During his 14 years serving as governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad has sought to lead the state from an area heavily dependent upon agriculture to one that hosts a healthy, diversified economy. New technology and education were seen as the instruments to achieve this.
"Main Street Iowa," an innovative economic development program launched 10 years ago, can now boast that for every dollar the state spends, over $33 of local investment results. More than 3,500 new jobs have been created and almost 3,000 building rehabilitation projects undertaken. Today, more Iowans than ever before are working and the state's unemployment rate remains half the national average. Exports and land values continue to rise in the state. And the state budget -- with cash reserves full and a surplus of $435 million -- is in the best condition it has been in a generation.
Meanwhile, Iowa has become an international example of how countries can build a telecommunications infrastructure designed to meet the economic and social needs of the 21st century.
Gov. Branstad talked with Government Technology Staff Writer Blake Harris about the vision that has driven statewide technological innovations.
GT: Iowa is the first state to have a statewide fiber-optic network. Can you describe the vision that led to building this infrastructure?
Gov. Branstad: I was elected governor back during the farm crisis period of the 1980s. During my lifetime, farm values had always gone up. I was elected governor in January 1983 and then they dropped 60 percent during my first term.
It was very obvious -- during that time when we were closing banks and losing farm machine manufacturing jobs -- that we needed to diversify the economy. I learned about fiber optics and what its potential was and I didn't want to see rural Iowa left out.
Growing up in a rural area, I was aware of what rural electrification had done for agriculture. And I chaired a telecommunications task force on the National Governors' Association back in about 1986. That is when I became convinced I wanted to see every county and school district in Iowa connected to a fiber-optic network.
GT: You have been especially concerned about ensuring that educational institutions all had fiber-optic access. This seems to also embrace a vision of what 21st century education should encompass.
Gov. Branstad: That's right. And now we have made the commitment to build a fiber-optic network to every school district -- it is already completed to all 99 counties, and by 1999, it will be completed to every school district. We also are investing $150 million from state resources to help schools purchase technology and train teachers to use technology as an effective tool to motivate students. Additionally, we have extended the network to rural hospitals and clinics to enhance telemedicine and health delivery. And we have the federal government to help finance the connecting of all our National Guard armories. So we are also using it for our emergency communications network.
GT: As I understand it, Iowa is now serving as something of a model for other countries such as Japan and Switzerland.
Gov. Branstad: Yes. In fact, Japan intends to do nationwide what we have done in Iowa following our approach.
GT: Why is the Iowa approach so innovative?
Gov. Branstad: Well, for one thing we were bold enough to say that we were going to build it. They made the movie Field of Dreams here which said, "If you build it, they will come." We were bold enough to say that we were going to build it to every county and every school district because we think that this will not only be a great educational tool, but also a great economic development tool. It will give our rural areas a leg up because, through the Internet and the World