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Political Mercury

Cedar Rapids mayor’s think tank could be gov-run prelude

2/24/2016

Wanting to hear a debate over abortion or gay marriage? You won’t get any participation from Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and his fledgling think tank, Engage Iowa, a conservative-leaning organization focused on taxes and the environment. It’s serving as a possible pre-gubernatorial campaign launch vehicle for Corbett, a former Republican speaker of the Iowa House.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron CorbettPhoto by Douglas Burns

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett
Photo by Douglas Burns

“We need to take matters into our own hands,” Corbett said.

During an interview with this newspaper, Corbett, a fierce economic-development advocate for his city, said Iowa’s income tax rates are making it challenging to attract and retain businesses. Citing an Iowa State University study, Corbett says the marginal personal income rate in Iowa of 8.98 percent has chased high earners out of Iowa to more wealth-accommodating states like South Dakota and Texas.

“South Dakota isn’t known for its weather or its beaches,” Corbett said. “But it is known for one beach — Dakota Dunes.”

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One potential solution for Iowa: a flat tax with the elimination of all deductions.

“No one wants to ever, ever offer up their sacred cow,” Corbett said.

He added, “Every deduction we have, someone lobbied the state government.”

Corbett said agricultural sustainability and the environment will be key issues for both rural and urban areas of Iowa. He noted that 1,000 trucks a day come into Cedar Rapids with grain, tying the city’s fortunes to its rural neighbors.

“You bet we’re all connected,” Corbett said. “This really isn’t some of kind of rural-urban issue.”

Had the Des Moines Water Works not sued three northwest Iowa counties over runoff concern, a another entity would have taken ag interest to court, Corbett said, speculating that it might have been shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico who contended harm.

“Iowa’s rivers and streams aren’t very healthy,” Corbett said.

Corbett is floating the idea of raising the sales tax 1 percent in Iowa, using 5/8ths of the revenue to reduce income taxes, and directing the rest of the money — an estimated $80 million annually — to nutrient-reduction strategies.

The farm community must adapt with proactive plans as the political power to protect agriculture isn’t always there, Corbett said, pointing out that West Virginia, even with the influence of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, could not stop regulations affecting the coal industry.

Corbett has described Engage Iowa, which he launched last summer, as both conservative and non-partisan.

“We exist to craft research-based, pragmatic, common sense solutions that will move our state forward by bringing rural and urban Iowans together to modernize the tax code, build great schools and protect our environment,” engageiowa.org says on its website. “For too long, liberal think tanks have dominated Iowa’s public policy debate. This creates the mistaken impression that liberals are the only group with new ideas.”

Engage Iowa, as of now, is not identifying its contributors.

In an interview, Corbett declined to speculate about a possible run for governor in 2018, saying he has not determined whether to seek another term as mayor. Now in his second, four-year term, Corbett would face a municipal election in 2018.

Gov. Terry Branstad has not announced his intentions. If Branstad does not seek re-election to a seventh term, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is expected to seek the Republican nod for Terrace Hill. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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