Several bills circulating through the Legislature this year may be damaging Iowa’s brand and hindering the state’s goal of attracting and retaining top talent, some business leaders say.
In some cases, those bills have caused companies to cross Iowa off their list of places they were considering.
Bills such as those that would require transgender people to use restrooms of their assigned sex at birth in schools and those that would ban tenure at the state regents’ universities, are damaging Iowa’s reputation on the national and world stage, the leaders said.
Even if the bills don’t become law, they’re sending a message that Iowa is not a welcoming state, said Geoff Wood, founder of Gravitate Coworking, who raised his concerns during Wednesday’s Capital Crossroads meeting and discussed them further with the Business Record.
“We’re behind the ball … when you have a Legislature that’s focusing on things that are unwelcoming to new people and unwelcoming to people who are different in any way,” Wood said in a conversation with the Business Record. “I think we had big hopes coming out of COVID with remote work that people would move to places like Iowa, that they didn’t need to be next to their office in Manhattan or in San Francisco. But why would those people look here right now? Or if they are looking here, what are they seeing? We’re really just not showcasing that we’re a welcoming place.”
During the Capital Crossroads meeting, Wood said the issue of Iowa’s brand is “really being felt in the entrepreneurial community based on what’s happening in the Legislature.”
“People are rethinking about coming to Iowa because of the brand they see with our state,” Wood said. “We may know a lot of these things won’t actually become law, but they’re one step from becoming law and maybe next session they will, so people are thinking those through.”
Rick Sanders, president and director of the Iowa State University Research Park, said during Wednesday’s meeting that ISU was in competition with Purdue and the University of Illinois on three different projects with companies that are considering moving innovation centers to one of the institutions.
“Three weeks ago we felt we were right there; now all three have dropped us … and two of them were bold enough to tell us one of the primary reasons they dropped us is what’s going on at the Capitol right now,” Sanders said.
In a later conversation with the Business Record, Sanders declined to name the companies citing Research Park policies not to disclose specifics about potential companies looking to locate there.
Sanders said the companies never attributed their concerns to just one bill, but general comments they made alluded to the issues relating to the tenure bills and those surrounding repercussions that occurred in North Carolina after a bill was introduced in 2016 restricting use of restrooms by transgender residents. That measure resulted in widespread political and economic damage to the state. A controversial compromise bill was enacted in 2017, but parts of that legislation expired last year.
Sanders said he sees a disconnect between the measures being talked about in Des Moines and the state’s workforce development goals.
“If it is our goal to draw more people and more of the best and brightest who are working on world-changing kinds of products, then we need to have policies in place that are welcoming to all people,” he said.
“If you’ve never been to Iowa and you think about what people who have not been to Iowa think of Iowa, and then you add a caveat like maybe we’re not going to be welcoming to all people or maybe we’re not going to encourage the best and brightest to stay, then that would give you a little different connotation if you didn’t already know what a great place this already was,” Sanders said. “Anything we do as Iowans that doesn’t represent us putting our best foot forward and showing that we want them here, hinders any of us who are working to recruit that next generation of the great brain power that’s out there.”
Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, CEO of Proteus, also spoke during Wednesday’s Capital Crossroads meeting, saying Iowa is a leader in the country in anti-LGBTQ bills, especially those targeting transgender individuals.
“Think about how the introduction of policies from the most powerful people in our state impact their lives,” he said.
The simple introduction of the bills increases the suicidal ideation and emotional issues faced by young people in the community, Hoffman-Zinnel said.
“This is not what’s going to attract and retain the best talent,” he said.
State Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, agreed that the introduction of the bills alone is damaging to the state’s image.
“It’s sending the message that we’re willing to consider legislation that’s intolerant and that doesn’t recognize the existence of certain individuals or that we’re willing to advance legislation that hurts academic freedom. So even if those bills don’t pass, they’re not good for Iowa’s reputation and just their introduction can have a chilling effect on how people perceive our state,” said Konfrst, who serves as Minority Whip in the Iowa House.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said the bills “will harm Iowa business climate and reputation,” and said they are “putting a chilling effect on efforts to attract a young, diverse workforce.”
Dave Tucker, a partner in Next Level Ventures, a Des Moines-based venture capital firm, and a board member at the Technology Association of Iowa, also expressed concern about how bills under consideration at the Statehouse are affecting Iowa’s brand.
“Companies that I talk to outside of Iowa wonder what we’re thinking,” Tucker said. “One company who we were talking to, trying to convince them to come to Iowa, saw the bathroom bill and said, ‘What the [heck] are you thinking? Didn’t you see what happened in North Carolina when they tried to pass this bill?’ And they questioned if Iowa was really the right place.”
Tucker said in some cases companies “were just kind of making fun of Iowa.”
Bills that would provide incentives to workers to move to Iowa have gained no traction in the session this year, which Tucker said was frustrating.
“That’s what troubles me, there are efforts to incentivize people to come to Iowa, but they’re being drowned out by bills that are grabbing the headlines,” Tucker said. “Frankly, some of those calls are just embarrassing to be on when they start making fun of Iowa and the headlines that are coming up in Iowa.”
Tucker said the issue isn’t about conservative or liberal values, but that public perception does make a difference.
“I want people to consider what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “If you want Iowa to grow, then think about the reputation that is being promoted.”