With the 2021 Iowa Legislative session adjourned, United Way of Central Iowa sees big successes across our Legislative Priorities.

On Wednesday May 19, 2021, Iowa legislators adjourned the 2021 Legislative session sine die, or without any future date being designated to resume. Despite it being an unprecedented legislative session due to the pandemic, it concluded with a significant number of bills passed – some we’ve been advocating for throughout the past several years – that will make significant improvements in our new strategic focus, UNITED to THRIVE, and what we’re calling the 5 Elements of a Thriving Community: Essential Needs, Early Childhood Success, Education Success, Economic Opportunity, and Health & Well-being.


Impacting: Essential Needs, Early Childhood Success, Economic Opportunity

Child care can be a key barrier to families thriving in our state. Iowa is tied for first in the nation for the number (75 percent) of parents or guardians of children under the age of 6 who work. With the passing of HF 302 by both chambers, the bill works to smooth the childcare “cliff effect” and help families prepare for market-rate childcare. The “cliff effect” can happen when a family increases their annual income, and that increase puts them over the limit to receive government childcare benefits – making it nearly impossible to afford market-rate care.

The bill extends the exit of the state’s Child Care Assistance program to 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines with a cost-sharing sliding scale for families as they approach the exit. United Way of Central Iowa and our childcare partners have long worked to address system-level challenges in our state’s childcare environment. This bill marks a major milestone in our advocacy to help more families reach self-sufficiency!

The state Child Dependent Tax Credit was also expanded to allow families who earn up to $90,000 per year to benefit. This was previously capped at $45,000 in annual household income. This measure will support more middle-income families who also face the already high, and increasing, cost of quality childcare. “Increasing that ceiling to $90,000 brings a whole other sector of working families into eligibility for that program,” said Joe Murphy, Executive Director of the Iowa Business Council and Vice Chair of Advocacy on the United Way of Central Iowa Executive Committee, to the Business Record. “Child care is a huge win for working families and for general workforce development.”

Childcare providers will also see an influx of new revenue from an increase in Child Care Assistance reimbursement rates. United Way of Central Iowa previously advocated to increase reimbursements to 75 percent of the 2014 market rate in 2018. This new change brings reimbursement to 50 percent of 2020 market rates, and though it is not yet equitable, it is a major increase from prior levels. This reimbursement helps provider revenues and supports a strong, stable childcare environment that improves the quality of their students’ care and education.

Tax Exemption for Food Bank and Pantry System

Impacts: Essential Needs, Economic Opportunity, Health & Well-being 

The House omnibus bill, SF 619, which includes exemptions for the food bank and pantry system from state sales taxes was also passed this session. United Way and our food security partners consider this multi-year effort another success!

Food security partners will now be exempted from state sales taxes on things like office supplies or capital goods like refrigeration and trucks to deliver food, saving the system roughly $190,000 per year. The food bank and pantry system has huge buying power – so by reducing that yearly collection of $190,000, they could, in turn, purchase an additional million pounds of food to serve Iowans experiencing hunger. We anticipate the impact of those funds will far outweigh any benefit to the state in collecting those taxes.

Mental Health Funding

Impacts: Health & Well-being

Mental Health funding had some major shifts from a property-tax based system to a direct appropriation from the legislature. The Coalition to Advance Mental Health in Iowa for Kids (CAMHI4Kids) has advocated for an adequate, sustainable, and predictable funding stream to unify the system and ensure equity of services across the state. This funding change is a return to the pre-1996 funding model our state previously used. Similar to education funding, the legislature will need to debate and decide mental health funding on an annual basis.

Payment parity for mental health services provided via telehealth was a COVID-19 measure put into place by gubernatorial proclamation and has now been made permanent in law. This measure allows those services to be paid at 100 percent. This is a critically important strategy to provide services in rural areas of the state and areas where providers are unavailable. 

Broadband Expansion

Impacting: Education Success, Economic Opportunity, Health & Well-being

Equitable access to broadband (high-speed internet), was a new focus for United Way of Central Iowa this year. With the pandemic changing the nature of work, learning, and accessing some forms of medical care – along with last summer’s derecho – the need for infrastructure investment to create equitable access to quality, affordable broadband became a key priority.

For many Iowans, access to high-speed internet is limited to due to lack of infrastructure or service providers – particularly in rural areas. Dead zones exist in our urban communities as well, with limited options for affordable internet access. Some families in our community also struggle with the up-front and ongoing costs of internet access. Progress was made this year with HF 848, an investment in broadband development to expand access to underserved areas of the state. 

We are currently 45th in the nation in terms of broadband access. It’s our hope that this kind of expansion will help foster learning from anywhere, enhance telehealth options, and allow those who need it the ability to work remotely. More needs to be done and it's going to be a decades-long effort to get Iowa modernized. We will continue to advocate for being future ready and look for new models and new technology to ensure children and families have the access and supports they need.

Oral Health Success

Impacting: Health & Well-being

HF 390 was signed into law on April 30. The new law requires public water systems to notify residents/users when water fluoridation is discontinued. Water fluoridation started in Iowa in 1951 and has served as one of our country’s best public health actions – reducing instances of oral diseases, such as tooth decay, by 25 percent across all age groups. This legislation was a key priority of United Way's Oral Health Iowa coalition.  

Affordable Housing

Impacting: Economic Opportunity, Health & Well-being

Legislative action included an expansion of workforce housing tax credits, a disaster recovery assistance program, and an eviction prevention program. The State Housing Trust Fund also saw an increase from $3 million to $7 million. 

One setback from this session, SF 252, was signed into law by the Governor on April 30. The new law restricts local governments from enacting legal source of income ordinances – ordinances United Way of Central Iowa's OpportUNITY initiative has worked to advance with the City of Des Moines. Legal source of income ordinances prevent landlords from denying potential tenants based solely on their source of income: like housing vouchers or other assistance. Many families have reported difficulty securing safe and suitable housing when using federal Section 8 housing vouchers or other benefits like social security disability payments. United Way of Central Iowa advocated against this legislation.


The legislation passed during this year’s session was a huge victory for United Way of Central Iowa, our community, and our entire state. But we know there is still a lot more work to do to create a thriving central Iowa. United Way of Central Iowa will continue to be responsible stewards of donor dollars and invest our resources toward improving the lives of every person in our community. As we await the 2022 legislative session, United Way of Central Iowa will continue advocating for efforts that directly and equitably impact the 5 elements of a Thriving Community.

Want to join us? Learn how you can advocate with United Way of Central Iowa at www.unitedwaydm.org/advocate

If you want to get updates throughout the session next year, go to our advocacy page and sign up to receive our Legislative Update.


Topics: Essential Needs, Mental Health, Early Childhood Success, Economic Opportunity, Education Success

Dave Stone

Written by Dave Stone

Dave Stone is the Advocacy Officer for United Way of Central Iowa.