The Greater Des Moines Partnership on Thursday vowed to continue its fight against Iowa legislative proposals the business group considers unwelcoming.
Andrea Woodard, the Partnership’s senior vice president of government relations, said the goal is “ensuring that Iowa remains a welcoming state that is open for business.”
Someone attending the Partnership’s virtual forum Thursday asked about the prospect of new life for a sidelined bill that would have banned local governments from providing incentives or contracts to big tech firms such as Facebook and Twitter accused of censoring online content.
That bill, pushed by Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, emerged from accusations that Big Tech firms were censoring conservative viewpoints, such as those of former President Donald Trump. Trump saw many of his social media accounts blocked in the aftermath of an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol he was accused of inciting.
Partnership lobbyists said they will be watching for the bill in the next session.
Another bill business leaders questioned made it farther than expected before dying for the session. Dustin Miller, who lobbies for the Partnership and is executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, said he found it “a little alarming” that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Senate File 436, saw some movement in the House of Representatives in the most recent session.
“One of the things I will say was a little alarming this year was that RFRA has typically been something we’ve seen in the Senate, with not as much movement in the House. This year, we saw some movement in the House,” Miller said.
Critics called the bill a veiled attempt to allow discrimination against LGBTQ+ Iowans. Supporters said it would allow business owners to deny service, for example, based on their religious beliefs.
Restroom rules debated
Another bill business leaders had criticized would have limited bathrooms to use by “persons of the same biological sex.” That legislation is on the list of bills the Partnership plans to monitor.
Miller also reacted to continued discussion at the Legislature on ending tenure at the state universities. Tenure is intended to give job security to experienced professors and ensure that they have academic freedom and freedom of speech.
Lawmakers discussed the subject again this year, but didn’t pass the legislation.
“If (tenure) at the (Board of) Regents institutions were ever limited, you lose professors, which means you lose research and we lose students, which becomes a workforce problem,” Miller said.
The Regents contacted business groups to help lobby against tenure limitations when the bills seemed to gain ground this session, he added.
Miller said the state could end up considering a bill, perhaps modeled under Gov. Tom Vilsack’s Vision Iowa program, that would come up with financing for local economic developments, and even for water quality.
He compared the “next step” in Iowa’s economic development as akin to the decision by minor league baseball clubs to offer splash pads, contests and hot dogs shot out of a “gun” to entice people to keep coming to games.
“Minor league baseball really embraced the fact that people wanted to go and have an experience,” Miller said. “And that’s really what we’re talking about is the next step. It’s not enough to create a splash pad. What you want is a splash pad that has a connection to additional retail opportunities and recreational opportunities connected to trails, or water trails.”
The state just made a $100 million play to improve broadband over a year, Miller said. That affects many other types of development.
Water quality could be a next big play. “The majority of chambers and cities across the state have some sort of project, and many of them revolve around water,” Miller said.
Business groups had supported Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Invest in Iowa Act, which she set aside as the state continued to recover from the pandemic. Miller said that legislation, which would rely on a politically touchy new sales tax, is not dead. But he said passing it in an election year would be difficult.
Miller said Vilsack’s program could be a model. Vilsack, now serving a second stint as U.S. agriculture secretary, is a Democrat. The Iowa governor’s office and both legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans.
“Ultimately it’s just a matter of taking what we know was successful and then using the bones of that to then create these additional investments that go along with that,” Miller said.
Vision Iowa, which financed arenas, museums, movie theaters, water parks and science centers, among other projects around the state, was backed with $200 million in state bonding that leveraged $3 billion in projects.
State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, a Democrat, last year floated the idea of a similar initiative in coming years. The last of the Vision Iowa bonds were paid off last year, 20 years after the program started.