The Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance unveiled its 2019 legislative priorities at a breakfast at Access Energy on Friday, Jan. 4.
Their priorities include initiatives under economic development, workforce and housing, education, health care, transportation and infrastructure and tax policy. The priorities are based on 148 surveys completed by Chamber members and a round table exercise where members were able to voice their concerns. The priorities were written by the Chamber’s Government Affairs Committee and approved by the board of directors.
The Chamber asked Rep. Joe Mitchell (R-Mt. Pleasant) and Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) to support economic development initiatives that center on rural and small community economic development and housing incentives.
Kristi Ray, executive vice president for the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance, said the Chamber wants to see initiatives that support job creation, fosters innovation and help existing companies expand.
“We want to remind you without tax credits companies like Hearth and Home Technologies, Lomont Distributing, ContiTech and Beck’s Superior Hybrids would not have expanded to Mt. Pleasant,” Ray said. “Those four expansions alone resulted in 65 new jobs and $31 million to our economy.”
Ray said that the Chamber would also like to see local control over Tax Increment Financing (TIF) maintained as an economic development tool. The city of Mt. Pleasant and Henry County are conservative in their approach to TIF that can be used as a tool to support housing projects that are needed in the area, Ray said.
Taylor said that while the state has plenty of money, they need to work on their priorities and fiscal responsibility.
“We’re giving away too much money in tax credits to people who don’t need them,” Taylor said. “Tax credits were designed to help a business get going. At some point, they’re supposed to start making it on their own. They’re not supposed to continue with those tax credits forever and we do that.”
Mitchell said he would like to see some tax credit reform but does not want to take away tax credits businesses in southeastern Iowa are benefiting from.
“I would like to talk to the businesses using tax credits to know which ones they’re using effectively,” Mitchell said.
Workforce and Housing
It’s crucial Iowa prioritize the Future Ready Iowa initiative as workforce issues remain a challenge to employers, Ray said.
This past year, the Chamber made workforce their No. 1 priority, working to bridge the gap between the manufacturing community and school system. To prepare students, the Chamber wants to see a continued emphases on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and career and technical education.
As for housing, the Chamber completed a housing study in 2014 and has since then been working to address housing issues in the community, Ray said. Housing continues to be a struggle for companies trying to recruit and retain workers in Mt. Pleasant. Ray said the Chamber encourages legislators to support tools to spur economic growth, specifically housing incentives to assist with private development.
The Chamber wants to see quicker action to fund kindergarten through 12th-grade education so districts can finalize their budgets.
“Schools continue to be one of our top priorities in this community,” Ray said.
The Chamber asked legislators to support extending the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) sales tax that is set to expire in 2029. Additionally, the Chamber wants to see policies to aid rural areas with transportation costs for busing children to and from school.
For higher education, the Chamber wants to see support from legislators for continued incremental increases to the Iowa Tuition Grants.
“It’s been a challenging year for Iowa Wesleyan University,” Ray said. “We encourage the Legislature to review the mission of all higher education institutions in the state. We encourage Iowa to reinstate the mission of each higher education institution to avoid duplication and to ensure their curriculum matches skill set needed for the jobs we have available.”
Taylor said one of his biggest initiatives is securing funding for schools, especially preschool for every student.
I’ve noticed if kids get excited about learning early, earlier than preschool, they stay excited,” Taylor said. “Everyone’s worried we pay too much into welfare. If we get kids excited early about learning, they’ll pull themselves out of the welfare cycle. It won’t continue generation after generation.”
The state has been “neglectful” in funding education, Taylor said.
“We can’t expect our superintendents across the state to do more with less and continue to do more with less. All we’re going to get is less with less. And that’s the wrong direction,” Taylor said.
Mitchell said that education is the main priority in the Legislature with 55 percent of the budget going toward education. Mitchell said his objectives regarding education are to extend SAVE, fund transportation and find solutions to children’s mental health care.
In health care, Ray said the Chamber wants to see the Legislature support programs and incentives to attract and retain medical staff in rural areas.
“One of the largest challenges we have in southeastern Iowa is finding physicians and health professionals to come here,” Ray said.
The privatization of Medicaid also has been a challenge to rural hospitals, with the Henry County Health Center sustaining nearly $1 million in payment with the new managed care Medicaid approach, Ray said.
Finally, the Chamber wants to see funding for preventive programs to address the growing problem of substance abuse and mental health.
Taylor said they know the state is not paying Medicaid bills, and while he doesn’t see the privatization of Medicaid going away, the Legislature has to be more responsible.
“If your rural hospital goes away, so does your community,” Taylor said. “We have to get a better handle on making sure we’re responsible and paying our bills to keep hospitals open.”
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill for six mental health crisis centers across Iowa. Taylor said he’s concerned because they hadn’t put any money behind it and is afraid they are going to force funding down to the county level.
“That’s something we have to look out for and make sure we don’t do that. That we don’t force that on the property tax payer,” Taylor said.
Mitchell said it’s important the Legislature doesn’t take back their promise to fund mental health reform.
The Chamber wants the Legislature to again focus on bringing broadband to all Iowans.
Ray said that there are homes in southeast Iowa that do not have access to broadband.
“If you have it in your home, you think everybody’s got it and that’s not the case,” Ray said.
The Chamber also wants to see more funding for freight and passenger rail services as Mt. Pleasant has the second busiest Amtrak station in Iowa, Ray said.
The City of Mt. Pleasant is awaiting word on the possibility of receiving a LIFT grant from the Iowa Department of Transportation to build a new transload facility in the industrial park.
The Chamber’s priorities regarding tax policy were that the Legislature work on simplifying the overall tax code to make it more competitive and equitable.
They would like to see tax reform that allows states to collect sales tax crom out-of-state establishments on internet purchases and fully funding existing budget obligations including promised “backfill” to local governments.
The next legislative breakfast is Saturday, Feb. 23, in the Chadwick Library at Iowa Wesleyan University from 8:30 to 10 a.m.