposal, which started accepting applications Monday.
Forgiving student loans with federal money encourages bad borrowing habits and forces people who chose not to attend college to pay for another’s education, she said.
“If you were a truck driver or waitress, you’ve made a decision not to go to (college) but decided to go right into the workforce, why should you be responsible and paying somebody else’s way?” Reynolds said.
Calls for tax cuts remain unspecified
The governor’s track record of tax cuts was one of the issues she highlighted as a success of her time in office during the debate, and said she would support more tax cuts in the future.
“The first one that we passed that everybody just thought the whole world was going to end as we know it,” Reynolds said. “We were going to have budget cuts and the world was going to fall apart. And that didn’t happen.”
DeJear, who has criticized these cuts, said they have not helped low- and moderate-income Iowans. Cutting Iowa’s taxes while increasing the state budget surplus has led to insufficient government support for programs that families and workers rely on, she said.
“I believe that those tax cuts are short sighted, especially in the middle of a pandemic in the middle of social unrest and a derecho,” she said. “I believe these were the moments for us to invest our resources and maximize the potential of the Iowa dollar.”
The tax cuts passed by Republicans will only result in $50 to $55 more for an average Iowan in four years, she said. That extra money in the future does not do anything to address the problems Iowans face now, which could be resolved with state funding like child care services, mental health care and housing.
She disagreed with Reynolds’ claim that the increases to funding for these services would mean higher taxes.
Reynolds argued that DeJear shouldn’t write off the $50 that Iowans are saving from tax cuts. As families face high inflation and rising costs of living, she said it’s important to get as much back to Iowa taxpayers as possible. These tax cuts have helped Iowa better meet the current national economic challenges, while still adequately funding state programs, she said.
“We were able to not only cut taxes but make record investments in K-12 education, in broadband, and in child care and in housing,” Reynolds said. “… And so we’re watching what’s happening at the federal level, but we’re in a good place to take on some of the challenges that we’re seeing from this administration moving forward so that we can maintain those tax cuts.”
Eminent domain for carbon sequestration pipelines
Reynolds and DeJear disagreed about the use of eminent domain for privately owned pipelines that would transport liquid carbon dioxide from Iowa’s ethanol plants to out-of-state storage facilities.
Iowa currently has three pipeline projects hoping to capitalize on billions in federal tax credits and enhance ethanol markets by reducing the carbon footprint the of ethanol production process.
Reynolds, citing the importance of the ethanol industry to Iowa farmers, said she supports the existing law, which allows the Iowa Utilities Board to decide whether landowners would be forced to allow pipelines to cross their property.
“There’s a process in place and I would support the laws that are on the books,” she said.
DeJear said she would have supported legislation introduced this year that would have blocked the use of eminent domain for carbon pipelines.
“I believe that the landowners should have power in this situation because they put their blood sweat and tears into their land,” DeJear said.
Reynolds said she would continue to push for enactment of Iowa’s “fetal heartbeat” bill, which bans abortions after roughly six weeks, with some exceptions. Reynolds has sought reconsideration of a court decision that has kept the law from taking effect. Asked if she would push for further abortion restrictions, she said it was her goal to enact the law she has already signed.
DeJear said she wants to codify Roe v. Wade, which found a constitutional right to abortion until a fetus is considered viable outside the womb. She said politicians should not dictate choices that should be made between pregnant patients and their doctors.
Reynolds broke in, saying, “So it’s late-term abortion, they believe you can abort a baby right up until the moment it’s born.”
“That’s not what you just heard from me,” DeJear said.
“Yeah, that is what you’re saying,” Reynolds shot back. “You’re not answering the question.”
Serve four years if elected?
Reynolds, Iowa’s former lieutenant governor, took office in 2017 after Gov. Terry Branstad resigned mid-term to become ambassador to China during the Trump administration. She was then elected in 2018 to her own four-year term.
Asked if she would serve her full four years if reelected, Reynolds did not make that commitment. “I’m concentrating on winning this election,” she said.
A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll published Sunday found Reynolds leads DeJear by 17 percentage points, 52% to 35%. That’s the same margin the candidates faced in the July poll, at 48% to 31%. Although fewer likely voters were undecided, over half of Iowans in the latest poll still said they did not know enough about DeJear to form an opinion about the candidate.
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