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Legislature works to revitalize rural Iowa

Iowa is a rural state and its people have great pride in the bustling communities that dot our state. Countless Iowans grew up and continue to live in small-town Iowa because of the great quality of life that our rural communities offer.

As state lawmakers, it is our responsibility to ensure that Iowans living across our state continue to have abundant opportunities to live, work, and raise a family in small-town Iowa. Whether it is economic development, health care, or education, the Legislature must continue to make rural Iowa a priority and keep our small communities vibrant and growing.

One of the key elements to attracting and growing businesses and services in any area is access to reliable broadband internet service. While cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids have had no trouble getting this critical piece of infrastructure, high-speed internet access has been very slow to arrive in many of our smaller towns. Rather than continue to wait, Governor Reynolds and the Legislature have provided funding to help communities jump start the process and invest in broadband access.

Another element to help businesses grow is to ensure that workers have access to affordable housing options. This past session, the Legislature expanded a workforce housing program by earmarking a portion of these credits to help spur development specifically in rural counties and cities. Fort Dodge is already using these incentives effectively, and the Legislature’s action this session will allow new rural communities to tap into this successful program as well.

These broadband and housing programs were both key priorities of Governor Reynolds’ Empower Rural Iowa Act, which the Legislature passed unanimously this session. Empower Rural Iowa is a great step forward to improve our rural communities and the Legislature will continue working on these issues in future sessions. However, revitalizing rural Iowa will take more than just reliable internet and affordable housing.

Having a skilled workforce is another factor in growing our rural communities. This year the state put its money where its mouth is and funded the Future Ready Iowa program. The $13 million appropriated will help Iowans pay for community college degrees in high-demand fields where skilled workers are most needed in our towns. Additionally, the Legislature increased funding for Iowa’s community colleges which local businesses depend on in to help train and prepare workers for fulfilling careers and higher wages.

Building and growing businesses in rural Iowa requires strong communities. At the center of these towns are good schools and accessible healthcare which is why the Legislature took several steps this year to build on these foundations.

As usual, one of the first decisions made by the General Assembly was the amount of funding to be dedicated to our schools. This upcoming school year, Iowa will invest nearly $3.3 billion into our K-12 system, an all-time high. This calculation now includes dedicated funding to help rural districts pay for getting kids to and from school. Until last year, every dollar spent on a bus route was a dollar that was taken away from the classroom. Starting with the 2018-2019 school year, the state now has a dedicated fund to assist districts with the cost of getting kids to school. Next fall, schools across rural Iowa will get $19 million to reduce these unequal transportation costs.

Having high quality health care services in our communities is critical in attracting and keeping families and businesses. That is why the Legislature again provided enhanced Medicaid rates to rural and small-town hospitals through the Critical Access Hospital program. However, having a hospital means little if you don’t have providers, which is why the Legislature created additional training opportunities for mental health providers, including rotations in rural communities. Once a provider has completed their training, communities will have additional resources to attract and retain these professionals.

Working together, we have made great strides to help Iowa’s small to mid-sized cities grow and thrive. Over the interim, legislators will continue to listen to folks in our districts to identify new ways to revitalize rural Iowa and support our small-town communities.

Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge, represents Iowa House District 9.

Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson, represents Iowa House District 47.