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Durham puts focus on good Iowa jobs

April 11, 2012
Messenger News

Iowa's economic development leader is walking the talk when it comes to simplifying government.

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, has a two-goal vision, and she's sticking to it. Attracting quality jobs and marketing the state for economic development are the priorities of the economic development group - created last year when Gov. Terry Branstad sought to replace Iowa's Department of Economic Development with a reorganized department advised by a public-private partnership.

Though it's too early to declare it a success, the more focused authority is heading in the right direction.

That means the office won't be all things to all people. Take the Field of Dreams development proposal, for example. Durham has seen the proposal and believes it is a good project - one she hopes will come to fruition. But there won't be economic incentives in support of the project coming from her office. "They just don't qualify," Durham said in a recent meeting with the TH Editorial Board.

That's a departure from the way things used to be, Durham says. The Department of Economic Development used to be the dumping grounds for all kinds of state incentive programs. Not anymore. Durham won't be advocating for more retail in the state nor for tourism endeavors. She's focused on high-quality jobs.

One needs only to look at the state's film tax credit debacle to see what can happen when we lose that focus. Having films made in Iowa might make for great flash-in-the-pan publicity. But the state shouldn't be providing incentives for short-lived economic development projects.

How the Iowa Economic Development Authority handles the future of research tax credits will be an issue to monitor. An Iowa Department of Revenue report shows Deere & Co. and other large Iowa firms received millions of dollars in research subsidies without paying any state income tax in 2011. Durham defends the research credits, saying companies like Deere create a lot of "downstream" economic activity through supporting businesses, investment in the state and philanthropic giving. Her point is well taken, but the subsidy was designed as a job-creation effort to bring research and development business to Iowa. Instead, a handful of big companies operating in the state receive 80 percent of the tax credit money. That doesn't leave much room for the entrepreneurial effort.

Lawmakers are pushing for greater consistency and transparency in how tax credits are administered - we'll second that. Durham suggested the credits could be tied more to job creation - another improvement we'd like to see.

Durham is sharp, knowledgeable and a good communicator. The idea of paring economic development efforts down to key priorities makes a lot of sense - especially when so many people are looking for quality jobs. Branstad made a good choice in appointing Durham to lead Iowa in this jobs-focused effort. The state will be rooting for her success.

- Telegraph Herald, April 1



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