By Sarah Watson
Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Norris sat down with The Daily Iowan on Feb. 9 before a campaign stop in Coralville. The former U.S. Department of Agriculture chief of staff and state administrator laid out his priorities for Iowa, emphasizing rural Iowan opportunities, sustainable agricultural practices, and health-care and public-education funding.
What do you think is the biggest problem Iowans face right now?
“Our biggest problem as a state is we lack a systems’ approach to caring for people and empowering people to succeed. We are underfunding education, which has been a core Iowa value to help people succeed, within that — the rubric of enabling and empowering Iowans to succeed — we are failing on education, on mental-health services, we are failing on job training, and on embracing immigrants and new Iowans as part of our future.”
“We have to change the culture of farming practices in this state. The water-quality problems begin with how we treat the soil, and we are seriously damaging our long-term soil health with the way we farm with the overuse of chemicals, with the overuse of land, and not enough crop rotation.
[My first priority] is to change the practices of farming. We’ve got to deploy more cover crops, and that should be a no-cost solution, because there is growing evidence that farmers who deploy cover crops actually increase soil fertility and absorb more nutrients, which means they could be more profitable … That’s probably the simplest, most cost-effective measure we should push.”
What separates Norris from other Democratic candidates:
“I think experience. I know how to do this job Day 1, and I think Iowans want someone who knows how to steady the ship. And so that’s important. I am from rural Iowa, I am passionate about rural Iowa’s future.
My agriculture and energy background and my experience being involved in small businesses and chamber of commerce in a rural community. I was a farmer in rural Iowa. I think that kind of separates me from other candidates who don’t have as much connection to the challenges rural Iowans face.”
On higher education:
“We know that roughly half of our children in Iowa don’t have plans to go on for a college degree. We’ve got to equip them with job-training skills and give them an opportunity to see a future for themselves.
For those going on to college, I believe that because we’ve eroded our state budget so dramatically in the last five years, and the pressing needs for pre-K through 12th grade and mental health, it’s unrealistic that we can offer free college education at this point. But what my proposal to do is we offer tax credits to college graduates for seven years after they graduate so they actually help pay down their college loans and enables them to stay in Iowa … Because too many college graduates are coming out with too high of debt, and I believe it’s chasing some graduates away from Iowa, where they can find higher incomes elsewhere. So in the short term, that’s what I would like to do.”
On mental health:
“We have to get a program in place for schools that are seeing the frontline impact, who are seeing the impact of children’s mental-health issues …
We go back and forth between ranking 47 and 49 in mental health for acute beds available, and that endangers these individuals, and some instances it’s family and community, that is unstable with mental illness … So we’ve got to increase the number of beds available and find a way for them to stay in the workforce, providing those services they need, and that can be a lot of community-based care.”