McDonald’s drive-through and the governor

Fridays are always the busiest days in the newsroom as we rush to write stories for Friday, Saturday and Monday morning.  In the midst of that mad rush last Friday, I pulled into the McDonald’s just across the street from Drake University.  I rolled down my window and ordered a fruit and walnut salad.  I drove around to the first window to hand over my currency as payment and as I stuck my arm out of my car window, my cell phone rang.  So, with my foot on the brake and my left arm sticking out of the car window with a five dollar bill for the cashier, I used my right hand to fish my cell phone out of my purse.

I checked the caller ID.  It was "unknown" which is a tip off.  All calls out of state government are blocked in such a way as to be labeled "unknown" in caller ID.  I pressed the receive button and answered the phone.

"Kay, this is Governor Culver," the voice said.  It was indeed the governor.  I took my foot off the brake and pulled forward, as there were people waiting in cars behind me to conduct their McDonald’s transactions.

I probably said something like, "Hello" in reply.

"I’m calling about a story on your website (," Culver continued.  I had written a story based on Culver’s comments that morning during taping of "Iowa Press."  I quoting Culver saying toll roads (that’s what privitization means) were an option to consider.  He called me personally to say he was "trying to be helpful" by pointing out what other states had done, but that he did not support toll roads/privitization. 

"So why bring it up?" I asked.  By this time I had been handed my fruit and walnut salad, I’d pulled a pen out of my purse, pulled the car into a parking spot at McDonald’s and I started taking notes on the outside of the McDonald’s bag. 

"I was just trying to be helpful in pointing out what other states have done," Culver repeated, adding he had not said he supported toll roads.  "I have the transcript right here," Culver said.  (The IPTV website is currently down.  I’ll post the transcript when it comes back on-line.)

Here’s the transcript:

Kay Henderson: Long before the floods experts said Iowa’s road construction and road maintenance fund was woefully short.  Late last year you said there was no need at this time to raise the gas tax especially with gas prices so high.  Given the damage to Iowa’s infrastructure, the dozens of bridges which were swept away, is it not now time to re-visit the issue of raising Iowa’s gas tax?

Governor Chet Culver: Well, I think there are three priorities for all of us elected officials at the state level.  Number one, I believe that, as I’ve already said, we need to honor the commitments that we’ve already made to the people of Iowa related to teacher pay and other initiatives.  Number two, we have to make sure that we address the needs of the people of this state based on the tornadoes and the flood and the destruction that occurred as a result.  That has to be a legislative priority, I expect it will be and infrastructure should be a part of that discussion.  I do not believe we should raise the gas tax.  However, there are other options in terms of generating revenue to pay for significant infrastructure needs.  At the same time we’ll be drawing down potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance now and we have 1,500 miles of roads and 400 miles of railroads that were impacted by the flooding.  So, we have to make this a part of our long and short-term infrastructure plan.  The third priority is to be fiscally responsible.  And I think we can do all three of those things if we work together in a bi-partisan way and we make these priorities ones that we can all share and set aside the partisan politics.

Kay Henderson: So, if you do not raise the gas tax what are the alternatives which you just outlined?

Governor Chet Culver: Well, there are a lot of different things that states have done to address infrastructure needs and you can look at things like bonding, for example, that is something that some states do.  Other states have looked at privatization, frankly, I was just in Pennsylvania for the National Governor’s Conference.  Again, I don’t pretend today to have the silver bullet in terms of finding those precious resources that we need to maintain our infrastructure.  But there are a lot of options on the table.  That has to be a part of our discussion.  And finally, we took one important step last legislative session by increasing some fees.  We’re going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars already in terms of helping to fund those infrastructure needs.  So, we’re on the right track, we just need now with as a result of the floods and the tornadoes to invest even more in our state infrastructure.

Now, back to the telephone conversation with Culver.

"So what do you support?" I asked.

"I don’t support privitization," Culver said.

"Do you support borrowing?" I asked.

"Yes," Culver replied, adding it was an idea first advanced by Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal. 

The discussion concluded with Culver advising that he would "not make a habit" of calling to discuss news stories I’ve written.  So far this week, he hasn’t called.

I did rewrite the following paragraph in the Radio Iowa story, reflecting what had been said at IPTV and what Culver said over the phone.

During the Friday morning taping of the "Iowa Press" program which airs on Iowa Public Television,  Culver talked about turning roads over to private companies, as some states have done, creating toll roads for which you pay a small fee to drive.  During a Friday afternoon telephone conversation with Radio Iowa afterwards, Culver said he was merely talking about what other states have done and wouldn’t recommend such "privatization" of Iowa roads, but Culver would consider having the state borrow money to pay for repairs. "I don’t pretend today to have the silver bullet in terms of finding those precious resources that we need to maintain our infrastructure, but there are a lot of options on the table," Culver said on IPTV. "That has to be part of our discussion."

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.