THE PILOT EDITORIAL - Safe, or sound?

Friday, October 26, 2001

Good gosh, what a position to be in.

As our state lawmakers return to Des Moines for a special session in November, they will be faced with a projected budget shortfall that could top $150 million, and the governor's proposed "across-the-board" spending cut to deal with it.

Both the governor and leaders of the parties agree that there is an opportunity to ease the cut in only a very select few areas.

Fair? Hardly. Reality? Unfortunately, yes.

It won't be roads to be spared, we expect, or environment, or most of the other crucial spending areas.

It will come down to public safety and schools to be spared. Bank on it.

The crisis will remind us of what our priorities are in Iowa. As unpleasant as it is, perhaps it is a necessary exercise at least once every generation to cause us to take stock in what our state is about.

Public safety - in the wake of the September 11 attacks - will play heavily in Des Moines. Iowa is a place for families to feel safe, and the legislature will return funds in that arena, with perhaps some programming changes to follow in the next session.

And as we are safe, we will also be sound. And that means investment in our future.

Education - in a real sense, we have nothing else. No matter how many roads and parks Iowa builds, if it does not build minds to the maximum of its ability, it would be mortgaging its leadership future and failing those who will one day guide us. Iowa has, does and will find money for education no matter how badly economic trends are suffering. We would have it no other way.

If it comes down to public safety vs. schools, it would be a sad day under the golden dome.

In some ways, this harsh exercise will make us better.

Departments will look for efficiencies in ways our state government hasn't had to look in many years. Facilities that may not be needed will be cut - as DOT shops have been - we will find better ways to make use of the

equipment we can afford, and sadly, some jobs will be eliminated or consolidated to retain services while trimming the budget.

It is far better that lawmakers cut now rather than later. The farther we get into fiscal year budgets, the more difficult it will be for state departments to do what they need to do.

It is a small gesture, but when lawmakers like our Mary Lou Freeman refuse their pay for the special session, that is leadership. State employees are considering delaying raises also, we understand, to their credit. Many people in the private sector have the same effect, don't they, if not the choice in the matter? There will be sacrifices ahead for all, until the natural cycle of things turns again.

This November, our leaders will seek to define what is of paramount importance to our state. You may mark our words, if anything is spared, it will be safety and our children.

They had better leave the partisan politics and the pork barrel projects at home this time. There will not be room in this exercise for either, and the public will be grading this test with the reddest of ink.

Combine projects?

A Storm Lake city committee is continuing to meet privately to form a plan for a large aquatic center that it would then take to the city council, and with its approval, then to the public for a funding vote. City officials say that it has gone slower than they expected.

Meanwhile, the mayor and a select group is continuing to meet behind closed doors toward planning a community center for the city. Mayor Jon Kruse says

this week that virtually no decisions have been made

yet, including whether a project will go forward, but

that meetings will eventually be opened up to the public.

Kruse said that some members of his committee have indicated that ideas they will throw out now, they probably would not say in an open meeting, in front of media and the public.

It is true that there is comfort in private meetings, and a place for them. They allow ideas to germinate, strategy for potential land bids to be formed without showing your hand to the landowners, and fledgling plans to be formed into some kind of explainable package before they are to be judged by the public.

We would urge that on both the aquatic center and a community center, it is getting to be time to open the doors soon.

If for no other reason, there should be an opportunity to look at possibly putting these two projects together. The clock is running on the state's Vision Iowa and CAT fund programs, and Storm Lake still has the needs apparent, but no plan to present for potential funding. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity.