Sometimes, life's ironies are subtle. Sometimes, they are so shrill that it's impossible not to notice. Recently, the Iowa House of Representatives approved a bill appropriating $33 million for Trans Ova, a biotech firm located in northwest Iowa. The company says it will create 225 jobs.
That same day, across the Missouri River in South Dakota, Gateway dropped the axe on 500 employees.
Like most states, Iowa is mired in one of the worst budget crises in its history. Education -- the sacred cow of nearly every Republican and Democratic campaign brochure in the last election -- is front and center among the growing list of casualties. Smarting from state cutbacks, local school districts are practicing triage, further eroding what used to be one of the best K-12 education systems in the country.
Yet despite continued fiscal problems and slashed or stagnant budgets for education, environmental protection, health care and other key priorities, Republican legislative leaders in Iowa, with the full support of a Democratic governor, still managed to find $33 million for one company. The money was taken from two state funds earmarked for infrastructure improvements. This means less revenue for other key priorities, including schools.
To offer lawmakers an alternative, I proposed an amendment that would have spent the $33 million repairing school buildings in struggling rural counties. (In Iowa, most urban counties have access to local sales tax revenue for infrastructure repair.) The amendment was defeated, further confirming Iowa state government's "bio-euphoria," in this case at the expense of our children and schools.
Several other amendments were offered to the bill in an attempt to hold Trans Ova to a modest amount of corporate accountability. The amendments would have:
Required Trans Ova to pay decent wages and benefits.
Required Trans Ova to have a business plan. (Incredibly, they don't.)
Established a "claw back" provision requiring the company to return some of the money, should it leave the state within the next few years. (Even more incredibly, Trans Ova has stated publicly that they will not promise to remain in Iowa.)
Placed certain restrictions on executive salaries in excess of $250,000.
Beyond fiscal considerations, there are serious reservations about the biotech industry itself. Much of the world refuses to buy biotech products. Biotech stock is struggling, and one company, Monsanto, recently realized a 52-week low. The science itself is so new and unstudied as to leave far too many critical questions unanswered. In fact, incidents of the industry's devastating effects on farmers continue to grow.
Talk to Jerry Rosman of Shelby County, Iowa, whose story has been largely ignored by the media. Two years ago, 80% of Rosman's herd of 200 sows experienced false pregnancies, which Rosman links to feeding the animals genetically modified corn he raised during their breeding program. This incident and related problems have forced Rosman out of farming. [See "Genetically modified corn cost him farm," by LaVon Griffieon, 3/1/03 TPP.]
State governments must do better than doling out millions of taxpayer dollars to corporations involved in unproven, risky enterprises. Americans are understandably concerned about the economy, but that doesn't mean politicians should throw millions and millions at corporations that may or may not create a handful of jobs, and may or may not stay in our state.
Solid American values include hard work, honesty and commitment. States should not compete with each other using taxpayer dollars, and economic development efforts should focus on mostly small, mostly locally-owned companies that need help getting started and expanding. And we should do all we can to make our communities the kind of place businesses and workers will want to come to. That means investing in education, improving access to health care, cleaning up our environment and enhancing the quality of life for all.
Throwing millions of dollars at biotech companies is like dropping your paycheck on lottery tickets. Yes, every now and then somebody wins. But most of us will lose time and time again.
Ed Fallon is a state representative and executive director of 1000 Friends of Iowa, a group that promotes responsible land use. Email email@example.com or phone 515-288-5364.