DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad jetted off to Japan and India on Friday, embarking on his sixth international trade trip since 2011.
In the past three years, the governor has toured several European countries, gone south to Brazil and Chile and has made three trips to China. His staff contends this work is a valuable economic development investment that can yield trade deals or bring job-creating businesses to Iowa. But some respond that it’s hard to know just how meaningful these foreign journeys are.
“It’s hard to gauge the results here. They go and they meet with a bunch of people allegedly with potential prospects. We can never know who those people are,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City who has questioned Branstad’s use of tax incentives to attract businesses to Iowa. “Are we seeing jobs created in Iowa from all this travel? It’s not clear.”
Still, Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, who was part of a group that accompanied Branstad on a trip to China earlier this year, said the governor is establishing valuable relationships for the state.
“I think it’s important. The economy of the state is driven by agriculture,” Hill said, noting that Iowa exports soybeans, corn and pork to China and could do even more in the future. “He was on the go 20 hours a day. He represented the state very admirably.”
While these trips are pricey, the state budget is shouldering little of the costs. Since 2011, the state has spent $9,477 on the governor’s travels, according to state records. The rest of the bills have been handled by the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s foundation, which takes private contributions. The foundation has spent $113,994 on the governor’s travels to date and expects to spend another $10,000 on the current trip.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the administration is confident the trips are worthwhile.
“Economic development is Gov. Branstad’s top priority, and Iowans expect he and (Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham) to travel the world in search of new job opportunities. Iowans don’t want their governor or director of economic development chained to a desk in Des Moines,” Albrecht said.
Tina Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, said many of the potential deals discussed by the governor on his trips remain confidential and those negotiations could take years to come to fruition. She cited two projects from the past few years that she said grew out of international recruitment — a South Korean company building a plant in Fort Dodge and a Japanese plant expanding in Eddyville.
While in India, Branstad and the Iowa delegation will meet with local officials and business leaders in several cities, attending networking sessions and business dinners. Details on the potential business partners are not provided on the official schedule. Among those attending are other state officials and representatives from Iowa-based companies Rockwell Collins, Vermeer Corporation and Pioneer.
Patty Judge, who served as lieutenant governor under former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, said they both did some travel while in office, though she thought Branstad might be doing more international trips.
“I think it’s really part of the job to represent the state at various trade fairs and so forth,” Judge said. “It seems like he and the lieutenant governor are constantly on an international trip.
Maybe I’m looking in from the outside.”
Judge also noted that it can take time to tell if these trips pay off.
“It’s hard on the day of the trip or the week after the trip,” Judge said. “I don’t think you can say, if I take this trip, we’ll get x number of dollars into the state coffers. It’s ongoing relationship building, talking about the state.”