This is the Q and A between Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the Ag Summit March 7, 2015 in Des Moines.
R: Good morning, Governor Christie.
C: Good morning, Bruce.
R: Thanks for coming.
C: I’m happy to be here.
R: How about we get started?
C: Sure, let’s do it.
R: One of the issues that’s important to agriculture is free trade and, clearly, exporting those surpluses. What’s your thoughts on the trade promotion authority? And, if you were President would you want that authority?
C: Well, that’s a good question. I’m for trade promotion authority, and the reason that I am is because I think America should be willing to compete anywhere around the world, and will be able to compete and win. Now, the key part of this though is that you have to have the right person in the Oval Office negotiating these agreements. And I think any of us who have seen the President negotiate in the course of the last six years are concerned about the way the President negotiates. But, in the end, this is about something that is much more long term than that, which is creating great jobs here in the United States, making free and fair trade agreements. So, I’m for TPA.
R: So, if you had TPA authority would you trade with Cuba?
C: You know, I have real concerns about where we are with Cuba right now, Bruce. And let me tell you why and it’s particular to my state as well. Forty years ago, a woman named JoAnne Chesimard murdered a New Jersey State Trooper, was convicted of that crime and sent to jail. She was broken out of jail and she escaped to Cuba. And for the last 40 years they have been paying her as she is one of the most wanted domestic terrorists in the top 10 in the FBI. And you cannot start trading with a country that is promoting someone who is a cop killer, paying them and putting them out there in front in Cuba. We need to make some prerequisites before we deal with Cuba. And right now, if they are going to continue to keep murdering fugitives and pay them, while the family here in New Jersey continues to miss their husband and their father, I have a problem with that. And that’s, again, indicative of what we talked about in the first answer. The President doesn’t know how to negotiate, and you don’t give away the idea of trading with America for nothing and allow them to continue to harbor cop killers. So, I have a number of issues with it. But if they were willing to play ball, we should be. But right now, I don’t see it.
R: Next topic -- renewable fuels. What’s your perspective on the RFS?
C: Well, I mean, it is indicative of how the President doesn’t understand that the executive branch has to execute. And you look at what’s happened with the delays in RFS over the course of time. And Governor Branstad - I was listening backstage - he was just talking about it, mentioning it, as well. The fact is, the law requires the President to establish RFS, and he should. And, certainly, anybody who is a competent president would get that done in their administration. It should get done, and I support it getting done.
R: So, if you were President, you would support that?
C: Absolutely. It’s what the law requires, Bruce. So let’s make sure we comply with the law. That should be the minimum.
R: So, what do you think of wind?
C: Well, I like wind Bruce, but here’s the thing. The problem is this President has done energy policy as a one off. Everything is a one off. We do not have a national energy policy in this country, and it’s wrong. We have extraordinary resources at our disposal and wind should be part of that portfolio, but we shouldn’t do it one at a time. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do with greater oil exploration, greater exploration for natural gas, what are we going to do on coal? What are we going to do on solar and wind and other alternative energies? Let’s do it all in one package. Right now the President’s energy policy is a bumper sticker. He says all of the above and then he one offs on things. So let’s make it part of an overall strategy and have a national energy policy that will do two things - help to increase economic growth, which we need in this country above this anemic two percent growth, and it will strengthen us geopolitically to have more reliable sources of energy here at home to be able to export and to play a larger role geopolitically in this.
R: Moving on to the next subject -- the environment. You know one of the basic concepts in farming is that farmers need to be concerned about nutrient run-off. And I think they are. In playing the role as stewards in both air quality, land, and water. Coming from a state that’s a more industrial state, you also deal with emissions issues, maybe more so than here. So, how can market-based solutions be used to achieve a greater reduction in greenhouse gases?
C: Well, listen, in New Jersey the northeastern states have been part of something called the regional greenhouse gas initiative, which was essentially a regional cap and trade program. When I became governor I pulled out of that. I don’t believe cap and trade makes sense. And, what’s happened to New Jersey? We’re now the second largest solar producing state in the country because we’ve gone to market based solutions on helping solar thrive in our state. And only California produces more solar energy now than New Jersey. And also moving towards using nuclear, which we have. About 53% of our electricity in New Jersey comes from nuclear, and more use of natural gas. We have already exceeded our 2020 goals on carbon emissions without having cap and trade. In addition, I think what we need to be talking about in terms of things like nutrient run-off and the stuff you said in the beginning of your question is this: These type of programs should be voluntary, but not optional. We should let farmers, the local associations here, and the state government work together in all our different states to deal with those type of things. Farmers should be in charge of devising these solutions along with government here and their associations. Not with some big top-down program from Washington D.C. It never makes sense, and it certainly makes even less sense for folks who don’t understand what’s going on here in Iowa or in other of our farming states.
R: So there’s been a variety of ag programs over time, within the CRP program for fragile ground, to filter strips, to wetland reserves, to programs asking people to voluntarily sign up and payments. There’s been a mixed result of those. Have some of those been successful? And, how do we get more people to participate in those programs that are good for the environment?
C: You know, the premise I think is wrong. I think that farmers and folks in this state and others want to protect the environment. Who wants to protect the environment more than farmers who rely upon a healthy environment for their success? And so I think that unfortunately the federal government takes the approach that they have to use a heavy hand on these type of things. I think if they made it more collaborative, if they worked with folks, and they empowered the state government - let me tell you this, nobody is going to understand better in this state how to deal with these issues than the governor of this state. I’m confident of that. And in working collaboratively with everyone we can get more participation in these programs because farmers here want to protect the environment. It’s in their interest.
R: So, recently we had the EPA with the waters of the U.S., and many in this room would believe that those voluntary programs they want to participate in, but now we have the EPA doing their own rule-making on expanding the definition of navigable streams. Your perspective on the EPA doing that.
C: Waters of the U.S. is nothing more than a power grab, Bruce. That’s what it is. It’s a power grab from Washington D.C. and these folks need to know why I understand that in particular. The EPA Administrator in the Obama administration who started this entire power grab, a woman named Lisa Jackson. Where did she come from? New Jersey. She was John Corzine’s Environmental Protection Commissioner when Barack Obama recruited her to come to Washington D.C. I’ve spent the last five years dismantling the overreach that she did in New Jersey in our environmental protection area. So I understand what this administration’s attitude is, because I’ve had a first-hand look. So we’re doing exactly what we need to do, and we need to make sure we do that at the EPA. I’m glad to see that New Jersey has come to Iowa. (protestors shouting at Christie) How great is that? Great to have you here, and I think you understand I’ll deal with you the same way here as I deal with you in New Jersey. (protestors continue)
R: It is a really wonderful country that people can do that, but I think it’s also a country we ought to have discussions about serious issues rather than just protest. But we’ll try to move on. And, I thought they were only here from Iowa Governor…
C: My people follow me everywhere, Bruce. It’s fabulous! I’m magnetic, Bruce. They can’t stay away from me.
R: So, next topic, Governor -- immigration. The country has a debate going on today and it’s about immigration policy. And immigrant workers are critical to Ag production. Over 80% of the workers in dairy farms in this country are immigrant workers and the need for stability with that workforce. Where do you see that fitting in to an overall immigration plan if you were President?
C: Well, it’s part of the problem, Bruce. My view is that this uncertainty has gone on because our national leaders have been unwilling to deal with this issue head on - really hurts our economy. And the fact is that the guest worker program is something that should be given greater clarity, greater certainty, and make sure that people have labor available to them that’s legal. So let’s enforce the laws that we have now and make them work. And, again, this goes back to my point about the President not understanding that the executive branch needs to execute and to enforce the laws that are there already. He’s unwilling to do that or unable. It doesn’t matter at this point. We have a track record. We should have a clear, legal, reliable guest worker program that folks in agriculture and others can rely upon that makes sense. And that’s got to be just one piece of an overall approach to try and fix an immigration system that clearly does not work any longer. It does not only not work for employers here, it doesn’t work for Americans who are looking for jobs as well.
R: So, if you think about the immigrant workers, a number of them are seasonal, which is a seasonal worker program. But a number of them are full time, move their families here. And the challenge is for businesses to e-verify to make sure they’re legal, the H2A program. How do you deal with government bureaucracies so people can actually be legally employing important workers that are needed in food production today and will be positive contributors to society?
C: It’s doing what I just said in the earlier answer. It’s having somebody in charge of the federal government who’s actually run something before. That would be helpful. And the fact of the matter is what we have in front of us now is someone who doesn’t know how to do that. E-Verify is a great tool that can be used extraordinarily well by employers who want to comply with the law, but want a reliable workforce to work for them, as well. And the same thing with the H2A Visa program - so let’s clean it up. Let’s make it work effectively. Let’s take input from those employers and others who rely upon the program. What are the biggest hurdles that are being put up now, either by some problems in the law or by inefficiency in terms of the way it’s run? And let’s fix it and move on to some of the other issues we need to discuss as well in fixing an immigration system in this country so that people think our borders are secure and that immigration is done in a way that’s fair and legal.
R: Next topic, food safety. How do we ensure a safe and cheap food supply for this country?
C: I think we are. And the fact is that a lot of this stuff on food safety it seems to me, is that this administration is putting out is a solution in search of a problem. I think that we have a really good and solid program now. And I don’t see major concerns about food safety across this country. And so, let’s not look for the heavy hand of the federal government to be coming in trying to solve something that isn’t currently a problem. I think the programs that we have in place, in the main, are effective in ensuring food safety. Let’s continue them. But let’s not be looking for even greater involvement and more things to be done. That doesn’t make sense to me.
R: So one of the issues recently around that whole question is GMOs, and biotechnology, crops grazed and then the question around GMOs - organic food production. And a number of people are questioning whether we have a need to label GMO food as GMO food. Your perspective on that?
C: No. You know, sometimes you don’t need to give a complicated answer. The answer’s no. We don’t need it. It’s again a solution in search of a problem. The answer is no.
R: You know, one of the areas I’d like to talk about next is urban rural divide. One of the challenges we see in Iowa and across the country in rural areas is that it continues to widen. It continues to widen in job opportunity, income levels, unemployment, health care, education, and even our politics. What would you do to help fix that?
C: I think, Bruce, part of it is making sure that people have great access to education no matter where they live. And that’s been a challenge in our state as well as a challenge in lots of other states. It should not matter what your zip code is for your children to have an opportunity to have a great education. And, as we know, education, making folks either college or career ready, is the absolute silver bullet in helping to deal with some of these economic issues. Secondly, it seems to me infrastructure is very important as well. Making sure that no matter where you are you have high-speed internet access, which helps to grow jobs and create opportunity in those areas. Making sure that infrastructure is available to get people into all different parts of the state, whether it’s in urban or rural areas, is very important in economic development. And I’ve spoken to the governor about this, and we all know that this is part of the way that you can help in economic development.
But the biggest thing is we need to stop the level of anemic economic growth that we have in this country. This is the worst recovery from a recession in modern history. The President takes a victory lap for two percent GDP growth. Well, if we move that to three and four percent GDP growth by lowering taxes, by making the system flatter and fairer so that you don’t need, no offense to accountants - my father’s one - but you shouldn’t need one to fill out your taxes. And we all need to do that. That depresses economic growth. If you have more economic growth in this country and you get us growing again at a great pace, that’s going to affect every state and it’s going to help to narrow the urban rural divide. If you do those other things, I think, on education and infrastructure that are very important. Last thing, on health care, I think the program you’ve all started here under Governor Branstad to help to encourage those folks coming out of medical school with significant debt to encourage them to spend five years in a rural area so that we continue to increase the number of physicians and other health care providers that can stay in those places and provide access to care in that way. There’s always the discussion of insurance on access to care. But if you have insurance but you have no doctor near you the insurance does you no good. So we have to work on both sides of that. And I think the program that Governor Branstad has just started here is something that should be looked at in other states around the country who are having the same type of rural urban access issues because of the supply of physicians.
R: So, back to one of the comments you made on taxes. Clearly there’s debate going on in Congress about the capital gains tax, about the estate tax. It clearly affects a number of small businesses and farmers to be able to pass that farm on to the next generation. Your perspective as you look at that, where you come out on that capital gains and estate tax issue?
C: The fact is that we tax too much in this country already and we tax in a way that’s much too complicated. That allows us to have folks who can’t do the things you’re talking about and are concerned, again, because of a lack of certainty and a lack of opportunity, in terms of investing capital in development of jobs and growing our economy. And so again, it’s about making the taxes in every way fairer, flatter, so that people can understand it. And on estate tax, we’re having that fight in our state right now about it. It’s not something I think makes sense for us to be doing. We tax that money at every step along the way. We tax it when you make it. We tax it when you invest it, and then we tax you when you die. And in some states, like mine, we tax your heirs who take it after we take the money from you on the estate side - we have an inheritance tax. It’s crazy and it’s not good for families and it’s not good for our economy.
R: As we think about the national debt, there continues to be a variety of pressures on the federal government at some point to lower spending. One of the issues within the USDA program is food stamps - is the decreasing amount of farm subsidies in direct payments with a farm safety net called crop insurance. Your views of the USDA and variety of those programs?
C: Well, listen, I think crop insurance is a good idea. And the fact is that it provides the right type of safety net when involved in both the government in terms of making sure it’s affordable and the private sector working in there, as well. That’s the right type of approach in terms of giving farmers the type of safety, again, for them to make the investments we’re asking them to make. And those type of programs make complete sense. I think moving towards that type of program and more of an emphasis on it, and having folks and farmers be able to have that insurance be affordable to them. So, in the case of the type of natural disasters and other incidents, which affect our crop production, that they have that safety net. That’s the type of thing we need to do. Because let’s face it, Bruce, if we don’t do that, often times the government will step in anyway in the areas of disaster and then it’ll be 100% on the taxpayer. I think being able to have this type of cooperative participatory system makes a lot of sense.
R: Well, we are about out of time. You’re here in Iowa and I think you understand some of the issues that are similar to your state.
C: Ours is the Garden State. Remember, New Jersey is the Garden State. So it’s not like I come out here not knowing any of this. But, listen, in closing I think it’s really important for us to remember that these solutions, especially on complex issues like this, are best handled at the local level. I want to include, make sure we include, the farmers and their associations and our state officials in helping to make these judgments. Washington D.C. can help to revive the safety net, but they shouldn’t be dictating terms. And when they dictate terms they invariably mess it up. There is no way that a bureaucrat in a cubicle in Washington D.C. understands these issues better than the local farmer here in Iowa or Governor Terry Branstad. So, that’s what we should be doing.
R: Thank you for coming and please thank Governor Chris Christie for being here today.