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‘It’s just a matter of priorities’: Fred Hubbell talks about funding higher education during an Iowa City campaign stop

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Democratic candidate for governor Fred Hubbell and Sen. Rita Hart head a town hall-style meeting at Merge. Thursday, July 19, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Fred Hubbell was the only Democratic candidate for governor this year without prior experience in campaigning, and it shows when he speaks. His lack of standard-issue political speech was on display Thursday in Iowa City, when Hubbell and his running mate Sen. Rita Hart held a meeting on higher education at MERGE on the Ped Mall.

Hubbell outlined his plan to make college more affordable to an audience made up of students, faculty and staff members from the University of Iowa.

“What I want to do — what Rita and I have talked about doing — is rather than give free tuition to any number of students, I want to give free tuition, through a tuition payback system, to those students who go to school in our state — anyone, it doesn’t matter where they come from — who go to school in our state and commit to go to work in rural Iowa for five years,” Hubbell said. “Our state will pay off your student loans.”

One of the UI students in the room, Ryan Hall, pushed back against this plan. Hall has previous political campaign experience; he ran unsuccessfully for the Iowa City Council last year. In the primary, Hall supported SEIU Local 199 President Cathy Glasson. (Glasson had never run for public office before, but during the primary, she described running for the top position of her union local and serving in that job as giving her as much political experience as serving in public office would have.)

“Can you do one better and make [college] free for everybody?” Hall said.

Typically, a politician might preface any response by acknowledging universal free college as a fine idea that’s difficult to achieve, or talk about the importance of maintaining a sense of idealism. Hubbell, however, simply said, “No, I won’t.”

“I don’t think that makes sense,” he said in his typical polite and matter-of-fact tone.

“But is that not the plan eventually?” Hall asked.

“No,” Hubbell replied. “The plan is to invest in those students who want to go to work in our state.”

When Hart, who has served in the Iowa State Senate since 2013, spoke near the end of the meeting, she sounded much more like a standard politician.

While praising the commitment of members of the audience to higher education, Hart singled out Hall. “I especially appreciate this young man — Josh, is it?” she said.

“Ryan,” Hall replied.

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“Ryan, what I can hear from you is anger,” Hart said. “And that’s OK, I have four 20-somethings of my own, and we have these kind of conversations all the time and the anger comes out. And that’s a great role to play. You should be firing up us old people.”

In his remarks on Thursday, Hubbell was thorough and well-informed, but never fiery. Instead he focused on how an odd element of Iowa tax policy is contributing to the state’s cuts to funding of higher education, health care and other programs Iowans need.

Iowa is one of only two states that offers corporations refundable tax credits. Not only do those credits allow major corporation to avoid paying any corporate income taxes to the state, but because the credits are refundable, the state ends up paying millions of dollars to those corporations.

“For example, over the last six years, [Iowa has] written $96 million in checks to John Deere” as a result of the refundable state tax credits, Hubbell said. He pointed out that when he served as interim director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development in 2009, he recommended to the legislature that the refundable credits be replaced by the sort tax deductions most states use.

The legislature didn’t act on Hubbell’s recommendation, even though the Department of Economic Development had determined the state could save approximately $160 million each year if it changed the refundable credits to deductions.

“We would have the money to fully invest in our K through 12 schools [if the credit were changed to deductions],” Hubbell said. “We’d have the money to invest in job training and in our regent schools and community colleges all across the state.”

“It’s just a matter of priorities,” he said.

Hubbell criticized Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republicans in the legislature for paying lip service to priorities like higher education, while doing little or nothing to fund them.

“We’re going to invest in education and health care,” Hubbell said, describing what a Hubbell-Hart administration would do. “At the same time, you couple that with raising the minimum wage, restoring collective bargaining rights and you can actually start to prop up incomes in our state.”

At the mention of the minimum wage, Hall spoke up again, telling Hubbell it needed to be raised to $15/hour.

Once again, Hubbell said, he wasn’t going to do that.

“I’m going to raise the minimum wage [statewide], and let local communities go higher,” Hubbell said, explaining that he wanted “more local input, and more local control” so different communities have flexibility in setting wages.

“If Johnson County wants to go to $18 an hour, go to $18,” he said.

Not speaking like a standard politician didn’t hurt Hubbell in the primary — he won all but three of Iowa’s 99 counties — and it doesn’t seem to be hurting his chances in the general election.

During the seven-week campaign fundraising period that ended on July 14, Hubbell raised $2.6 million. Although he contributed almost $3 million to his own campaign during the primary, Hubbell didn’t make any campaign contributions in the most recent reporting period.

During the same period, Reynolds raised less than half of Hubbell’s total.

A few hours before Hubbell arrived in Iowa City on Thursday, the University of Virginia Center of Politics influential campaign monitoring site, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, moved the Iowa governor’s race from “Leans Republican” to “Toss-Up.”


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