‘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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  1. I appreciate that Fred Hubbell point blank said “No, I wont and I don’t think it is a good idea” when responding to Free College for everyone instead of just saying “thats a great idea, but difficult to achieve” like so many other politicians. In my opinion, that was one of the biggest flaws with Bernie Sanders. He promised everyone the moon and the stars, and it backfired on him. I’m definitely supporting Fred Hubbell in the election. Not because he has all the answers and can fix all the problems, but because I believe what he says.

    1. Why should we continue settling for a higher education system that throws us students in tens & hundreds of thousands in debt? When you don’t shoot for the stars you settle for middle-of-the-road policies that don’t help the people on the margins. When you don’t stand for a pay raise which working people have not had since the 70s then you continue the class divide and the rampant poverty that is present in the most wealthy country ever to exist.

      We all know the feasibility of free college for all in this moment is low but we need to get there eventually. Right now we are exhausting our students across the country by having them take out ludicrous amounts of money while making minimum wage at their side jobs.

      Do you think that education should be a right and not a privilege? We need an educational framework that lifts people up and out of poverty and not into the belly of it. Is that a radical idea?

      1. Everyone must have skin in the game so to speak. If students who graduated and completed their studies were required to work in rural Iowa for five years to have their loans forgiven, it would be a win-win for everyone. Perhaps someone spending time in a small town would decide that they loved it there, and wanted to continue to raise a family or grow there. This would re-populate declining, dying towns and populate the area with new work force and younger persons. If anyone and everyone is just given a free ride, what is the motivation for _all_ those persons to attend class, do the work and graduate? What would keep people just deciding to go sit in a classroom until they decided what it was they really wanted to do? I know people who just continue to enroll in courses again and again just to put off paying off their student loans. I know people who blew their student loan money on vacations and frivolous things. I am not saying this _would_ happen, I am just saying that Fred’s idea provides leverage and solves many problems at the same time. Perhaps, down the road free education would be feasible down the road(I know Fred answered your question about this with the answer that the goal was to invest in students who wanted to go to work in our state) but i don’t think now is the time to provide free education for everyone who wants it. Is the cost of tuition to high? Coupled with the high cost of living i would agree, yes it is. For many young persons today. The topic re: minimum wage is a whole different conversation.

        1. Bobby,

          I do see the perks of implementing a University-to-rural Iowa pipeline in order to revitalize our small towns. I don’t think this should be the ONLY way that students can alleviate their massive student debt. We are the richest nation in the world’s history and we can’t afford free higher ed? It is a matter of priorities, taxing the rich, and preparing our upcoming generations for success.

          Are there people who cheat the system? Sure. But that insignificant number should not stray us away from providing education like nearly the rest of the developed world does. Education should be a right – not a privilege for the rich and able. Our road should be steadfast and targeted towards free higher ed and a more robust and successful education system.

          If it’s not the time now – then when? Millennials like myself are the most impoverished and debt-ridden generation this country has ever known. We need action yesterday on reforming our systems, particularly higher ed that profiteers off of us.

          I do think minimum wage folds into this because our University doesn’t pay more than half its students the JoCo minimum wage of 10.10. They can absolutely afford it and the students here suffer the highest cost of living in the state. We need housing justice, higher wages, and a move towards free higher ed. We will ALL benefit as a result.

          1. Ryan, i am glad you can see the benefits of requiring students who want their tuition forgiven (debt free) to work in rural communities in Iowa after graduation. We are on the same page there. I cannot speak to whether or not the U of I can pay the JC Board of Supervisors required $10.10. Since I am not a student i must rely on the news, media, etc. for news about the U of I’s financial status. It sounds pretty bleak to me. I wont debate the reason that is, but i agree with you that funds have been mismanaged at the state level, and that must change. I too believe that students must be invested in as they are the future of our State. Honestly i do not see absolutely free tuition for all students in the near future in Iowa. That is just my personal opinion. I sometimes think that people forget that the reason Iowa City is the town it is, is almost entirely because of the University of Iowa. Without that, we would be just another little fly over town in Iowa. I hope things turn around for the University, that students continue to come here, that students are ABLE to afford to come here to live and go to school. When I was in college here, i lived in my parents basement and worked one (sometimes two) jobs to pay for college. I am 57 years old, and I can tell you that it has never been inexpensive to live in Iowa City. As long as property taxes continue to rise, rents also rise to pay for maintaining the properties. Yes, rents in Iowa City are very high. I will agree with you there. Especially if you want to live downtown (where property taxes are the highest in the city.) But back to Fred: i think he is sincere in wanting to help the middle class and ease the burden of education and health care, among other issues. I can tell you I was shocked the other day, when i had someone tell me “i will support Hubbell _if_ he wins my vote.” I hope people learned something from the 2016 and are not going to protest voting by staying home, or write in some wild card. Everyone _must_ get behind the democratic nominee and turn the governors office BLUE!

  2. Ah yes, the ever-popular, inspirational “let’s-dream-small” approach. Glad we’re still on the same strategy that worked so well in 2016.
    Sure, the Republican tax bill that passed just this year would have been enough to indeed pay for “unrealistic pipe-dreams” like “free college for everyone”. But I for one find this milquetoast Democrat-running-as-pro-choice-Republican approach much more inspiring. I’m sure Hubbell will do great, just like our current President, Hillary Clinton.

    1. Oh, if only that were true. Hillary would have been an amazing President. You can be damn sure she would have made great Supreme Court appointments and would not be in bed with Putin.

  3. What do we owe one another as citizens of the same state, Iowa? The social compact–in effect, a contract–has been broken in recent years, and needs to be re-structured. The size and shape of the commonweal needs to be re-defined to meet the needs of the foreseeable future.
    One way of articulating the social compact is to require of all parties that which they will contribute to the commonweal. It is not enough for a citizens or a group of citizens–who are able–to simply place a demand on other citizens, without anticipation of providing the type of consideration that makes a social compact possible.
    In this instance, Fred Hubbell is proposing a step aimed to restore at least one critical part of the Iowa Social Compact–the opportunity for citizens to obtain a quality higher education at an affordable price. The proposal states, in effect: the citizens of the State of Iowa will provide the higher education opportunity to a student at an affordable price (e.g., to pay student loans incurred by student public post-secondary educational institutions); in consideration for that promise a student agrees to “pay back” the investment made in that student’s future by fellow citizens by agreeing to live in a part of the State of Iowa, for a defined and limited amount of time, where educated citizens can arguably make the largest impact: rural communities.
    It’s been more than half a century since Americans were inspired by a President to think about how they might contribute to the renewal of what might be called a National Social Compact: John F. Kennedy’s challenge at his inaugural address. One cannot fault Fred Hubbell for making an important, yet modest, step in having Iowans think about how the Iowa Social Compact might be restored to its rightful, and necessary, place.

    1. I could not agree more James C Larew. Thank you for putting this into words. There is a Chinese proverb that says “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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