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Iowa Senate Democratic leader says addressing workforce shortage is the top priority for 2022

John Pemble
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls says addressing the state’s workforce shortage is going to be Democrats' main priority during the legislative session that starts in January.

The top Democrat in the Iowa Senate says addressing the state’s workforce shortage is going to be the main priority for the minority party during the legislative session that starts in January.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the workforce shortage was a top concern in the state before the pandemic, but now it’s even worse. In an interview Tuesday with IPR, he said Democrats will be working on proposals to solve the problem.

“That’s where, one, there’s the ability of state policymakers to really move the needle,” Wahls said. “And two, whether it’s on the employer side or the employee side, I think that’s the biggest concern that folks have.”

Wahls said Senate Democrats want the state to invest more in community colleges and workforce training, which he said would include boosting funding for the Future Ready Iowa programs spearheaded by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.

And he said lawmakers should take bold action on improving access to child care and affordable housing after taking “a small step” earlier this year.

The Republican-led legislature fixed the child care assistance “cliff effect” this year by allowing Iowans to phase out of child care assistance instead of just losing it as soon as their income increases slightly.

But Wahls said the state should allow more Iowans to qualify for financial help with child care costs.

“Really expanding eligibility for child care assistance is one thing that would not just lower economic pressure on households, but would also mean that more parents would be able to afford child care and would therefore be able to get back in the workforce and help solve the workforce crisis,” Wahls said. “We don’t need a task forceto tell us that.”

Wahls said the legislature should also remove the cap on funding for local housing trust funds after raising it last year to let more money flow into affordable housing programs.

Overall, Wahls said Reynolds and the GOP statehouse majority are responsible for what Democratic and Republican officials are calling a “workforce crisis,” and he accused them of using “culture war issues” to distract Iowans from that. The labor shortage is currently a nationwide issue.

Alex Murphy, a spokesperson for Reynolds’ office, said in an email that the Biden administration’s “excessive handouts” have discouraged people from returning to the workforce.

“Gov. Reynolds has met with numerous businesses across the state, announced grant opportunities for child care, housing, broadband, manufacturing, among many other initiatives all directly relating to solving the workforce shortage,” Murphy said. “She will remain strongly committed to solving the workforce crisis in our state and ensuring that unemployed Iowans have the resources needed to return to the workforce.”

Many of these recent grant opportunities were made possible by the pandemic relief funding passed under the Biden administration.

Reynolds recently announced Iowans receiving unemployment benefits will soon have more work search requirements, which she said would help address the workforce shortage. Wahls said he doesn’t think that will solve the problem.

Wahls responds to GOP tax cut plans

Republican senators have said they want to use the more than $1 billion surplus to overhaul Iowa’s income tax system, with the goal of eliminating the state income tax.

Wahls said that could be a “catastrophe” for the state, as it would amount to cutting nearly half the state budget and possibly lead to higher sales taxes.

“Our whole position on tax policy generally is it has to be fair,” Wahls said. “And there’s nothing fair about this massive tax cut for the wealthiest Iowans at, essentially, the expense of cutting services for Iowans who depend on those services and that support.”

Wahls says any tax relief should be targeted to people who need it.

GOP lawmakers have not yet released a specific tax proposal.

The 2022 legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 10.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter