National Summit, Midwest values

Monica Kiley and Elizabeth Ricker/S

Several presidential hopefuls spoke Saturday at the Scheman Auditorium at the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Republican businessman John Cox spoke to three crowds around the country. While addressing the physical crowd in Ames, the candidates also spoke via satellite link to gatherings at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and Wake Tech College in Raleigh, N.C. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., did not attend in person, but spoke to all three groups via satellite from her office in Washington, D.C. All presidential candidates were invited to attend.

Specific topics discussed by the candidates included bringing broadband Internet access to all areas, health care, alternative energy and education.

In discussing the problem of broadband availability, the candidates referred to a “digital divide” that separates cities from rural areas.

“Rural America is at a disadvantage because we haven’t put a lot of energy and resources behind connecting up America,” Clinton said.

John Cox said the free market was the best way to spread technology because the free market has always been conducive to competition.

Each candidate spoke about the importance of strengthening family-owned farms and rural American economies in Iowa and across the nation. Edwards addressed the issue of big corporations, which he said were taking farming opportunities away from rural Americans, and favored limiting government subsidies granted to them.

“We want to put a subsidy limitation in place so we are not continuing to give millions of dollars to large corporate farming corporations,” Edwards said.

Edwards said cutting down farm subsidies would drive farmland prices down, reversing the recent uptrend in land prices.

Obama said the government is providing $1.3 billion in federal farm money to corporate farmers instead of small farms and that capping these subsidies would put small-time farmers on an equal playing field.

“Every time we lose a family farm, we lose something that is distinctly American,” Obama said.

Each candidate discussed ways in which alternative energy can help rural economies.

Cox said he would remove oil and farm subsidies because he believes lifting oil subsidies would provide more incentive to produce of alternative sources.

Obama promised to invest in renewable resources, saying “we can’t put the interest of polluters over the interests of the people.” He said local ownership of renewable energy sources would provide incentives to boost local economies. Ethanol may not be the most productive alternative, he said, so other sources, such as switch grass, needed to be investigated.

To strengthen local economies, Edwards said, he plans to instate a national venture capital fund that would create more than 1 million jobs in small towns through “greening the economy.”

“The basis of that greening of the economy – biofuels, wind and solar – will have a big place in smaller towns and smaller communities across Iowa and, for that matter, across America,” Edwards said.

Clinton also agreed that rural areas hold big potential for alternative energy.

“I don’t think we can talk about either farming or the rural economy without focusing in on the potential that energy holds for us,” Clinton said. “I would start it by taking away the tax subsidies from the oil companies and putting them to work on behalf of things like solar, biofuels and all the forms of renewable technology and energy.”

Obama said he plans to bring Democrats and Republicans together for a rural summit on these subjects in Iowa, rather than in Washington, D.C., stressing the importance of speaking about life in rural areas.

Each candidate spoke about strengthening educational systems, specifically in rural areas.

Edwards proposed a $15,000-per-year bonus for teachers who teach in rural schools. Calling for “second-chance schools,” Edwards said they would provide an easy way for K-12 dropouts to return to school. Edwards said he wanted to create a national teaching university, which he compared to West Point, where education for the prospective teachers would be free.

“We give them a state-of-the-art education, but then they have to go to places all across America, to the toughest places to teach,” Edwards said.

Obama said he would also increase teachers’ salaries and provide better training for the teachers, making early childhood education more readily available. Currently, the federal government provides 7 percent of educational funding; Obama said he would increase this number by “several percentage points” in order to provide incentives for teachers.

Cox said he would put the educational system back into the hands of parents by creating more schools, which would provide more competition, to improve the quality of education, prospectively driving down the rising prices of receiving a quality education.

Obama, Edwards and Clinton all agreed the government should play a bigger role in health care, but Cox dissented. He said the best way to lower health care costs was to increase the number of private insurers and increase the number of hospitals.

“Do you know why hospitals can charge you thousands of dollars a day?” Cox said. “Because they can.”

Cox said by increasing the numbers of doctors and hospitals, naturally healthier prices would decline.

Edwards’ plan would mandate that private insurers would compete with the government for providing health care to American citizens. He said completion would drive down high prices Americans face today.

Illegal immigration was a subject brought up mostly by audience members during the question-and-answer sessions after the speeches.

Obama called for stronger border security and a system of employer verification through which employers would be held accountable for illegal hires.

Cox agreed with him and said CEOs that hire illegal immigrants should be jailed. Cox said he was against amnesty and that the government should make it easier for immigrants to come to America legally.

Obama, who didn’t state his stance on amnesty, did say that deportation wasn’t the right route.

“The notion that we would round up 12 million people and ship them back to wherever they came from is ridiculous,” Obama said.