There’s more at stake than new road signs

Tucked away among hundreds of bills being considered this year by the Iowa Legislature is one people might have quickly embraced in a different era.

But times have changed. It has been 38 years since Robert Ray left the governor’s office. State government today is far messier than it was back then.

Compounding the reaction to Senate File 404 has been the social and political upheaval in Iowa in recent years – enough to bring out pundits with their potshots.

The seemingly innocuous piece of legislation appropriates $350,000 for the Iowa Department of Transportation to replace the 68 “Welcome” signs along Iowa’s borders. The bill also contains a requirement that the new signs incorporate what it calls a “different and distinct” design and message for travelers.

The current signs say, “The People of Iowa Welcome You,” with the secondary message, “Iowa, Field of Opportunities.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carrie Koelker of Dyersville, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “This is something that I think is important, that we make sure as a state that we upgrade our image.”

The “Field of Opportunities” slogan was adopted in 1999 when Tom Vilsack was governor. Iowa’s current marketing slogan – “This is Iowa” – seems more like something intended for lost motorists.

The bill opened the spigot to a stream of creative juices at Raygun, the Des Moines company that sells smarty-pants T-shirts with a Midwest political and cultural flavor. Owner Mike Draper’s Facebook post produced a flood of suggestions for slogans for those new “Welcome” signs.

Among them:

“Iowa. To the right of Nebraska. Far right.”

“Iowa. It’s a work in progress. Just not too much progress.”

“Iowa. It used to be a place to grow.”

“Iowa. It’s not too late to turn around.”

And my snarky favorite: “Iowa. Be thankful we don’t wear our pants the way a lot of us wear our masks.”

Joking aside, the suggestions from Raygun’s fans reflect a serious aspect of the Senate bill and the actions lawmakers have taken in recent years.

Yes, legislative leaders are concerned about the image the highway signs present to motorists. But those same leaders fail to recognize there is a connection between Iowa’s national reputation and some of the corrosive legislative proposals under consideration.

Those proposals send a troubling signal about the kind of a state Iowa is becoming.

Whether we like that signal or not, a clear message is being received by many young people looking for a place to settle. The signal is being received by top quality teachers, by business executives looking for places for new plants and offices, and by doctors, surgeons and nurses whose skills are always in demand across the United States.

What some in the Legislature see as simply enacting laws many of their constituents want, or what they see as bills that stick it to “libs,” many of the professionals that communities are eager to recruit or retain view these legislative proposals, at best, as narrow minded, intolerant and divisive.

Those proposals are wide ranging – from requiring the state universities to report the political affiliation of each faculty member, to requiring which bathrooms in public schools transgender people can use, to ending tenure for state university professors.

There are more.

Other proposals would reduce unemployment benefits for Iowans, cut the amount of time for voting, restrict what teachers can teach about slavery and the role of blacks in our nation. The proposals would make it more difficult for third parties to get their candidates on ballots and allow businesses to deny services\ based on customers’ sexual orientation or gender identity.

Legislative leaders refuse to consider proposals to prohibit the use of racial profiling by police officers. Leaders also refuse to consider ways to ease the runoff of manure and fertilizer into Iowa rivers and lakes or to further limit where large livestock feeding facilities can be built.

Rural Iowa has long suffered from what is called a “brain drain” – the loss of some of the best and brightest young people to larger cities where jobs are more plentiful.

These proposals gaining traction in the Legislature have many people worried that more Iowans will seek their futures in other states.

That’s not a trend state officials will want to brag about on “Welcome to Iowa” signs.

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Randy Evans can be reached at

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