"Heated sidewalks": A lie coming to a statehouse race near you

Direct mail attacking Democratic incumbents has reached voters in many competitive Iowa House and Senate districts. From reports I’ve heard, most mailers employ cookie-cutter messaging about unsustainable spending, or supposedly “forced” property tax increases, which have been debunked again and again.

One GOP talking point had me stumped: in press conferences, message-testing phone calls and campaign mailers, Republicans have accused Democrats of spending thousands of dollars on “heated sidewalks.”

Follow me after the jump for background on the origin of this canard. You’ll be “shocked” to learn that Iowa House and Senate Democrats did not vote to spend money on heating sidewalks, nor are such sidewalks planned or installed anywhere in Iowa.  

Although I only noticed the phrase cropping up a couple of months ago, Republican politicians have been scoring points off “heated sidewalks” for some time. Iowa House Republican leader Kraig Paulsen mentioned them in his remarks to the Iowa House at the end of the 2010 legislative session. Paulsen invoked the dreaded case of “wasteful pork barrel” spending to deflect attention from the a higher than expected surplus at the end of the 2010 fiscal year. It sounds like a good poster child for out-of-hand government spending. Who would waste money on heating a sidewalk in this time of budget scarcity?

On October 4 I spoke with Fayette County Economic Development Director Robin Bostrom, who is also director of the West Union Chamber of Commerce and the town’s Main Street program. A few years ago, West Union began planning new streetscaping for its historic downtown. The Iowa Department of Economic Development selected West Union as one of two “green pilot communities” (more on that here). During a three-day visioning session, federal, state and local officials discussed various sustainability measures and new technology. One idea that came up would have connected a new geothermal heating system to the main street. Bostrom emphasized that this wasn’t envisioned as a “luxury,” but as a way to reduce snow plowing and the use of salt products. West Union lies near two high-quality trout streams, Otter Creek and Glover’s Creek, and those are affected by salt runoff. Trout fishing makes nearby Echo Valley State Park a popular tourist destination, which is important to the local economy.

West Union’s sustainability program employs many funding sources. The state components include an I-JOBS urban stormwater grant, a water improvement grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Iowa Department of Economic Development “community development” funds. Beginning in spring 2011, the town will break ground on a shared geothermal heating and cooling system, with optional hook-up for about 60 historic buildings downtown. But as the project moved forward, Bostrom told me, planners decided that “it wasn’t economically feasible” to extend geothermal heating to downtown streets or sidewalks. Installing porous pavement is a more cost-effective way to reduce salty runoff to nearby trout streams. Consequently, the West Union City Council took the “heated sidewalks” component out of the project “more than a year ago.”

To sum up, no taxpayer-funded heated sidewalks have been installed or will be installed in Iowa.

When the 2010 legislature debated the appropriations bill covering the Iowa Department of Economic Development, House Republicans offered an amendment stating,

The moneys appropriated to the community

    1  4 development division pursuant to this subsection

    1  5 shall not be used for purposes of providing financial

    1  6 assistance for the Iowa green streets pilot project

    1  7 or for any other program or project that involves the

    1  8 implementation of geothermal systems for melting snow

    1  9 and ice from streets or sidewalks.

The amendment was pointless, since the green streets project didn’t include a geothermal plan for sidewalks anymore. House representatives defeated the amendment on a party-line vote (roll call in this pdf file). On that basis, Republicans claim Democrats voted to spend thousands on heated sidewalks.

Either House Republicans were unaware that West Union had dropped plans for the heated sidewalks, or they deliberately used an irrelevant amendment to set a trap for Democrats.

Top Iowa House Republican Paulsen chided Democrats at the end of this year’s session, saying, “This body even took the time to debate and spend money on heated sidewalks.” But no money was ever spent on heated sidewalks, and if not for the Republicans’ irrelevant amendment, the House wouldn’t have used time to debate the issue.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread, and keep your eyes and ears open for similarly misleading Republican campaign attacks. I always appreciate getting a heads up from alert Bleeding Heartland readers.

LATE OCTOBER UPDATE: The false “heated sidewalks” claim now appears in Republican television commercials attacking various Democratic incumbents, including Eric Palmer (House district 75), Donovan Olson (House district 48) and Mike Reasoner (House district 95).

LATER UPDATE: On October 29, KCCI TV and WHO TV in Des Moines finally got around to reporting that no taxpayer money was ever spent on heated sidewalks. Both stations continued to run (and profit from) the Republican commercials containing this false claim.

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  • Story City has heated sidewalks

    Really.  For the 2 block length of Broad Street that comprises the ‘commerical downtown’.  It may not be barefoot-quality heat, but they do something to boost the concrete above freezing.

    That the town is Republican as the summer day is long says something about this little meme.

    • that is funny

      I could see an argument for doing that to encourage more foot traffic downtown during the winter. I wonder how many Republicans even realize that.

  • Thanks for the update

    I had researched this allegation and couldn’t find the truth – but you did. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Mount Mercy College

    There is also a short, 20 yard section of heated sidewalk outside of the Busse building at Mount Mercy College.  It is the main entrance to the campus, and it leads to the underground tunnel network that most students use in the winter.

    • that's the kind of thing

      I thought this was about when I first heard Republicans were using “heated sidewalks” as an issue. It’s appropriate to try to reduce injuries near a heavily-used building entrance.