FAIRFIELD – U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley spoke to members of the Fairfield Economic Development Association during a business roundtable discussion Wednesday morning at the new economic association’s speculative building on 227th Street.
Two to three dozen people attended the event, where chairs were placed more than 6 feet apart and where the audience got some respite from the simmering temperatures outside courtesy of some large fans inside.
Grassley fielded a wide variety of questions from the business leaders in attendance, such as from veterinarian and former Iowa Rep. Phil Miller, who asked Grassley about how the federal government can speed up the roll out of rural broadband.
Miller recalled the importance of farmers gaining electricity and running water decades ago and said high quality and reliable internet is the next major infrastructure improvement rural residents need.
Grassley said improvements to rural broadband would likely be in a more general infrastructure bill, which he thought would not be passed this year. Grassley agreed with Miller’s sentiment that it was an important issue, noting that the recent pandemic has shown how valuable internet is for distance education and telecommuting.
Jefferson County Supervisor Dee Sandquist asked Grassley about the recent stimulus designed to boost the economy and how it was designed to benefit businesses instead of local governments. She urged Grassley to “leave the door open” to helping local governments in the future, since they’re suffering budget shortfalls from things such as reduced sales taxes, gas taxes and other revenue streams.
Sandquist said she was grateful that the community received a COVID-19 emergency grant for food insecurity, which has paid for meals in the town of Lockridge, serving 80 people in the past two weeks. She told Grassley to keep an eye on price-gouging laws especially for long-term care facilities, which she said are being faced with much higher prices than normal.
Cambridge Investment Research CEO Amy Webber asked Grassley for his thoughts on how to attract and educate a quality workforce.
Grassley used the opportunity to talk about a bill he’s working on called “Know Before You Owe,” which seeks to provide counseling to students to educate them about federal student loans with an eye toward helping them reduce how much money they borrow.
He said some colleges such as the University of Northern Iowa have taken steps along these lines and have been able to reduce the amount of money students borrow.
Seth Miller, attorney for Cambridge, asked Grassley if he had heard about a U.S. Supreme Court justice stepping down and if the Senate would be able to replace one if he did. Grassley said he had heard Samuel Alito was interested in retiring, but so far nothing official has been announced.
Although he is no longer chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, Grassley said he hopes chair Lindsay Graham would follow the “Biden Rule,” an unwritten agreement whereby Supreme Court justices are not replaced in an election year. It is named after a speech given by then Sen. Joe Biden in 1992 urging President George H.W. Bush not to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. Grassley held up the nomination of Merrick Garland to be a Supreme Court justice when then President Barack Obama nominated him in 2016.
Ken Ross asked Grassley for his thoughts on the recent announcement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that foreign students must leave the country if their university switches to online-only classes. Ross said the rule makes no sense, that it’s counterproductive and that it will lead to layoffs at universities, especially those like Maharishi International University in Fairfield that rely on a large number of international students. Ross said 15 percent of university students are from foreign countries.
Grassley said he didn’t know why the Department of Homeland Security announced that rule. Grassley didn’t take a position one way or the other but seemed open to changing the rule by talking about ways Congress could alter it, such as by a unanimous consent vote. He said it could even be included in the CARES Act, but the legislation would have to be drafted quickly before the Senate’s Aug. 6 summer break and before fall classes begin.
Melanie Carlson asked Grassley want can be done about youth suicides, remarking that suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids aged 10-19. Grassley said the issue, particularly as it relates to mental health, is usually handled at the local level. He said that there seems to be a shortage of psychiatrists.
Later, Mayor Connie Boyer took the microphone and remarked on how her husband works in the mental health field but was not reimbursed sufficiently through Medicaid, and that partly explains the lack of mental health resources available.