Thursday, February 17, 2011

Funding Iowa by Selling Assets

February 17, 2011, 12:20 p.m.

Legislators Selling Pollock Thinking Too Small
(bought to you by*)

"Elections have consequences," it is said.

One of those consequences for Iowans, it appears, is the Republicans' proposal to sell off the University of Iowa's Jackson Pollock painting (a 1951 gift from Peggy Guggenheim). William Petroski, "House Panel Favors Selling Pollock Art," Des Moines Register, February 16, 2011 ("An Iowa House subcommittee Wednesday supported the sale of a famed Jackson Pollock painting in the University of Iowa's art collection, saying the proceeds could fund thousands of student scholarships. Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, who was chairman of the three-member panel, said an amended bill requiring the Iowa Board of Regents to sell the world-class Pollock painting, 'Mural,' will set a minimum price, probably about $120 million. The painting had an estimated value of $150 million in 2008.")

Critics of the suggestion point out a number of problems with the sale, including the lost trust (and money) from formerly potential donors, and the UI Art Museum's loss of accreditation.

The more serious problem is that legislators and their critics alike are thinking too small.

It's like their counterparts in Washington, attacking a $14 trillion debt by eliminating $60 billion worth of social programs while increasing the near-$1 trillion Defense Department budget.

Iowa's economic and budget challenges, like those of other states, require the most creative ideas from all its citizens -- not just the little bit produced by selling a painting. Besides, one of my ideas is a win-win, where we virtually double what the Pollock can produce while retaining title -- sort of.

(1) Naming Rights. We have sold off naming rights for most of our buildings and colleges. Once named for academics, scholars and scientific researchers, they now reflect our basic values through the names of their wealthy donors. But the one opportunity we've held in reserve is naming rights for the University itself.

Larry Flynt is rumored to be interested in this possibility. Plus, he's more flexible than some potential donors, both as to the name and the amount. While I've heard $100 million mentioned, my understanding is that's just for starters, and that he might be willing to go as much as twice that. He's apparently even willing for us to keep Iowa in the name. That is, he would be willing for us to be called "The Larry Flynt University of Iowa," or "The Hustler Magazine University of Iowa" (not just "Larry Flynt University" or "Hustler University").

This sort of thing is not unprecedented. "Duke University" -- certainly a respected institution (ranked 9th nationally by U.S.News) -- is named for a benefactor whose money came from the tobacco sales that today contribute to some 400,000 deaths annually, James Buchanan "Buck" Duke. Not only that, but his business practices were so illegal that his company was ultimately busted up as an antitrust violation in 1906 into the three companies American Tobacco Company, Liggett and Myers, and the P. Lorillard Company. I don't see Duke taking a lot of heat these days for that association, and I don't see why we should be concerned about Hustler Magazine. Hustler may not be my taste in magazines, but so far as I know, no one ever died from reading it (which is more than you can say for Duke's product).

(2) Iowa's Most Valuable Asset. As long as we're looking around for state assets that we might auction off, why start with something that will produce so little revenue as a Pollock painting?

What's our most valuable physical asset? Think about it. Right. Our topsoil. OK, I know that most of it is by now in Louisiana. And how much money did we get for that? Nada, zero. We just flushed it down the river. Gave it away. How much sense does that make when we need a way to fund the Legislature's proposed 20% tax cut for Iowa's wealthy? William Petroski, "Iowa House Passes 20% Tax Cut in All Brackets," Des Moines Register, February 16, 2011.

Moreover, I think I've found a buyer. Who owns the most land in the United States, almost all of which is devoid of Iowa-quality topsoil? That's right, Ted Turner. I don't know Ted well, but I've met with him on a number of occasions and I think we have a mutual respect for one another.

As his Web page explains,
With approximately two million acres of personal and ranch land, Ted Turner is the largest individual landholder in North America. Turner lands are innovatively managed and work to partner economic viability with ecological sustainability. All Turner ranches operate as working businesses, relying on bison and outfitting as principal enterprises. In addition, Turner ranches support many progressive environmental projects including water resource management, reforestation and the reintroduction of native species to the land.
Here's a public spirited guy who can sit down and write a check for $1billion to help fund the United Nations, who's clearly interested in the land, but hasn't really been involved in agriculture as such at a time when the world's people are confronting an impending food crisis.

Right now we're just paving over what remains of this largely eroded valuable asset, with suburban housing, malls, highways, and industrial parks. How much sense does that make? Let's remove our most valuable asset first, sell it to the highest bidder, and then build on top of the clay that makes for a better foundation anyway.

You'll be the first to know if I get an offer from him.

(3) Most Innovative, Most Remunerative. Unfortunately, I can't give you the name of the next source of budget money for the State Legislature (and University), because he wishes to remain anonymous for now. But there are some Las Vegas individuals who have expressed an interest in the Old Capitol.

I once had a friend whose father bought a European castle for her, brought it back to America stone-by-stone, and reassembled it here. It really was quite grand.

That's the idea. The Old Capitol would be very carefully taken down, with each stone carefully preserved, and shipped to Vegas, where the building would be reassembled and incorporated into a new casino complex that will be the largest and grandest in the city.

There are variants on this idea that are still on the table.

Because the investors are also interested in the Pollock, and understand the University's reluctance in selling it, they have approached the Nevada governor and legislative leaders with this idea. Just as an American embassy in a foreign country is treated as "U.S. territory," so the land on which the reconstructed Old Capitol would stand would be declared to be property of the State of Iowa (requiring, of course, Iowa Legislative approval). One of the advantages of this approach is that the Pollock could hang in the Old Capitol, which would continue to be a part of the University of Iowa, thus complying with the donor's conditions.

Apparently an Iowa alum, who is also a part of the Vegas group and a big Hawkeyes fan, has proposed that the Nile Kinnick statue also be included in the deal.

It's a win-win, where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. By making a package of the Old Capitol, with the Pollock, with the Kinnick statue, the Legislature will have access to far more revenue than anyone ever dreamed of getting for the Pollock alone.

Oh, yes, and they're also willing to pay for the construction of a gambling casino on the Pentacrest where the Old Capitol now stands that would be called "The Old Capitol Casino."

Of course, that's far from a done deal because the Riverside Casino fears the competition and is strongly opposed. Given the revenue the gambling industry provides the athletic program with advertising on the football scoreboard, transporting fans to the games, and its skybox, among other things, that is obviously something that would have to be considered.

We can make it through these financial times, fellow Iowans. All we need is just a little more creative thought.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
# # #


izmir ├žetesi said...


escalante blogger said...

Very historical.

Dan Knight said...

Nick, you're brilliant.

Christopher said...

don't forget about the heisman trophy. that should go with the statue as a package deal... surely there is a high roller who would like the 'hawkeye special football package' :-)

GJC said...

1) Can't see anything wrong with "Larry Flynt University" as far as he pays 0.5 bln for the honour. Everybody would know it's location in Iowa City. Just like everybody knows that the Duke University is located somewhere in some other state. Iowa, go for it!

2) What was it about again? Iowa top soil? When was it last time we could see any?

3) The Old Capital building with the Pollock and other stuff, after locating it stategically in Vegas, should generate a hefty ravenue. Half of it should be redirected back to UI to cover a number of scholarships. The winners can be selected in official Old Capitol Poker Tournaments.

4) What else? Lets be openminded!