MANCHESTER — With Congress set to take up discussion of a new farm bill, Sen. Joni Ernst is “heavily focused” on gathering ideas from Iowans involved in agriculture from the field to the market on “where we can do better and what we’re doing well.”
In a meeting Wednesday evening, she heard a few major complaints along with plenty of suggestions for improvements ranging from crop insurance to the Conservation Reserve Program, from changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement to the need to improve locks and dams on the Mississippi River.
The Iowa Republicans also heard about the need for controlling health insurance costs, immigration reform and tax reform from more than 30 people at a meeting with the Delaware County Farm Bureau.
Preserving crop insurance is the No. 1 issue she hears when discussing the farm bill, Ernst said. However, one speaker, Kevin Glanz, a Manchester farmer, told her there’s a need to limit payments to “groundhogs” he said are making more money gaming the crop insurance system than from selling crops.
Ernst thought there should be ways to control abuses in the system and said she would support Sen. Chuck Grassley’s efforts to cap farm program payments.
She also agreed with speakers that NAFTA, signed during the Clinton administration, should be renegotiated with Mexico and Canada.
With 1 in 5 Iowa jobs being tied to trade, she wants to see NAFTA modernized “in a way to do no harm” while improving trade opportunities for Iowa farmers and producers.
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With GOP President Donald Trump’s decision to scrap U.S. involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Pacific Rim nations, Ernst called on his administration to pursue bilateral trade agreements with those nations.
Not all of the discussion was tied directly to agriculture. Ernst spent a good deal of her hourlong meeting talking about health care and health insurance.
“We’re in a crisis mode and I don’t see what people don’t understand when they say ‘Don’t change anything,’” Ernst said. “We have to change Obamacare. I would love to see it gone and start over.”
Talking about the prospects of a 57 percent increase in some premiums in the individual insurance market in Iowa — as the only statewide exchange insurer has proposed — Ernst said there has to be a discussion of rising health care coats “if we want to control the cost of health insurance.”
In response to a question about economic development, Ernst said Iowa has two options for filling jobs that remain empty because of a labor shortage.
“We’ve either got to get able-bodied citizens here in Iowa to take those jobs or we will need to rely on the refugee populations and legal immigrants,” she said. “If we want to keep Iowa vibrant and growing, we need to figure this out.”
Ernst supported a call for modernizing the Mississippi River locks to maintain the flow of grain to the Gulf of Mexico.
“The Army Corps of Engineers has had it on their list, but it never seems to be enough money to go around,” she said.
Modernizing the locks will be part of a larger discussion about infrastructure, Ernst said.
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“We’re trying to figure out a pathway forward,” she said. “Is $1 trillion realistic?”
She suggested that a national infrastructure program could be broken into pieces.
“You know, $500 billion now and maybe $500 billion later,” Ernst said. “Yeah, I know, chump change, right.”
Earlier in the day, Ernst toured Iowa Premium, a beef processor in Tama, and Belle Plaine’s Main Street project as part of her 99-county tour of Iowa.
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