Iowa Interest Groups Vie For Municipal-Net Votes

Claims and counter-claims are flying into Iowa homes as partisan groups gird for elections in more than 30 communities over the creation of municipal broadband utilities.

Cities including Dubuque, Waterloo, Basin City, Dunlap and Anamosa, as well as some towns with fewer than 1,000 people each, will vote on the propositions on Nov. 8.

Backing “yes” votes is OpportunityIowa, a non-profit group closely allied with Fiberutilities of Iowa, a company that wants to build city telecommunications utilities. It estimates that cities mulling the issue represent 10% of the state’s population.

Pro-utility backers contend that communities need to approve broadband operations to preserve cities’ rights to study local communications needs. Tuesday’s vote will engender “no cost, risk or obligation,” OpportunityIowa stressed.

The referenda would only approve the concept of a local utility. Actually building a city system to deliver video, Internet access and other services would require a second public vote to issue general-obligation bonds to pay for the system, supporters said. General-obligation bonds, according to state law, require a super-majority approval vote of 60% of voters.

OpportunityIowa claims support from officials including Gov. Terry Branstad and former attorney general Bonnie Campbell.

On the other side is Project Taxpayer Protection, backed by dominant local cable provider Mediacom Communications Corp., the state cable association and the Iowa Taxpayer’s Alliance. It maintains that local taxes should not be spent on risky projects such as telecommunications businesses.

The cable-funded lobby is stressing the financials in radio and television commercials featuring Richard Johnson, the state’s former auditor. Some spots contain man-on-the-street interviews indicating local residents think tax money should be spent on public safety and business development rather than a city telecommunications system.

The group has also sent out multiple high-gloss, six-color mailers warning against the fiscal dangers of telecommunications businesses.

“We’re making a valiant battle,” said Dave Lunemann, co-founder of OpportunityIowa, adding he’s unsure how the elections will go. He estimated his group is being outspent more than 100 to 1.

“Even I didn’t expect this kind of response … We’re facing a well-funded monopoly,” he said.

If the public votes against the proposals, telecommunications backers would not be able to seek another election on that same issue for at least four years, according to state law.