Iowa lawmakers tackle school safety, small business assistance • Iowa Capital Dispatch | #schoolsaftey

Following the shooting at Perry High School, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks reintroduced a bill that seeks to increase school security, while other Iowa lawmakers focused on increasing access to credit for rural areas and assistance for small businesses.

The Senate was on break this week and returns Feb. 26. The House is out next week, returning Feb. 28. 

Here’s what Iowa’s lawmakers were up to this week:

Miller-Meeks reintroduces school security initiative

The Securing Our Schools Act, a bill that would make available state and local fiscal recovery funds for measures to make schools safer, has been reintroduced by Miller-Meeks. 

The measures to make a school safer are defined in the bill and include some of the following:

  • Metal detectors
  • Training to prevent student violence against others and self
  • Training for local law enforcement officers
  • Security assessments
  • Reinforcing or replacing classroom doors
  • Hiring retired law enforcement officers or military veterans to serve as armed school resource officers

“Every child deserves a safe and secure environment to learn and grow,” Miller-Meeks said in a news release. “The Securing Our Schools Act, will allow states to utilize unused, expiring State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to invest in security measures on campus, as well as hire and train more school resource officers.

The bill would also develop a school threat assessment and intervention team and specialized training for school officials in responding to mental health crises. 

Nunn proposes increased rural credit access

With the backing of credit unions, Rep. Zach Nunn introduced a bill that would change how community development financial institutions (CDFI) function. 

The Rural Credit Access Act bill would create an ombudsman’s office to help CDFIs navigate the application process. 

The bill would also develop a process to notify a CDFI if they are at risk of losing their certification, except for instances of fraud or inappropriate behavior.

“CDFIs play a critical role in supporting rural small businesses, community centers, schools and more that may otherwise be considered too risky to receive loans,” Nunn said in a news release. “By improving this program, we can continue to strengthen rural communities by generating jobs and creating new opportunities for families at a time when that investment is needed.”

A CDFI can be designated by the Department of the Treasury if a financial institution serves a rural, underserved or low-income community. A CDFI can then invest in community development projects. 

Iowa is home to nine CDFIs of the 1,462 nationwide. Nunn announced the bill in Des Moines on Monday. 

Farmers face financial formula change under new FAFSA form

Claiming a misunderstanding by the Department of Education of how farm families operate, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst joined a letter to the department to ask for explanations on decisions in the new Federal Application For Student Aid (FAFSA) form. 

Ernst and Grassley joined 12 other senators on behalf of families who farm or have small businesses.

The senators point out one specific part of the application, which requires students to report the net worth of a family’s business or for-profit agricultural operation, calculated with a formula different than the previous application.

“This question fundamentally misunderstands how farm families operate, as the stream of revenue for crops and livestock varies significantly year-over-year, and assets cannot be cashed out to support a loan in the same capacity as traditional investments,” the senators wrote.

The previous formula, the expected family contribution formula, calculated lower expected family contributions compared to the new formula, the student aid index. Assets necessary for inclusion include fair market value for livestock, unharvested crops and machinery. 

“These assets can range well into the millions of dollars, with the price of a combine harvester alone often exceeding $400,000,” the senators wrote. “This, in combination with projected declines in revenue for nearly every agricultural sector for 2023 harvest, indicates Ed lacked critical insight needed to develop this asset reporting requirement.”

Ernst calls for review of small business lending

Ernst and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, are calling for an examination of the role of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) in the broader federal effort to assist veterans, reservists and their spouses with financial literacy and increasing access to capital. 

The senators sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, in which they claim despite the programs available to help veterans operate a business, veterans experience issues starting businesses, particularly when building capital and accessing capital. 

The senators are requesting more information on what challenges stand in the way of veterans accessing capital and the financial literacy programs available to them. Additionally, the senators are asking the GAO to investigate the impacts of deployment and other military responsibilities on credit scores. 

“On Dec. 21, 2023, the GAO released a report titled, ‘Small Business Administration: Procedures for Reporting on Veteran-Owned Businesses Need Improvement,’ which details problems with SBA’s operation of programs designed to support veteran-owned small businesses,” the senators wrote. “The report states that SBA is required by law and regulations to give special consideration to veterans in its lending programs, but the agency has not developed policies and procedures to do so.”

The senators claim the December 2023 report from the GAO shows broader issues created by federal programs tasked with support veterans and their families who are trying to grow small businesses. 

Tax credits for small businesses

Rep. Randy Feenstra introduced a small business-centered bill to create tax credits for offering an employee benefit program. 

The bill would provide credits for start-up costs to businesses offering Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts.

The credits would be limited to businesses with fewer than 100 employees. 

“I’m proud to work with my colleagues to introduce legislation that will make it easier for small businesses to help their employees cover the cost of childcare,” Feenstra said in a news release. “It can be harder for small businesses – which employ the vast majority of Americans – to offer the same types of benefits as larger companies, but with smart policies like this, we can level the playing field and lower childcare expenses for our families.”

Mayorkas impeachment passes House

The House voted a second time to impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, this time passing the vote 214-213. 

Each of Iowa’s four House delegates voted for the impeachment both times. 

“I regret that Secretary Mayorkas has failed to uphold his oath of office and protect our nation from foreign threats,” Feenstra said in a news release. “For this reason and many more, I voted to impeach him for his dereliction of duty to the American people.”

The Senate will address the impeachment next, when the body returns from recess Feb. 26, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. 

“[Mayorkas] has willfully ignored immigration law and released hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants into our country who should have been detained and deported,” Rep. Ashley Hinson said in a news release. “He has continually lied to Congress and the American people about bending and breaking our immigration laws to undermine border security and jeopardize the safety of every American.”

The White House and Democrats in Congress have criticized the impeachment proceedings as politically motivated.

Iowa delegation joins Reynolds’ call for disaster declaration

All six delegates wrote to President Joe Biden, calling for him to grant a request for a disaster declaration for 18 Iowa counties. 

Severe winter storms with blizzard conditions between Jan. 8 and 14 caused “significant damage to public infrastructure and private property,” the lawmakers wrote to Biden. 

Reynolds submitted the request that would activate the Public Assistance Program, saying the weather and its damage were “of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.”

The counties affected include Adair, Black Hawk, Cedar, Clinton, Davis, Delaware, Dubuque, Jefferson, Johnson, Jones, Linn, Lucas, Montgomery, Polk, Scott, Story, Wapello and Washington. 

Ernst probes USDA funding for Chinese research

Ernst sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), asking for information regarding “a collaboration with a Chinese Communist party-linked researcher involving dangerous bird flu experiments and recent support for other animal labs in adversarial nations.”

Ernst said she learned about a link between the USDA and China from the White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit that opposes the use of taxpayer funds for experiments on animals. The project series Ernst is concerned about is the US-UK-China Collab: Predictive Phylogenetics for Evolutionary and Transmission Dynamics of Newly Emerging Avian Influenza Viruses.

The project started in 2021 and is set to finish in 2026. According to the USDA, the project is a series of experiments to “assess the effects of innate and adaptive immunity of evolution of avian influenza viruses, in vitro, and in vivo.”

Ernst asked the USDA for answers, including how much U.S. taxpayer money the project received, a list of activities conducted in conjunction with the “CCP-run Chinese Academy of Sciences and researchers affiliated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology” and if any experiments for the series of projects will be conducted in laboratories in China. 

Ernst said she supports research for avian influenza, though she also believes the research “should not involve the forced mutation of a virus to become more deadly, especially in unsafe Chinese labs that do not adhere to the absolute highest safety standards.”

Grassley seeks clarification on Hur report

Grassley is continuing concerns that the Department of Justice special report on its investigation into the mishandling of classified documents by Biden. 

Grassley wrote a letter to the Department of Justice and FBI along with Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. In the letter, Grassley and Johnson ask for clarification of whether additional boxes involved in the Biden classified documents investigation were reviewed by special counsel Robert Hur. 

The senators claim there is a “significant factual omission in Hur’s report, and ask for the FBI and Department of Justice to release the contents of the aforementioned additional boxes. 

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