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Addressing Iowa’s rural issues could draw lawmakers from both parties

Addressing Iowa’s rural issues could draw lawmakers from both parties

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DES MOINES — Sowing seeds of prosperity for rural Iowa may be one of the areas where legislators making their yearly trek to the Statehouse see potential for bipartisan accord in an election-year session.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has made empowering rural Iowa a touchstone of her 2020 agenda, while majority Republicans and minority Democrats in the House and Senate have said improving access and affordability for child care, health care services and facilities, housing and broadband rank high on their lists of issues to tackle after they convene Monday.

Those issues join perennial topics important to rural communities including meeting workforce challenges and improving water quality, economic vitality and quality of life amenities to stave off an rural-to-urban migration.

“Attention” — that’s the biggest need facing Iowans living outside metropolitan areas, said David Swenson, an Iowa State University associate professor of economics who has studied demographic trends in Iowa’s mid-sized “micro-politans” — places like Mason City, Clinton, Burlington and Fort Dodge — and the surrounding rural areas that they anchor.

The just-completed decade was marked by slow growth brought on in part by issues like trade and economic policies outside of Iowa policymakers’ control, but also shifts in necessary services and people from rural to urban areas.

“This decade Iowa grew more slowly than all of its neighbors — including rotten, corrupt Illinois,” said Swenson, playing off a theme often sounded at Iowa’s Capitol building. “Our economy was the sixth-slowest growing state in the United States this decade, so if these guys think they’re doing something, they’re wrong.

“The Iowa Legislature, in terms of policy, pretends that it pays attention to rural areas. But rural areas right now in Iowa aren’t doing very well. They haven’t recovered the jobs that they lost during the Great Recession. There’s still less employment out there than there was a dozen years ago,” the ISU economist noted. ‘There are a few places that are doing OK, but the vast majority are not.”

Reynolds, whose successful 2018 election was heavily reliant on rural support, is hoping to build on an Empower Rural Iowa Act she signed last year with unanimous support in the Legislature, where Republicans hold majorities of 32-18 in the Senate and 53-47 in the House.

She has pledged increased state funding for rural broadband, workforce training and housing initiatives and hopes to incorporate recommendations from a task force she assembled that called for grant programs and tax credits to rehab derelict buildings, encourage community vision planning and act as a catalyst for change.

At recent legislative forums leading up to this year’s session, leaders from both parties have indicated that access to safe, affordable day care and child-care services is a major concern in all parts of Iowa — as is a declining number of maternal health care and delivery providers, and the financial stresses of many rural hospitals.

“Child care is rising to pretty significant levels. Data shows that the cost of child care for two small kids is now as much as most people’s mortgage payments,” said Rep. Jo Oldson, D-Des Moines. “I think this is probably one of the biggest workforce issues facing this state and I hope the business community really steps up and makes it the issue that we talk about most, because if we want to get young families and workers to come here we’re going to have to solve this issue.”

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said access to child-care services in rural areas is a growing concern, with many providers “booked full,” so he senses a “a strong appetite” among GOP representatives to address the issue “and I would hope we could find bipartisan support.”

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said Democrats have been leaders on the issue in the past, but previous incentives were vetoed by former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said one concern that is complicated — but that he hopes legislators can address — is the “cliff” effect that many Iowans trying to raise themselves out of poverty face when government guidelines cause them to lose benefits if they get a raise or take a new job.

“That puts a glass ceiling on how successful people can be in the state of Iowa and that’s wrong,” said Whitver.

According to the Iowa Policy Project — a public policy research and analysis organization in Iowa City — the problem with support programs such as food assistance, child care assistance, Medicaid and the earned income tax credit is that as a person earns more, the benefits are reduced and eventually fall to zero before a family earns enough to be able to meet basic needs on its own.

Families need to earn more than twice the poverty level to be able to cover a basic-needs family budget, research found, but most federal benefits end at 1.3 to 1.75 times the poverty level.

“We need policies to assure more middle-class jobs with decent wages and benefits — and to provide more workers with education and skills needed for good-paying jobs,” said Peter Fisher, a project researcher.

That would include reforming Iowa’s child-care assistance program, expanding the state’s earned income tax credit for low-wage workers and expanding the child and dependent care tax credit.

Whitver said those proposals run counter to a mood among legislators to pare back the growing list of state tax credits as part of an effort to reform Iowa’s tax code.

Another issue likely to be of interest in rural areas is proposed legislation to stiffen penalties for animal cruelty. Last year, the House passed a bill that would make animal torture a felony on the first conviction and would change the language of what constitutes animal cruelty.

Senate leaders, like Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, say they are making the issue a priority this session.

The bill applies to only companion animals and not to livestock, which are governed by a separate chapter of Iowa code. But legislators say agriculture is such a major component of the Iowa economy that they want to balance all the interests when addressing treatment of animals.

Water quality also will get attention this session, but the issue likely will be tied to discussions focused on the Iowa Water and Land Legacy trust fund and whether the formula should be changed for distributing the money among various environmental, natural resources, conservation and quality of life purposes.

If the state sales tax is raised to fund IWILL initiatives, some farm interests would like to see more of the proceeds directed to efforts like the voluntary nutrient reduction strategy.

Representatives for the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund question whether that voluntary approach is working, and want to see a moratorium placed on future construction of large-scale commercial livestock facilities — a move, like in the past, not likely to gain traction among GOP lawmakers.

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