116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In her Condition of the State address this past week, Gov. Kim Reynolds pitched Iowa as a prime destination for workers and businesses.
She started her address to the Iowa Legislature with a story about a California couple who moved to Iowa to run a restaurant just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in 2020. Since Iowa’s economy has stayed open, Reynolds said, the business has been able to thrive.
That’s usually the point in the speech when the governor asks those Iowans to stand and be recognized with a round of applause. However, the restaurant owners weren’t able to be there at the Capitol. What Reynolds didn’t mention is that the business is closed this month and one of the operators has COVID.
It’s a sign of the times in Iowa: Yes, the state is open for business — if you can find enough healthy workers to keep the doors open.
She dedicated a lot of words in her remarks to workforce issues but didn’t say much that was new.
Reynolds used the address to lay out her 2022 legislative agenda, anchored by plans to phase in a flat income tax and create a re-employment division in state government, both meant to incentivize work. Those policies won’t get Iowa to where it needs to be in terms of attracting and retaining a strong workforce.
On the two biggest issues facing Iowans right now — the COVID-19 pandemic and the workforce shortage — Reynolds didn’t have a lot to offer.
The governor only made passing reference to the infectious disease crisis, which accounted for more than 100 Iowa deaths in the most recent 7-day period on record. She mentioned the pandemic only to boast that Iowa schools and businesses have stayed open throughout most of the ordeal.
She dedicated a lot of words in her remarks to workforce issues but didn’t say much that was new, instead choosing to tout the Future Ready Iowa and Childcare Challenge programs that already are in place from previous legislative sessions.
We’re supportive of those initiatives and eager to see the impact of child care grants with new projects opening in Eastern Iowa. We’re also interested in the apprenticeship programs Reynolds mentioned in her speech. Still, we found the message lacking.
Reynolds blamed supposedly lavish unemployment benefits as one cause of the worker shortage.
“There are many reasons for the worker shortage, but we need to recognize that, in some cases, it’s because the government has taken away the need or desire to work. The safety net has become a hammock,” Reynolds said.
To that end, Reynolds will push to cut the unemployment program: Reduce payments from 26 weeks to 16 weeks, delay the start of payments and require job seekers to take lower-paying jobs. She also will institute a re-employment program meant to match jobless Iowans with openings.
We know from our recent experience in Iowa that connecting people to suitable jobs is more complicated than that. The state last year ended the extra $300 unemployment benefit as part of federal pandemic relief. Making life harder for jobless Iowans didn’t meaningfully move the needle on closing the workforce gap.
Reynolds is proposing $1,000 bonuses to teachers and police who have stayed on the job throughout the pandemic. A one-time payment is probably not going to be the thing that convinces workers to stick around if they have better opportunities in other states.
Teachers in particular say their jobs have been made harder by contemptuous state policymakers.
A day before Reynolds’ speech, her GOP colleague Senate President Jake Chapman warned of a “sinister agenda” among the state’s educators. Some Republicans are fixated on controversial books in school libraries about people of color and LGBTQ youth, which they characterize as “obscene” and “vulgar.”
Chapman is calling for a law to impose felony charges on educators who distribute such material. Reynolds stopped short of endorsing that idea but still lent credence to the manufactured outrage. She said parents should have “a timely process to address their concerns.”
Parents already have that right. Anyone can contact a teacher, administrator or school board member to air their concerns. We don’t have a right, however, to restrict what kinds of books students have access to in public schools.
On top of lax COVID protocols and meager funding increases, a witch hunt edging on book burning does not make Iowa a destination for teachers.
Reynolds’ proposed tax cuts might be the biggest news from the Condition of the State. She’s aiming for a 4 percent flat tax on income and to eliminate some taxes on retirees.
She said the plan will be phased in through 2026 in order to protect state funding, but she and state legislators have been eager to accelerate tax cuts in the past. How will we pay for state government?
Slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from state revenue will make it extremely difficult to make big investments in the quality-of-life priorities where Iowa has been falling behind — education funding, mental health services, water quality, recreation. When those things are ignored, people start to question whether this is a good place to live.
Reynolds and her predecessor Terry Branstad have held the office for more than a decade now and yet Iowa lagged the nation in population growth in last year’s census figures. Far from being a national destination, many Iowa communities are barely holding on.
Reynolds closed her speech on the same point she opened on — an emphasis on bringing in new residents to bolster Iowa’s economy. She borrowed a quote from “Field of Dreams.”
“People will come, Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom.”
Indeed, with priorities like these, it’s hard to fathom why people would come to Iowa.
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