Quad-City legislators on Saturday debated ways to close Iowa's workforce gap, including raising wages, building affordable housing and supporting higher education.
Local state representatives and senators fielded questions from the public during a legislative forum at Davenport Central High School.
Questions ranged from providing school funding to increasing access to public transportation. But a common thread appeared: A multifaceted approach is needed to boost Iowa's population, fill jobs and prepare the future workforce.
"There is not a county in the state where an individual who makes only minimum wage can afford an apartment," Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said. "As we think about the needs of the workforce and the need for additional workers, building affordable housing is one thing. But there are two sides to that coin. Being able to afford housing has a lot to do with what you're receiving in wages."
She promoted raising the minimum wage, plus reevaluating the multi-residential tax break given to apartments and other properties, arguing the rollback in taxes is contributing to rising rental prices.
Both Iowa Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, and Sen. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, supported expanding the state's workforce housing tax credits program. It provides incentives to housing developers, especially for projects using abandoned or dilapidated properties.
They also advocated for improvements to the state's child care assistance program, including phasing out — rather than eliminating — assistance for parents after their income increases.
Lofgren pushed for a bill that would create a program for inmates to earn work experience while building homes for low-income individuals around the state.
Several of the lawmakers argued Gov. Kim Reynolds' Future Ready Iowa initiative is a step in the right direction, aiming to boost the workforce by equipping the population with post-secondary training and education. Cournoyer said funding the initiative will be critical this year.
Winckler said Future Ready Iowa doesn't go far enough. She said businesses need incentives to help employees pay off student debt and raise wages, to attract more workers to the state.
The lawmakers shared differing views on what the future of legal marijuana should look like in Iowa.
In 2017, the legislature allowed medical marijuana to be manufactured at two locations and dispensed at five sites, including in Davenport. The dispensaries opened this winter.
State Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, and Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said they do not support legalizing recreational marijuana.
Mohr said the medical marijuana legislation is "still a good bill ... but I think we need to watch it for a few years to see how it works."
Others said Iowa's list of conditions approved for medical marijuana is too limited. Some advocated for raising the THC cap on products. Dispensaries are allowed to sell products with up to 3 percent THC, or the component in marijuana that produces the "high."
"I think we're moving toward liberation in terms of marijuana laws," Rep. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport, said. "At the current time, I'm very concerned about medical marijuana and the number of conditions approved ... I am also concerned that it's difficult for people to get the card they need to participate in the medical marijuana program."
Kurth, Cournoyer and Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, said they support raising the THC cap on medical marijuana products.
"We really do need to look at the higher THC levels. It doesn't do you very much good if you're taking 30 to 40 pills and barely get the minimum result," Thede said. "And with recreational marijuana, we're going to have to look at California and Colorado, who have done a good job, and look at how they're doing their sales. This could be a boom to Iowa financially."
Most of the lawmakers at the forum agreed Iowa’s shift to private management of Medicaid has been plagued with problems. Some believe that's about to improve.
Winckler argued the managed care organizations are continuing to raise payments without "providing additional services or even restoring the services individuals aren't receiving." She supports moving the program back to state management.
Mommsen said the program should improve with more safeguards in place.
"This past session, the Iowa House passed three times a bill to make (managed care organizations) more accountable and increased transparency. That's a huge portion of the new contracts being written," he said. "I believe we all agree we would have done it differently. There's been mistakes made ... But I believe with the new safeguards in place, the system will begin to work much better."
Sen. Jim Lykam, D-Davenport, said the privatization of Medicaid is the main complaint he hears from constituents.
"The working poor do not have a lobbyist and they're being denied service," he said.