Business leaders hail lawmakers’ progress on broadband, housing, child care

By: - May 20, 2021 7:30 am

Business leaders cheered legislation approved in 2021 addressing workforce issues such as housing, child care and broadband. Shown is downtown Dubuque. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

State lawmakers made significant progress this year on broadband expansion, housing tax credits and child care initiatives important to workforce development, business leaders said.

Dustin Miller, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, said lawmakers’ actions this session addressed some of the highest priorities among businesses.  

“Talent has become the top priority for the Iowa Chamber Alliance and we are pleased with the effort this legislative session to grow Iowa’s workforce,” Miller said in an interview. “Growing our talent pool is a complicated endeavor and will take multiple initiatives to ensure that employers can find the employees they need to fill open positions.”

Miller said legislation expanding housing programs and lawmakers’ ongoing support for workforce development are essential. The Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds were also able to be “creatively responsive in nontraditional workforce areas like child care and the new Telecommuter Forward certification to address our critical workforce needs for businesses across the state,” Miller added.

Reynolds has promoted Iowa as a good place for telecommuting. Cities and towns would be able to certify that they promote telecommuting and broadband as part of the Telecommuter Forward or Broadband Forward programs. 

Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council, which represents two dozen of Iowa’s top employers, said lawmakers made progress on workforce development and housing, both critical to businesses.

“The Iowa Business Council is excited to see such positive action on a variety of workforce issues this session,” Murphy said in an interview. “Increasing Future Ready Iowa’s Last Dollar Scholarship program by $10 million is critical to our overall workforce development efforts to upskill our current population.”

Murphy said the organization was also pleased with the “significant increases” in the state’s housing programs, child care assistance, and broadband infrastructure.

“These investments will enhance the state’s talent development capabilities and spur a new generation of Iowa innovation and ingenuity,” Murphy added.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership, Central Iowa’s largest chamber organization, saw action on several key issues.

“The Partnership saw success in working with the Legislature on issues related to talent development, child care, broadband, housing and small business support,” said Andrea Woodard, senior vice president of government relations and public policy.

The business organizations didn’t get everything they wanted. The governor before the session shelved the “Invest in Iowa Act” and its added money for outdoor recreation, water quality, and conservation. Some business groups saw that as a quality of life issue that would help attract workers.

Changes to the bottle bill that might have increased jobs at redemption centers while allowing grocery stores to decline to accept returned bottles and cans failed to pass. Legislation pushed by the truck lobby to limit liability involving their drivers failed to pass. And a bill pushed by the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and chamber groups that would have reduced worker unemployment benefits failed to advance.

Here’s a look at some of the key bills that won approval:

Broadband

Gov. Kim Reynolds asked for $150 million annually for three years. Lawmakers approved $100 million for the first year, which Reynolds hailed as a big step in improving service. She signed House File 848 in April, and the appropriation came in a later bill. 

Industry leaders said extending strong service statewide could cost $850 million, including private investment. Some broadband companies, who will be in line for grants for projects serving underserved areas, have said it will be difficult to get high-speed service to some remote areas.

Better broadband service has been seen not only as a quality of life issue for residents, but as an essential tool for rural businesses and work-from-home employees and entrepreneurs. It has been a regular plank in the platforms of the Iowa Business Council, the Iowa Chamber Alliance, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Reynolds’ Economic Recovery Advisory Board

Last Dollar Scholarships gets extra $10M

Lawmakers agreed to add $10 million to the Last Dollar Scholarships program in Future Ready Iowa. That increases the total account to $23 million. The money “covers tuition for students enrolled in eligible community and private college programs leading to high-demand jobs,” according to the governor’s website. The boost in funding was one of Reynolds’ priorities.

Housing

Senate File 619 raised the housing trust fund to $7 million, more than double the previous $3 million. 

The bill also raises the workforce housing tax incentives pool to $40 million in fiscal year 2022, with $12 million earmarked for small communities. In fiscal year 2023, that would change to $35 million, with $17.5 million would be reserved for projects in small cities. 

That program received $25 million a year before.

The idea is to promote housing construction in general, with one section of the bill addressing building after a disaster. 

Democrats and housing advocates widely criticized another measure passed that will throw out city ordinances designed to prevent discrimination against tenants who use Section 8 vouchers. At one point, Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said the measure pushed by landlords “flies in the face” of the housing recommendations of Reynolds’ economic recovery advisory board.

Child care

In Senate File 619, Lawmakers raised the upper income limit for those receiving child care tax credits to $90,000, twice what it was. 

Lawmakers also took a long-awaited action to address the “cliff effect,” which is when a family loses child care assistance because of a new job or a promotion. The Senate on Monday unanimously passed a bill that would phase out child care assistance rather than abruptly ending it in those cases.

House File 302 now is headed to the governor’s desk.

House File 260 increased the number of children who could get care in a child care home.

Iowa Employer Innovation Fund

House File 871 appropriates $4.2 million to the Iowa Employer Innovation Fund for work to support regional workforces. Part of that money would be transferred to child care programs.

Former prisoners

Lawmakers approved $387,158 and five full-time equivalent positions to work with correctional facilities to help prisoners gain skills that will help them re-enter the workforce when they are released. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.

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