Local Quad-Cities lawmakers found some common ground, but largely split along party lines on how to help businesses struggling with workforce shortages.

The Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce hosted area state lawmakers at a forum Friday morning at Hotel Blackhawk to provide updates on various policy issues important to area businesses.

Speakers included Iowa Sens. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire; Roby Smith, R-Davenport; and Jim Lykam, D-Davenport; Iowa Rep. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport; and Illinois Reps. Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island, and Tony McCombie, R-Savanna.

“To remain competitive, the Quad-Cities must not only grow our population but create an educated and skilled workforce that attracts new businesses and ensures current employers have the talent pool that they need to succeed,” said Rhonda Ludwig, director of government affairs at the Quad Cities Chamber. “Public policy that fully funds education and skilled-training programs and assists employees with finding affordable housing and childcare will build a well-equipped workforce for our region and employers.”

Iowa House Republicans on Thursday voted to approve a 2.5% increase in per-pupil education funding, providing an additional more than $170 million in supplemental aid for local school districts.

That would equate to an additional $186 per student for the upcoming fiscal year, increasing per-pupil aid to $7,413 for each student.

Lawmakers also passed a separate bipartisan school funding bill that would provide $19.2 million for schools to address inflation and a teacher shortage. The money would help school districts cover the costs of employing paraeducators, substitute teachers, bus drivers and administrative and support staff due to worker shortages.

Kurth and Lykam argue that’s not enough when inflation is running at 7.5%, and say the state — which is sitting on a $1 billion surplus, a $2 billion tax relief fund and nearly $1 billion in cash reserves — can afford more.

House Democrats have proposed raising per-pupil funding by 5%, arguing schools had been underfunded for over a decade.

“And I think when we talk about drawing talent to our state … we need to spend more time taking care of our education if we want to bring people back into our state,” Kurth said. “We are falling behind.”

Cournoyer, a former Pleasant Valley school board member who serves as the chair of the Education Appropriations Budget Subcommittee in the Iowa Senate, disputed Kurth’s claim.

She noted more than 54% of the state’s $8 billion budget goes toward education and argues lawmakers have increased education funding by more than $1 billion over the last decade.

Davenport parent Holly Green, who attended Friday’s forum, echoed Kurth that a 2.5%-increase is not enough.

Green said she wished Republican state lawmakers would “spend their time, energy and money in Iowa on doing things that would help K-12 schools,” rather than advancing bills focused on restricting books, material and curriculum schools or educators distribute that parents deem obscene.

Green, a mother of five, said her oldest is studying to be a teacher.

“Teachers are doing amazing work in our schools across the state,” Cournoyer said to a question from Green about whether lawmakers will support demoralized and burnout teachers, “instead of maybe making their life a little harder.”

“The books that are being discussed have content in them that are extremely sexually explicit,” Cournoyer said. “We’re not talking about banning ‘Tom Sawyer’ of ‘Huck Finn’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ We’re talking about books that contain explicit sexual content … and don’t see how it’s relevant or appropriate for K-12 public school libraries.”

Cournoyer also stressed her support for increased funding for Iowa’s community colleges and incentivizing school-based apprenticeships, “where businesses are going in and participating in these STEM and CTE programs and really creating those pipelines into these good-paying jobs.”

Lykam as well said he is focused on supporting apprenticeship programs, as well expanding childcare assistance.

Green, after the meeting, said she wished Iowa lawmakers would give a portion of the state’s budget surplus “back to the schools, which are in desperate need at this time.”

Instead, Iowa Senate Republicans plan to use the state’s taxpayer trust fund to provide tax relief to Iowa families and businesses, Smith said.

Republican proposals would phase in a flat personal income tax of 3.6% to 4% for all income brackets, cut corporate taxes and eliminate taxes on retirement income.

“We’re going to look to give some of the money back to the hardworking taxpayers of Iowa that will retain people here,” he said. “That will attract people here. We’re going to get rid of the tax on pensions so that we keep retirees here in Iowa.”

The varying proposal by House and Senate Republicans would save taxpayers — and thus reduce state revenue — anywhere from $1.7 billion to $2 billion.

Ludwig said the chamber is “inclined to be supportive of a reduction in corporate rates,” but questioned how lawmakers propose to account for lost revenue.

Smith said Republicans would pay for tax cuts using state cash reserves and projected economic growth.

“We also going to fund education like we have, health care like we have and also public safety like we have,” Smith said. “And so I’m confident we will do that.”

Lykam argued Senate Republican’s tax reform plans would primarily benefit high-income earners and may not be sustainable.

“I am all for tax cuts, but I’m also for if those tax cuts are coming down to the middle-class — my constituents,” he said. “If you don’t have that income, then you’re going to have to raise fees on services elsewhere in the budget.”

Democrats instead have proposed increasing the child and dependent care tax credit for working Iowans. They say doing so would reduce the amount people owe in taxes and, in some instances, generate annual tax refunds, effectively cutting taxes for low- and middle-income Iowans.

Halpin and McCombie were asked how they would address rising unemployment insurance costs.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed state budget did not include money to pay down the $4.5 billion the state borrowed from the federal government to keep its unemployment insurance trust fund afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor’s office has said negotiations with lawmakers and labor and businesses leaders are ongoing, including using much of about $3.5 billion in remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to pay down the deficit.

McCombie warned that if the state doesn’t take action to pay down the deficit, it could lead to massive unemployment insurance rate hikes on businesses and cuts to benefits for those claiming unemployment.

Halpin said he supports putting much of the state’s $1.7 billion surplus into the unemployment trust fund, “so that cost does not translate into increased cost for business or decrease in benefits for our unemployed workers.”

McCombie added: “It’s extremely important we pay that back. Otherwise, it’s going to cost Illinoians more” either through higher tax rates or reduced benefits.

— Erin Murphy of the Cedar Rapids Gazette contributed reporting to this article

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February 11, 2022 at 04:58PM