Here’s a draft of my column for the Sunday Gazette:
Pardon my skepticism, Governor.
I had to laugh when I saw the quote from Gov. Chet Culver in large type on the front page of Saturday’s Gazette: “I want to get businesses up and running as quickly as possible.” I didn’t laugh because it was funny. This was the laughter of sarcasm.
Culver also said in the taping for “Iowa Press,” airing today on Iowa Public Television, “My focus is to get these families back on their feet, to get them into their old houses that need to be repaired, to get them in new houses if their homes were destroyed.”
I thought back immediately to Culver’s meeting in September with The Gazette’s editorial board, when he gave us lame, buck-passing reasons for his refusal to call the Legislature into special session to provide emergency aid to flood victims.
Annoyed when I noted that the situation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other eastern Iowa communities was too urgent to wait for January, Culver turned to me, his face flushing and his voice rising, and asked, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” The reaction was heated enough and animated enough that colleagues parroted it back to me at comical moments for the next week or so.
But there is nothing comical about Culver’s weak and slow response to the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. I’m glad you’ll be visiting Cedar Rapids this week, Governor. Let me know if you find a single person who thinks you have done anything “as quickly as possible.” See if anyone credits the state with getting them “back on their feet.”
You will see that hundreds of businesses reopened mostly through their own investment and hard work because waiting for sufficient state aid would have put them out of business.
When Culver met with our editorial board, he was proud that he had cobbled together $100 million without the Legislature’s help to provide state aid to disaster victims in a program called Jumpstart. Thanks, but the need in Cedar Rapids alone is more than $5 billion.
This summer’s catastrophe demanded a swift session of the Legislature to consider a range of responses beyond the power of the governor. At the very least, we should have been dipping into the state’s emergency reserve fund. It’s called a “rainy day” fund and Iowa hasn’t seen rainier days than we saw this June.
Lawmakers also could have considered diverting money from other state projects to flood relief. They could have considered a bond issue to spread disaster relief over several years. They could have considered an increase in the gasoline tax to repair the roads and bridges damaged and destroyed in the flood. They could have considered giving local governments more options to raise local money for rebuilding.
You can make a good case against some of those measures. All of them wouldn’t have been enough, but any of them would have helped more than the trickle of aid from Barelystart. While Culver has dithered away seven months since the flood with no legislative action, the national recession has forced severe cuts in state spending, making it that much harder to provide money for rebuilding.
Would the state response have been this slow if 5,000 homes and 1,000 businesses plus hundreds of government buildings and non-profit organizations had been flooded in Des Moines?
Culver’s goal is to get displaced families into new homes by December 2009, which is as long as they can stay in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. No point in trying to get them out of there before the deadline, I guess.
Culver’s excuse for the inexcusable delay in legislative consideration of the state’s disaster response was that he didn’t want to jeopardize our chance at federal money by committing state money too early. The fact is that the maximum the state could commit would not come close to filling the need. State and federal money combined will leave us far short. But the swifter we get any aid, the faster businesses and families can get on with life.
Here’s hoping that the governor’s stocking Thursday morning includes a replica of Harry Truman’s famous desk plaque reminding that chief executive: “The buck stops here.”