If there's a bridge for partisan divides, at least in the state of Iowa, it runs through renewable fuel sources.
Or so that's the thinking of the Iowa Future Caucus, a bipartisan group of state legislators age 40 and younger who swung through Mason City as part of a broader tour to learn more about energy "success stories" in the area.
The group that stopped at Golden Grain Energy and Renewable Energy Group in Mason City included Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque; Rep. Joe Mitchell, R-Mount Pleasant; and Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville; as well as local politicians Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City; and Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City.
At Golden Grain, the cohort of politicos heard Chief Operations Officer Chad Kuhlers and Commodity Manager Curt Strong present the ethanol manufacturer's past decade-plus of success and its present-day challenges.
On the plus side, Kuhlers and Strong pointed to average annual revenue of about $260 million, employee growth from about 33 to nearly 60, production output of 125 million gallons of ethanol per year, and reducing natural gas and electricity use per gallon produced.
As far as impediments, Strong mentioned issues getting the product out abroad as Brazil becomes a bigger competitor in the market.
"We're struggling on ethanol exports right now," he said.
When Mitchell asked about the friendliness of federal policy for the 17-year-old company, the response from Strong was succinct.
"Not so much," he said.
After the meeting, Strong echoed the importance of such legislative tours.
"We want to to educate our elected officials on how what we're doing impacts the state," he said.
The story at Renewable Energy Group, which has been at the 19th Street Southwest in Mason City since 2013, struck similar chords.
"The industry is involved in public policy so educating legislators about what we do is important," REG Senior Manager Kent Hartwig said.
During their meeting with the Future Caucus, REG officials also made sure to trumpet the company's achievements early and often.
REG-Mason City Plant Manager Tyler, who also serves on the Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, noted that the company as a whole is the largest advanced biofuel producer and adds about $70 million in value to the state economy.
They have their issues as well, Tyler said, one of which is employment.
When Wahls asked about being able to find qualified folks to hire, Kerr acknowledged they've had to hone their process.
"It's fairly common but we've gotten sophisticated in our recruiting tactics," Kerr said.
According to Wahls, part of the rationale for going through the crash course on processes such as distillation is that the Iowa Future Caucus thinks it's a common cause.
"We see a lot of things Democrats and Republicans can work together on," Wahls said.
He called it a learning opportunity, as did Mitchell, who also emphasized the bipartisan nature of the issue.
Rather than any kind of cross talk over or past one another, the legislators were all ears. As Wahls put it, "just listening to folks who are here every day."
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