Expansion of broadband infrastructure, improving access to affordable child care and eliminating the child care benefits cliff will likely be issues of focus during the 2021 legislative session.

That was the message from business and nonprofit leaders who closely watch activities at the Capitol. They shared their thoughts on those topics and many others during the Business Record’s Legislative Forecast panel discussion on Jan. 12, a day after this year’s legislative session convened.

Here are some of the highlights of the conversation:


Child care

Dave Stone: Child care is the most expensive item in the typical family budget here in Iowa. Some of the things we’re looking at is our state’s child care assistance program for lower-income families that can get supplemental assistance from federal sources of income as well as state sources that can supplement that really large cost for families. It becomes a Catch-22. I’m working full time to afford child care to go to work. It’s a chicken and the egg problem. There’s a lot of folks who realize it’s more affordable to stay at home and take care of the kid. That would drop a worker out of the workforce and just prevent growth of the skills of that individual. Another area we can work on [is] reimbursement rates for child care providers. Though it is a high cost to have child care, it’s also a high-expense business. Many child care providers are basically just eking by, if at all. Reimbursement rates we provide to providers absolutely need to be addressed. We are currently paying most child care providers in this state 75% of the market rate for 2014. Finally, quality is key and important. The 0-5 [years old] space is really the start of workforce development. 

 

Joe Murphy: When you think about the scarcity of child care centers in this state, we’re in a difficult situation. Twenty-three percent of Iowans live within a child care desert. Iowa leads the country in both parents working outside the home, which exacerbates the need for child care. We know this pandemic is inversely impacting women in the workforce, too. More women are leaving the workforce to take care of their children, so what does that mean for future careers and business success and providing for their families?


Dustin Miller: It needs to be holistic. Your approach to it can’t just be employee-based. There has to be thoughts toward employers. Some of this is an entrepreneurial aspect. How do you get more people to see this as a viable business? But it isn’t, if you’re talking about someone leaving 25% on the table.


Broadband

Andrea Woodard: The need for affordable, accessible broadband has been exacerbated by the global pandemic, and despite there being some access to funding for investment, there is also need to compile data that accurately identifies where the gaps exist. Addressing broadband throughout Iowa – and that’s rural, urban, suburban – is only going to support our small business community, our entrepreneurs, our education system, health care providers and beyond.


Joe Murphy: It’s critical we take advantage of all the technology that is currently available while also not limiting ourselves to whatever future technology may exist. I think it’s essential we look at broadband connectivity as critical infrastructure in this state and not be afraid of investing significant dollars in this. We should look at this as a long-term investment for the economic health of this state.


Dustin Miller: There’s going to be $7 billion available at the federal level, which certainly should direct our conversation at the state as to how we maximize the amount of that money we receive. One thing I’ve stressed to lawmakers is make sure you’re not laying technology in the ground that won’t be used. Just because you run fiber in a community doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to use it. You need to make sure the business case is there where the investment occurs.


J.D. Davis: It really comes down to how friendly are we to the capital that would be invested here, and that goes back to tax climate, business climate. We have to make sure we maintain our competitiveness against our neighboring and competitive states, and that’s a factor that has to be considered as well.


Mental health spending

J.D. Davis: Even those [lawmakers] that I found have been resistant to raising one tax and lower another, those same people, especially highlighted because of the pandemic, are still advocates for getting something done on funding streams for mental health. 

 

Dave Stone: Iowa’s mental health system is really a patchwork of systems and programs. It’s not equitable. That patchwork approach has basically been a Band-Aid of what we’re doing right now for the past 20 to 30 years. We really need to address solid, consistent, reliable funding streams that really serve the needs of our citizens, our businesses, as well as making sure mental health is a priority. We have issues in terms of workforce. There are lots of things we can do in terms of red tape there, as well. How do we attract mental health providers from other states, how do they gain licensure, set up businesses, nonprofits to serve more individuals. In some instances for some families with significant, more acute mental health needs, they need to leave the state. 


Tax reform

Joe Murphy: Without the Invest in Iowa Act in place, we’re really looking towards a more traditional tax policy reform structure. I would like to see rates reduced. As companies look to relocate to Iowa, they only see the top-line rate that companies and corporations pay, and that really puts Iowa at a disadvantage. While most companies don’t pay that top-line rate, that’s what’s advertised, and that puts our economic developers and chambers at a disadvantage across the Midwest and other states that have a more simplified tax structure of what you see is what you pay.


Dustin Miller: We have the second-highest advertised [corporate income tax] rate in the country, and unequivocally it impacts business attraction. We don’t even get to compete. We’re not even on the playing field because site selectors cross our state out because they see that advertised rate.

 

Racial justice, inclusion and diversity

Andrea Woodard: As bills are proposed ... how are we diving into some of those policies that  just remove barriers to employment for everyone, and issues we are talking about elevate everyone, whether it’s child care or broadband. We really made a concerted effort to put some additional DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] language in our agenda as well as small business language, and when talking to those advocates on those issues, and you say, “What is it we ask for,” it’s the exact same thing we’re talking about: leveling the playing field. It’s the fabric of everything we’re doing, and just talking about it as a piece of each of those priorities is the way we are going to ensure we’re making progress and recognizing that it reverberates through everything.