CORONAVIRUS

Sen. Joni Ernst's legislation would offer tax breaks to essential workers

Sen. Joni Ernst speaks with members of the media in Coralville on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Sen. Joni Ernst speaks with members of the media in Coralville on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sen. Joni Ernst wants to reward front-line workers who remain on the job during the coronavirus pandemic by suspending federal income taxes as well as federal payroll taxes for essential workers earning up to $50,000 a year.

Legislation she introduced Tuesday would compensate essential workers who “have risen to the challenge and continued in their daily jobs to care for and protect Iowans, to produce and deliver food and essential goods, and to uphold our state’s critical infrastructure,” Ernst told reporters on a conference call.

Front-line workers — “nurses, truck drivers and grocery store workers, child care providers, and so many others ... are putting the livelihoods of their fellow Americans ahead of their own,” the Iowa Republican said. “And folks, I think they should be rewarded for their selfless service.”

Under Ernst’s Financial Relief Noting The Large Impact Of Our Nation’s Essential Employees Act — FRNTLINE — federal income taxes would be suspended for essential workers up to an annual income cap set at the highest level of pay for an enlisted person in the armed forces. Additionally, the bill would provide suspension of federal payroll taxes for essential workers who earn up to $50,000 annually. It would be retroactive to April 1.

“These folks are the heroes who will help America beat this pandemic,” Ernst said. “It’s time we pay them back.”

The Senate returned to Washington this week after a two-week state work period and has another scheduled in three weeks. That’s sufficient time to develop a fourth phase of pandemic relief, Ernst said, adding “we’re still in discussions, so I don’t know exactly what it’s going to entail.”

In Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Indivisible members, who hope to defeat Ernst’s re-election plans, demonstrated in support of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act — HEROES Act. It’s the House Democrats’ plan for funding schools, essential services and the postal system. GOP Senate leaders have no plans to take up the bill.

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In addition to rewarding essential workers, Ernst hopes that aid for biofuels producers, who have seen their markets shrink during the pandemic, will be included in the broader agriculture relief portion of the package.

According to the industry, it has lost $3.4 billion in revenue since March and used 500 million fewer bushels of corn for fuel production, which typically account for 40 percent of the corn crop.

Ernst also said she supports continued federal support for COVID-19 testing because “I think that makes people feel comfortable they know whether they have it or not, and it certainly guides what type of treatments they receive, or how they go about their daily lives.”

She’ll also be pushing for support for rural health care systems and rural clinics in the next relief package.

It’s important to get children back to school, but Ernst said that’s a decision for states and local school boards, not the federal government.

“I think our superintendents are really happy that the federal government is not nosing down into their business,” Ernst said. “I think our superintendents, our local school boards, those parents and teachers should be making the decision on how their children receive the education and do it in the safest possible manner.”

Asked whether federal funds should be withheld from districts that don’t resume in-school classes — as President Donald Trump has suggested, Ernst said it is “great that Congress holds the purse strings, and this is not something that I’ve heard any member of Congress talking about.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.