WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL)- Senator Joni Ernst stopped in Waterloo Thursday morning as part of her 99 county tour across the state. Iowa's junior senator started her day at UNI's Center for Urban Education. While there, she met with students, staff, and UNI leaders to learn about UNI-CUE's programs, their work, and how she can help from Washington.
Ernst was particularly impressed with two students who she met during her visit.
"It is exceptional the opportunities they have been presented with they've seized upon and are doing quite well," Sen. Ernst said.
UNI-CUE works with students from low-income families who would be the first generation to go to college.
"It means so much for getting people into college," University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook told Ernst. "A variety of programs focused on increasing access to people who might not even think about it."
UNI-CUE's work includes the Trio programs, which are federally funded programs that help prepare students for college. The Trio program includes the Educational Talent Search, Classic Upward Bound, and the Educational Opportunity Center.
"Without those Trio programs, there would be a lot of students that would not be where they are today in their educational settings," Assistant Director Megan Holbach. "So just that importance of her support and knowing what we have to offer and how she can help on the legislative side moving forward."
UNI-CUE also helps adults who are interested in going to college and partners with UNI College of Education students to tutor K-12 kids.
"Funding matters, but people's dreams and people beginning to live and be productive citizens mean more than anything," Executive Director Robert Smith said.
Thursday was Ernst's second visit to UNI-CUE. Her first visit a few years ago focused on the Education Opportunity Center, but Thursday's stop included a full tour of all of the programs and services.
"Waterloo has this tremendous opportunity to reach out not only to the urban community here but surrounding counties and encouraging folks to get involved," Ernst said. "Whether through their school go on to post-secondary education, and just do better in their lives for their families for themselves."
Ernst echoed concerns from Gov. Reynolds and other state leaders about access to broadband internet in certain areas. The issue took on a newfound level of importance in 2020 with virtual learning and working from home. Solving the issue is a top priority for Reynolds and Republican state lawmakers.
"If you're a child that comes from an area community or a family that doesn't have access to the same level of broadband internet, maybe doesn't have parents that are staying home to assist, we're seeing a greater divide with those students," Ernst said. "We need to make sure that we are properly educating our children so that they're not falling behind their peers."
Ernst said she believes the federal government is doing enough to get schools back on track after the pandemic.
"Unfortunately, in the last plan that was passed by a very partisan divide. A lot of the money that was directed to our schools won't be spent until many years in the future," Ernst said. "We need to invest in our schools right now and make sure that those children are given every opportunity to succeed."
Ernst discussed other non-education-related issues, including President Biden's $2.3 trillion plan to re-engineer the nation’s roads, bridges, and other infrastructure over the next eight years.
It also includes funding health and broadband systems and community care for seniors, and innovation research and development.
Biden has proposed hiking the U.S. corporate tax rate to 28% from 21% to help pay for his proposal, an idea Republican leaders are panning as harmful to economic growth.
Ernst said she has serious concerns about the plan.
"When you look at the overall proposal, only 6% of the bill is geared towards our roads and bridges. There is more in this bill that goes towards electric vehicles than our roads and waterways," Ernst said. "If we are spending that level of money, it really does need to be focused on what we consider infrastructure. We have roads and bridges across the state of Iowa that need improvement."
Ernst also weighed in on the series of executive actions to address gun violence President Biden unveiled on Thursday.
Biden tightened regulations of ghost guns, which are homemade firearms typically assembled by the buyer. He also tightened rules on pistol-stabilizing braces. The new rule will designate these pistols as short-barreled rifles, which require a federal license to own.
Within 60 days, the Justice Department will publish model legislation that will make it easier for states to adopt their own red flag laws. These laws allow people to petition a court to allow police to take weapons from a person deemed a danger to themselves or other people.
Ernst said she wanted to take a closer look at Biden's executive orders to make sure it does not infringe on constitutional rights.
"I do get concerned when people start talking about our rights as they're laid out in the constitution and trying to pull some of that back," Ernst said. "We will hear what the President has to say. I hate that he's doing this by executive order instead of working through the Congress."
Ernst's stop in Waterloo was her first of four on the day. She also stopped in Amana, Washington, and Clinton.