PILOT EDITORIAL - Paying grads to stay in Iowa?

Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Has it really come down to this? Governor Vilsack is pushing for a tax credit to try to keep college graduates from leaving Iowa in the rear-view mirror - a "tax reprieve" of about 600 bucks per year for a four-year college grad for ten years - or $6,000.

At first blush, it sounds like a defeatist idea. Is our state so boring, our jobs so lackluster, that we have to pay a ransom to delay our kids from heading to the big cities?

At second blush, it seems unfair. For every $6,000 bonus baby coming out of the state treasury, will that mean that families that have willingly made their way in the state have to shoulder that much more of the tax burden?

Then, at third glance, it might not be such a bad idea, after all - albeit a Band-Aid short-term solution to a far greater challenge.

It isn't necessarily defeatist, we realize - it is a calculated gamble that if we can keep young people for a few years, they will come to appreciate what the Iowa lifestyle offers for families.

It isn't necessarily unfair, either. If we aren't keeping those young people anyway, we have little to lose financially - zero minus $6,000 is still nothing, you might say. If the plan can put a dent in brain drain, the income taxes those families will pay for the decades to come will outweight the short term loss.

There is no arguing with the signals behind this unusual proposal. This year, six out of every 10 grads of the regent universities will flee Iowa immediately, and about one in every three grads of all types of colleges will take their first job out of state. No wonder Iowa has a projected shortage of 100,000 college-educated workers for the next decade.

The plan won't work entirely, of course. For some, the jobs streams they want just don't exist in Iowa. Others have a natural itch to get away and explore some other part of the country, and a tax break won't stop them.

In the long run, paying young people to stay in Iowa is not the answer, as it does nothing to address the root reasons that they are leaving in the first place.

Number one, a limited number of job opportunities for the educated, and the fact that the jobs we do have may lag behind those elsewhere in pay, insurance, perks, growth opportunity, child care. That, we can work on.

Number two, weather. Can't do much about that, but after a hurricane, Iowa doesn't look so bad.

Number three, things to do. Iowa has no major pro sports, no mountains, limited metropolitan excitement. Programs like Vision Iowa can help somewhat, but we also need a much better promotional effort toward the things we do have - great education, affordable living, an escape from urban sprawl, neighborliness, the arts, a four-season appeal, outdoor opportunities close to home, easy transportation - and don't overlook personal safety.

The governor is right - our state is aging, and it needs the vitality and ideas those young people represent. His idea isn't perfect, but we have yet to hear something better offered by those who criticize it.

Beyond the bounty, however, we had better make Iowa a more attractive and attentive place for young people from out state - and others. We once considered a state motto of "A State of Minds." If we don't get to it, it will be needing something else, something along the lines of, "America's Biggest Nursing Home."