If you really want to know what your elected leaders' priorities are for Iowa, ignore the self-serving campaign literature and speeches and look instead at where the state chooses to spend its money.
The Iowa Legislature just went through the difficult process of slashing the 2017 and 2018 budgets and eliminating a number of valuable programs and initiatives that will have a direct impact on families across the state.
That's worth remembering when considering plans by the Iowa Utilities Board to spend nearly $500,000 remodeling the interior of the newest state office building in Des Moines. According to the Associated Press, the board is moving ahead with plans to demolish and reconstruct much of the customer-service area in the building.
Planning documents obtained by AP call for new conference rooms; glass walls; new doors, ceilings and woodwork; and a 75-inch television. An information kiosk is to be demolished and replaced with a customer greeting desk.
The project, budgeted at $464,000, will be paid for using $330,000 left over from the 2016 budget year, and a $250,000 appropriation that was approved last year by the Legislature. The board has so far spent $91,000 on design and bid documents. Construction contracts are to be awarded next month, with work scheduled to begin in July.
Board spokesman Don Tormey told AP the project will give the public more space to meet privately with the staff or to sit and review files or consumer-oriented brochures. The 75-inch television will replace a projector that's now used for presentations in the conference room, he said.
Given that the utilities board building is six years old, and given the scope of the planned renovations, a project of this kind would be questionable even if the state was flush with cash. But as every Iowan knows, the state is in a very difficult financial situation.
Lawmakers just approved cost-cutting legislation that, if signed by the governor, would force the closing of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. It imposed cuts that will reduce court services for Iowans throughout the state. It scrapped a plan to help third-graders improve their reading proficiency and replaced it with nothing whatsoever. It cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from the budgets of the agencies charged with protecting seniors in nursing homes and assisting children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
Lawmakers also voted to cut $1.4 million from crime-victim-assistance grants, and approved a budget that increases funding for public schools by just 1.1 percent, although an increase of at least 3 percent was needed just so the schools could maintain their current level of service.
In that context, the board's remodeling project is not only extravagant, but wasteful.
The board needs more than just decent surroundings in which to conduct business, but an office that is welcoming to the public and projects professionalism. And it's important that lawmakers provide funding for basic building maintenance and upkeep, if only to keep those costs from spiraling out of control.
That said, this particular renovation, at this particular time, is wholly unnecessary. The $464,000 it's expected to cost taxpayers is money that would have been better spent in any number of areas.
The newly renovated office will almost certainly end up looking beautiful, but it will also stand as a testament to the misplaced priorities of Iowa's leaders.
This editorial appeared in the April 25 edition of the Des Moines Register.