WATERLOO | In 1997, then-Speaker of the House Ron Corbett was eager for data that could offer some insight into whether Iowa should cut its income taxes by 10 percent or 15 percent, as the two chambers were debating between those figures.

It never materialized, and a 10 percent cut was enacted.

Now, Corbett is done waiting for the data to appear and is set on creating it within the state.

Corbett, a Republican and now Cedar Rapids mayor, is launching Engage Iowa, a conservative think tank focused first and foremost on three issues: environment, education and economy.

“People do want substantive discussions of issues,” Corbett told The Courier. “And we’re kind of a small enough state that we do have some challenges and some problems.”

He said, for example, on education, the state is slipping from its long-held position as the best place for education to being more in the middle of the pack.

“People are sensing it. They maybe don’t know what the solutions are, but they certainly want to talk about it,” Corbett said.

Engage Iowa is somewhat unique in the state as a nonpartisan, nonprofit, with a 501(c)3 status that prevents it from lobbying. Corbett points to the Iowa Policy Project as about the only comparable organization in the state, but notes the Iowa City-based group tends to be focused on liberal issues.

Engage Iowa will be “another voice” offering ideas in the state.

Though the group is just comprised of Corbett for now -- he’s sought and secured more than $1.5 million to launch the project -- he said he will soon be building an advisory board with people across the state and seeking people to serve on councils that will focus on specific issues.

While that organization building is underway, Corbett said he has already identified the first three issues on which he plans to put out public reports.

The first, due out in November, will focus on clean water issues in the state. The second, due in spring, will focus on early childhood education and the state’s mandate to ensure all kids are reading at grade level by third grade. The next is likely to focus on tax policy, specifically income tax policy.

Like when Corbett was House speaker, that last issue has once again been a talking point among Republican lawmakers, but it has failed to get enough traction to move forward, especially when Democrats control the Iowa Senate by a slim margin.

“What may work in Florida might work in Iowa, but then it may not, so maybe having some more Iowa-based thought, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Corbett said, adding that he’s working with an Iowa State University professor on developing the first report.

Corbett said when the initial report is ready in November, he will make it public, but he’ll also go beyond that.

“We plan on being aggressive, then, in the social media side, of getting out and engaging Iowans to say, ‘What do you think of this? Do you like it or don’t you like it?’”

He said the group is already seeking input from Iowans at www.EngageIowa.org on what Iowans think are the top three issues facing the state.

While it’s been suggested the conservative think tank could be a launchpad to run for governor in 2018, Corbett said he’ll continue to serve as mayor until his term ends in 2017, though he hasn’t yet made up his mind about whether he’ll seek re-election.

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Political Reporter

Political reporter at the Courier

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