Four local lawmakers joined several Dyersville residents for an hour-long update as they prepared to embark on their journey to the capital for what is likely to be a unique and difficult first legislative session of 2021.
With the obvious impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has on the local economy casting a giant shadow on the upcoming session, Rep. Shannon Lundgren said she is ready to accept the challenges that lie ahead.
“I am looking to guiding the policy in the state to help rebuild Iowa’s economy and looking forward to what 2021 will bring,” Lundgren said.
While COVDID-19 is a large issue, Sen. Carrie Koelker said she wants to make sure all the focus isn’t taken away from other things that are impacting Iowans.
Koelker said like her colleagues, she is going to Des Moines to bring representation to a rural district, making sure to remind other lawmakers that Eastern Iowa doesn’t operate the same way as Altoona does.
For Rep. Lee Hein, he said like every other year he has made this trip to Des Moines, his number one priority is always the budget, going as far as to say even if they didn’t pass one piece of policy, that the state would still be just fine as long as the finances are in order.
Sen. Dan Zumbach said one of the first issues that needs to be tackled is how the legislative body will meet, which will likely be in-person meetings for politicians and a mix of virtual and in-person sessions for the public and lobbyists.
“We are going to try to have as normal a session as possible,” Zumbach said. “We’re going to have the lobby there, we want to have the people come in, we want to have in-person meetings. We’re going to change how we’ve done things in the past in the building, but we want it to be normal.”
Some of the challenges presented by the pandemic already have lawmakers looking toward implementing some of the temporary mitigation measures into more long-term and permanent initiatives.
Contained within some of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ emergency COVID-19 proclamations were provisions that loosened some licensing requirements, something Lundgren said should possibly remain permanent.
“Maybe we need to go back and say ‘do we really need all of these extra layers of bureaucracy to run the state?’” Lundgren said.
One issue that could have had much more serious ramifications early on in the pandemic, the closing of several meat processing plants due to COVID-19, is also something lawmakers certainly haven’t forgotten about.
Zumbach said they are looking at a small meat processor incentive program to get those businesses to add infrastructure and employees, as many lockers were consistently at capacity and are booked solid, in some cases, years out.
Casinos and the revenue they brought into the state were also impacted by COVID-19, likely down $20-to-30 million this year, and Hein said they would be taking a look at “promo plays,” which are used by casinos to entice patrons through the doors. Nebraska allowing online gaming this year is also something that has lawmakers worried.
“Currently, when they send those out, they have to pay a tax on those,” Hein said. “A lot of the other states don’t tax that and they are asking us to take a serious look at that because we’re going to have new competition on the Nebraska side.”
Hein added that it appears the majority of gambling revenue comes out of western Iowa, including people traveling from Nebraska, and the state would like to keep that revenue.
COVID-19 also highlighted the importance of physician access for rural Iowans, for both physical and mental health.
Lundgren said last year they passed a bill that allowed more access to “telehealth,” or a virtual meeting between doctor and patient. With access to mental health professionals already being an issue, she said that students needing care can now do that at school, as the bill also helped to provide more access while also putting less of a burden on parents who no longer have to take time off work for transportation.
Lundgren said there has also been movement on an effort to remove mental health funding from property taxes.
As for other sources of funding, the state is still figuring out how it will dole out the federal CARES Act monies it is receiving.
Koelker said one issue with the incoming federal dollars is that they are temporary, meaning that while they will help fund some projects in the immediate future, it will appear as though state lawmakers are going to be making cuts to programs once that money pool has dried up.