Governor’s economic panel approves call for boom in broadband, water quality, child care

A state panel wants to boost growth in small communities such as Winterset by improving broadband service. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A group of Iowa business leaders handpicked by Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday approved 18 top priorities for Iowa that closely follow the governor’s past legislative priorities, expanding on some of them.

The Economic Recovery Advisory Board capped 103 days of discussion by endorsing long-term funding for water quality, improved child care options, universal broadband service, expanded telemedicine, and work to improve rural Iowa through “community placemaking.”

Reynolds said the group’s propsoals would be used to form her priorities for the next legislative session, which starts in January 2021.

There are some big-ticket items. The panel endorsed the governor’s “Invest in Iowa” initiative, sidelined by the pandemic but still under consideration, which would raise $540 million a year. Of that, $172 million a year would go to a trust fund for water quality, conservation and outdoor recreation. Another $80 million would be used for mental health services, offsetting local government property taxes. 

Another one of the economic board’s recommendations was to spend $80 million to $100 million a year on the expansion of broadband services. 

The board also approved a list of “just do it” actions that wouldn’t take major funding or legislation. Those included an inventory of government-owned real estate, working on government-improvement initiatives, standardizing accounting practices, setting up a task force to sweep carbon from the atmosphere with farm plantings and other initiatives, and a move to improve the skills and accountability of public school boards regarding student achievement. 

Ann Lebo, the state education director, and Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority, said work is underway on a number of those recommendations. 

Reynolds told the board the goal was to look at ways to improve the Iowa economy beyond where it was when the pandemic hit in the spring. 

“We’re not going to get boxed in with what’s always been done,” Reynolds said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We need to start with a clean slate and we need to really think about how we can transform the way that we deliver services.” 

“Our economic comeback is about more than yesterday’s goals,” Reynolds said. “It really is about an opportunity to build a better Iowa, really refocusing business models to reflect a changing environment, modernizing how we work and learn and further improve our quality of life. And it’s also about ensuring that current and future prosperity is felt in every Iowa neighborhood and community throughout our entire state.”

Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council said the panel’s work could add momentum. 

“There is some really positive momentum around a number of these initiatives,” including affordable housing and workforce development, Murphy said in an interview. A big goal is improving broadband in rural areas, added Murphy, whose group represents the state’s largest businesses. 

“Moving forward, we need to invest significant resources in broadband throughout Iowa, so that we can better weather the circumstances we now find ourselves in,” Murphy said. 

The advisory board was led by Ruan CEO Ben McLean, and included executives from Hy-Vee, Vermeer, Sukup Manufacturing, MidAmerican Energy, John Deere, Principal Financial Group and other firms. 

State staffers now will assemble the final report, expected in several weeks.