A trio of local Republican state lawmakers are predicting a bold upcoming legislative session where they plan to tackle everything from workforce issues to the tax structure.
At a legislative luncheon hosted by the Dyersville Area Chamber of Commerce at the Dyersville Social Center Jan. 4, Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, and Rep. Steve Bradley, R-Cascade, fielded questions from fellow locally-elected officials and business owners for an hour while also outlining their expectations in Des Moines this year.
Koelker predicted a “bold session,” where she believes some monumental legislation will be passed.
“We all bring a different voice to Des Moines, and I’m truly humbled to be a voice for all of you,” Koelker added.
The 2021 legislative session has been touted by many area Republicans as a milestone year in terms of what was accomplished, but Bradley, who just concluded his first session last year, joked that he thought it was a normal workload.
“We hope this next year we can get as much done as we did last year,” Bradley said.
Often a perennial area of concern for local playmakers and city government officials, Jacque Rahe, executive director of the Dyersville Economic Development Corporation, asked about the future of the tax increment financing (TIF) program.
Rahe said it seems like every year they hear rumblings about the legislature potentially doing away with TIF and she asked the three where they stood.
“Our small towns have not abused it — they use it as a tool to grow communities,” Zumbach said. “If abuse doesn’t happen, I see the legislature keeping their nose out of it, but what we do have some trouble with is some of our bigger cities that aren’t using it the way it was intended, which was for urban renewal.”
Koelker said she foresees it being a topic in a larger discussion of the overall tax structure, but didn’t see it being axed just yet.
“I don’t foresee us enacting any harsh changes any time soon, but there are bad actors out there — and unfortunately, about half the laws we have to deal with down there are because of bad actors,” Koelker said.
Zumbach said one big push this year will be to alter the state’s income tax system by lowering the amount Iowans pay.
“The more we lowered taxes, the more the state’s economy grew,” Zumbach said.
The Republican-led government is seriously looking at the way state income tax is structured, but Zumbach said he isn’t in favor of going as far as some of his colleagues have suggested, which is to bring the percentage down to zero.
In states like Texas and Florida, where there are no income taxes, Zumbach said they benefit from all of the out-of-state tourists who are pumping tons of money into the state’s sales tax coffers.
“They have a different revenue stream than we have in Iowa and we need a tax code that reflects that,” Zumbach said.
Koelker said she was anxious to see what is presented, but is on board with the idea of lowering the rate.
“I’m really going to have to look at some spreadsheets and listen to all of you to see what’s best,” she said.
Bradley also voiced support for the proposal, adding he wants to see it happen in incremental steps instead of one giant leap.
“I think that’s the smart way to do it,” Bradley said.
Like every other state in the nation, Iowa businesses have been experiencing workforce shortages and many are looking to the state for help as they scramble for creative solutions.
Koelker said Iowa’s population growth has been stagnant compared to other states and said more focus needs to be put on growing communities through investments such as parks, trails and anything else that could help attract families to move to the area.
“I think we’re looking at a whole bunch of different factors that go into this scenario,” Koelker said. “Federal benefits aren’t helping the situation either — sometimes people make money sitting at home so we need to figure out how we can provide incentives.”
“There are a lot of cliff effects that I think we need to tighten up but I don’t think that’s at the state level — there isn’t a switch we can flip overnight.”
Last year, Zumbach championed a bill aimed to get more young adults working on farms by getting them driving permits to go to work. By adding a potential new pool of workers, he believes that can help fill some gaps.
“I’ll do what I can to take that one step farther — maybe they can get a permit to work at the grocery store in town and so on,” Zumbach said. “Once we realize that this isn’t a problem, it’s a solution, then it’s easier to take more steps.”
Along the same lines, Zumbach said legislators are looking at some creative solutions to address the teacher shortage and hope to piggyback off the success of school programs where students are paired with local businesses for internship opportunities.
“I’d love to see some workforce folks coming into our schools as teachers,” Zumbach said. “I don’t know about you, but wouldn’t it be great to have a retired accountant to teach math? Wouldn’t it be great to have a doctor or a dentist teach health? These people have real skills and we’re short on teachers.
“These guys have experience beyond what any of us can describe and they can bring those skills into a classroom. It’s great taking those kids out, but wouldn’t it be just as good to bring these folks into our schools? It would also help take some pressure off the teacher shortage.”
When asked about allowing 16-year-olds to drive forklifts at factories to help with shortages, Bradley said he has looked into this issue and concluded that based on the conversations he’s had, most insurance carriers would not be in favor of it.
When asked about imposing mask mandates for schools at the state level, all three stated they were against that type of measure, saying it should be more of a localized decision.
“If you have a high virus count, then possibly, but the way things are now? No,” Bradley said.
“I think there needs to be a very personal sense of awareness of what protections you need to take for yourself and take those precautions accordingly,” Zumbach said, adding lawmakers were overly cautious in the beginning, but now with two years of hindsight, he didn’t see mandates returning.
“We worked hard to get our kids back in school,” Koelker said. “There were a lot of issues that trickled down and I don’t see us going down that road again at all.”
Budget surplus and COVID-19 money
“We’re sitting on a big surplus, which is not state money, and everyone wants us to shove it into TIF or education or those types of things, but I look at it as the taxpayer’s money,” Koelker said.
Koelker added that it’s important to note that with the COVID-19 money coming in, legislators need to take a high degree of caution when doling it out, likely putting it more toward infrastructure rather than other programs.
“We always have to be careful with our federal dollars because sometimes it’s one-time money,” Koelker said, adding that if it’s used to fund certain services, people are going to expect the state to keep providing them even when the federal dollars dry up, which it likely won’t be able to do.