Dubuque chamber pushes business disaster fund, airport support with lawmakers

Officials with Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce told area state lawmakers on Thursday that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted important needs that should be addressed during the Legislature’s 2021 session.

Namely, local leaders proposed an at-the-ready small business emergency aid fund and help for the state’s struggling air service.

The year 2020 was no friend to small businesses, according to Rob Reinert, diversity chairman for the chamber’s executive committee, who moderated Thursday’s online Legislative Kick-off. This year’s legislative session starts on Monday, Jan. 11, in Des Moines.

“From coronavirus to the derecho to snowfalls, economically painful disasters seem to be happening more and more often,” Reinert said. “The state has great power and resources to bring to bear.”

So, the centerpiece to the chamber’s COVID-19 pandemic relief priority list was a proposal to create an emergency economic recovery fund.

Iowa Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said such a permanent program was a good idea.

“That way, we have something ready,” she said. “It’s been vetted. We know how to get the money out quickly. If we can learn anything from this coronavirus pandemic, it’s that we weren’t ready.”

She recommended using some of the $47 million left from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allocated to Iowa to fund the program.

Iowa Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, likened the notion to the existing disaster assistance fund for homeowners.

Iowa Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, said she would like such a program in place to help during the current emergency.

“People don’t want to be out in our businesses until they feel safe to be able to be out again,” she said. “We need these types of programs to help in the interim.”

Iowa Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, will chair the Iowa House of Representatives Commerce Committee for the first time this session and is a small business owner. She made no commitment to the chamber’s specific proposal but said lawmakers were hard at work on a litany of bills to help various sectors of Iowa’s economy.

“Specifically, right now, we’re working on one that will help offer relief to bars and restaurants and how we’re going to fund that,” she said. “We know from our chambers and convention and visitors bureaus and our tourism industry — we have so many sectors that have been affected.”

Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, also is the longtime executive director of Eastern Iowa Tourism Association. She said she had been appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds to a task force to develop a recovery strategy for the tourism and hospitality industries.

That tied into another of the chamber’s priorities — relief for Dubuque Regional Airport and similar services. Commercial flights from the Dubuque airport to Chicago resumed in a limited capacity on Wednesday after a three-month hiatus tied to the pandemic and its impacts.

Koelker said helping the state’s airports bounce back was crucial, though she did not know when that could happen.

“We need air service in Iowa for commerce,” she said. “It is a big part of the tourism industry — people traveling to national conventions. Iowa wants to be known for that. But people travel differently now.”

As they did last year, chamber officials also voiced support for Reynolds’s 2020 Invest in Iowa Act, which included a sales tax increase, property tax decrease and funding for natural resources, mental health and child care.

Isenhart voiced little confidence in the measure’s passage in 2021.

“The resistance to some of the ideas we saw last year tells me that a package won’t be received with open arms by many people,” he predicted.

Lundgren, though, said she would be open to hearing other proposals from Democrats, as many of the programs funded through the act remain priorities.