Iowa’s No. 1 State Ranking Is a Cruel Joke

Republicans take credit for the dubious ranking as they slash education funding and healthcare services and propose massive tax cuts that would likely turn the state into the next Kansas

Republican Governors Association/Facebook

On Tuesday, the day before Iowa Senate Republicans passed a massively unaffordable, billion-dollar tax cut and another bill that would outlaw virtually all abortions here, with no exceptions for rape and incest, US News and World Report declared Iowa the best state in the nation in its annual rankings report. Our state scored in the top ten in four of the report’s eight main categories: healthcare (third), education (fifth), opportunity (fourth), infrastructure (first), and quality of life (ninth).

Predictably, Republicans have been quick to cynically seize the opportunity to claim credit for Iowa’s top-state ranking. On her official website, Gov. Kim Reynolds showcased the news articles from around the state that followed the report. Crowed the Republican Governors Association, “As these rankings show, Governor Reynolds is taking action, getting results, and moving Iowa forward.” In a tweet promoting a March 24 fundraiser featuring Reynolds and Sen. Joni Ernst, the co-sponsoring Story County GOP added the hashtag “#beststate.”

But far from moving Iowa forward, Reynolds and her state GOP cohorts — as evidenced by Wednesday’s Senate votes and many other actions since the party took total control of state government in 2017 — have been attempting to fundamentally reshape the state, undermining much of what purportedly makes it great while barreling ahead with proposals they claim without evidence will boost the economy, ignoring that similar policies have sent other states into spirals of financial ruin from which they have yet to emerge.

Before Senate Republicans passed their tax bill Wednesday, a nonpartisan analysis (PDF) from the Legislative Services Agency found that it would cost the state’s $7.2 billion general fund hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue over the next three fiscal years and more than $1.1 billion by 2023. Randy Feenstra, a Hull Republican and the lead author of the so-called Iowa Working Families Tax Relief Act who chairs the upper chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, responded to the analysis by claiming that “it keeps our promise of bold, pro-growth tax relief for Iowans.” (Meanwhile, the House is considering a Reynolds proposal to slash taxes by $1.7 billion from 2019 to 2023.)

Legislative Services Agency projections for the Senate tax bill via Bleeding Heartland
Legislative Services Agency projections for the Senate tax bill via Bleeding Heartland

Failed experiments in tax-slashing by other states suggest that Feenstra is either ignorant about how budgets work or simply bullshitting about the LSA’s conclusions to maintain his false status as a champion for working Iowans, who in fact would almost certainly be hurt by the corresponding cuts to education and social services.

Take Louisiana, where a series of tax cuts after Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal came to power in 2008 that exceeded $1 billion led to drastic cuts to healthcare and higher education while failing to ever stimulate the state’s economy. Jindal refused to consider tax increases to help cover a budget shortfall that in 2015 was projected to reach $1.6 billion the following year, part of a ploy to boast during his failed bid for president in 2016 that he never raised taxes as governor. This year, Jindal’s successor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, is struggling to cover Louisiana’s current billion-dollar budget gap. In January, he proposed a budget that would further slash the state’s healthcare system, threatening the closure of hospitals, thousands of lost jobs, and the financial viability of public and private medical schools. It still wouldn’t be enough to close the gap.

“Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.”

Or take the notorious example of Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012 signed a bill to cut state income taxes by $3.7 billion over five years. As state analysts projected massive deficits that would reach $2.5 billion by 2018, Brownback congratulated himself in the op-ed pages of the Wichita Eagle. “Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” he cheered. “It will pave the way to the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs, bring tens of thousands of people to Kansas, and help make our state the best place in America to start and grow a small business. It will leave more than a billion dollars in the hands of Kansans. An expanding economy and growing population will directly benefit our schools and local governments.” Meanwhile, he promised, “We will continue to meet the needs of our state’s most vulnerable.”

Brownback’s confident predictions couldn’t have been further from what actually happened in the years to follow. As in Louisiana, the state made huge cuts to healthcare and education, putting at risk the lives of vulnerable Kansans — including former Ames journalist Finn Bullers — by privatizing Medicaid and leading to a state supreme court ruling that a new school finance system failed to adequately fund education in general and also discriminated against the poor. Between April 2016 and April 2017, Kansas was one of just four states that lost private sector jobs, and by last June, private sector job growth since Brownback’s second term began in 2015 was more than 10,000 short of the governor’s re-election campaign pledge of 25,000 new jobs. And last year, the state’s budget gap was projected to reach $1.1 billion — the same gap that analysts predict by 2023 under the Iowa Senate tax bill — by 2019.

Humiliated, with polls showing him as America’s least popular governor, Brownback sought to jump ship two years before the end of his term to become President Trump’s UN ambassador for food and agriculture and avoid witnessing the state Legislature’s bipartisan effort last year to undo his failed legacy. But he was passed over for the position — which remains vacant — and stayed in Kansas to watch lawmakers override his veto of a $1.2 billion revenue bill that restored tax rates to pre-Brownback administration levels. (He finally managed to skip town in January, when he was confirmed as Trump’s ambassador of religious freedom.) “Kansas tax ‘experiment’ offers lessons to the nation, analysts say,” read a June 2017 headline in the Kansas City Star — lessons clearly lost on Iowa Republicans, who are on the verge of making the same mistakes that clouded the Sunflower State.

In fact, Republicans here have already begun to implement the same sorts of policies that have failed in states like Kansas and Louisiana, which respectively rank 29th and dead last in US News and World Report’s new best states list.

“We are very, very good in this state at educating people. We’re just not so good at keeping them here.”

Iowa’s No. 3 healthcare ranking includes high marks for access (fifth) and quality (ninth). Yet before accepting a position as Trump’s ambassador to China, Gov. Terry Branstad privatized Medicaid, greatly overestimating the resulting state savings just before many of the 600,000 poor and disabled Iowans who rely on the program saw their benefits diminish or disappear. Meanwhile, in a baffling move, Mike Randol, the secretive former director of Kansas’ failed Medicaid program, was hired to run Iowa’s, shortly before the Iowa Department of Human Services proposed a bill to reduce oversight of the program. The ranking also includes a No. 2 mark for the state’s low infant mortality rate. Yet last year, Republicans defunded Planned Parenthood, forcing the closure of a third of the state’s clinics and reducing access to services that prevent infant mortality.

The state’s No. 5 education ranking comes with accolades for graduation rates at its public high schools (first) and four-year public colleges (third). This, despite the Iowa GOP’s meager and much-protested funding increase for public schools last year, and its gutting of collective bargaining rights that was seen as an attack on teachers, among others. Lawmakers this year in both chambers proposed bills to reallocate public school funds for private voucher programs, which research shows have undermined the quality of education in other states. The party has also been hostile to higher education funding. In 2017, it cut a total of $30 million from Iowa’s three regents universities, forcing tuition hikes (US News and World Report ranked Iowa just 19th for tuition and fees). This year, Republicans have proposed slashing higher ed further by taking from it as much as $19.2 million in already appropriated funds in an attempt to avoid a budget shortfall.

As some news articles have pointed out, the state’s high ranking was given despite lower marks in several areas, including a 17th-place economy with high labor force employment (eighth) but a poor business environment (a distant 46th) struggling with entrepreneurship (45th) and an aging population (ranking 36th in growth of the state’s young population). Speaking to reporter Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson attributed the state’s low unemployment to an inflexible job market. “If you can’t find work where you are, then you move out, and you find some place where you can find work,” he said. The article cited a recent study Swenson contributed to, which found that between 2011 and 2015, the largest job growth was among workers under the age of 44 with just high school diplomas, while the biggest loss was among people with four-year college or advanced degrees. “[W]e are very, very good in this state at educating people,” Swenson told Charis-Carlson. “We’re just not so good at keeping them here.”

For a state represented in Congress by Steve King, whose tweet a year ago this month that we “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” prompted former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to encourage people to move to King’s district, where “sanity reigns supreme,” it’s little surprise that the state rankings also noted Iowa’s problems with racial inequality (27th in income gap by race — not to mention gender, where it ranks 40th). Speaking to WHO-TV Channel 13 News, Marvin DeJear, director of Des Moines’ Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families, also noted that, despite the state’s top ranking for its high school graduation rate, that rate is sometimes significantly lower among minority students.

The writing is on the wall for the state of Iowa, whose Republican leaders have ignored the lessons to be learned from the failures of Louisiana and Kansas and are proceeding full speed ahead in both chambers with massive tax cut proposals they may not have even read yet that would further endanger the state’s long-held reputation as a leader in public education and cast aside vulnerable residents in the name of robust economic growth that likely will never happen. Instead of acknowledging any of this, Republicans are taking credit for a best-state ranking that, whatever its merits, they are in reality actively threatening through an extreme legislative push to enact as much of their agenda as they can before the 2018 election.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.