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A presidential race with major developments and an Iowa legislature trudging through mid-session negotiations, all while a global pandemic threatens the health, safety and economic future of Iowans. We look behind the headlines with a reporters' roundtable on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, March 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   

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Yepsen: Political news in 2020 has been off to a blistering pace. Events of this past week are no different. As former Vice President Joe Biden gains an upper hand in the 2020 democratic nomination, back here in Des Moines the Iowa legislature is in the midst of a slow moving session. And all of these headlines have been surpassed by the global pandemic of coronavirus. To discuss the fast moving news we have gathered a reporters' roundtable. Caroline Cummings covers the Iowa legislature for Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Brianne Pfannenstiel is the Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Thanks everybody for being with us, joining us here today. Kay, we'll start with you, coronavirus. What has been the effect of this pandemic on the Iowa Statehouse?

Henderson: Well, it has been business as usual all week long. As we sit here having this discussion I think it's worth noting for our viewers that we're having this discussion on Friday morning late. The Governor is scheduled to speak to us and to the rest of Iowa later, early in the evening, and we will also be getting new numbers. As we're sitting here right now sort of midday on Friday we know there are 16 positive cases in the state, 15 are related to an Egyptian cruise. As we talked with legislators this week they're relying on the advice of public health officials and the Governor's guidance as to what to do regarding shortening the session, not having the session, limiting visitors. But again, business as usual.

Yepsen: Erin, what is the effect on legislation?

Murphy: As Kay said, not a whole lot at this point. Legislative leaders have said that we're going to continue to treat this session as normal as possible until that guidance from the state public health department changes. So the pace hasn't really changed, we've got another funnel week coming up where legislation has to be done, past a certain level to stay alive. But there hasn't been any indication yet of any change in the process and that includes to speeding up legislation or getting to the budget sooner maybe than they would have done. It's very much business as normal.

Yepsen: No talk of needing any statutory authority to deal with any of these problems?

Henderson: We've asked and the legislative leaders have told us that they're waiting for the Governor's guidance and have not yet received any.

Yepsen: Well, the Governor has enormous power, never been used or not used very often, under public health to make those changes. I was just curious if there has been any talk of changes to the statutes. Caroline, what about the effect on state revenues? The state revenue estimating conference, or REC as it is called, met last week. What did they have to say?

Cummings: Yeah, they met actually just yesterday about this and they were talking about how it's too early to tell how this COVID-19 could affect the state's revenues. What we do know is that this budget year that ends June 30th should be pretty much held harmless because most of that money is already in the bank. However, they have said because this is rapidly changing so quickly, even from the original discussions they had before this meeting so much had changed in just 24 hours, that they're willing to reconvene if they have to reassess their numbers. But right now we're looking at 1.8% growth for the next fiscal year starting in July. And I'll just point out one thing about legislative action, the lawmakers have said that they would be willing to tap into emergency funds if that is needed for testing and those sorts of things and they feel confident that that won't affect what their budget is looking like for this upcoming budget year, which they have to craft that budget before session adjourns.

Yepsen: This is something that none of us in our lifetimes have confronted. The state has dealt with flood emergencies and tornado emergencies, but never a pandemic. We have to go back 100 years. Do you have a sense that legislators feel like they're in uncharted waters here?

Cummings: They have been very cool, calm and collected. As Erin and Kay kind of noted, business as usual, waiting for kind of the directive from the Health Department as well as the Governor. But as the republicans who are in control have consistently said both in the Senate and the House, hey we've put forward conservative budgeting practices for the past few years. So they're saying they feel confident of if something needed to happen where they were writing supplemental money or emergency funds that they would be equipped to deal with it. Now, when we ask more specific questions about do you think the state is prepared when we only have a limited scope of testing for the millions of Iowans that live in this state, they kind of balk and don't really answer that question. So I think that is something that we'll continue to observe of how the state handles this pandemic going forward.

Yepsen: As economic activity seizes up that is going to have an effect on state tax revenues. Brianne, what about politics? What has been the effect on campaigning?

Pfannenstiel: Well, when we think about campaigning in Iowa or any place it is a retail enterprise, right. There's lots of hand shaking, there's lots of face-to-face conversations and pats on the back and all of a sudden that has become a real liability for these campaigns and the candidates and the people who attend these events. So we're already starting to see some candidates scale back their efforts right now and say, we're asking our staff to work from home, we're canceling face-to-face events, they're moving some of those things online. I think we'll start to see more Facebook Live, virtual town halls like we saw when Senators were in Washington, D.C. for the impeachment trials. But we're also starting to see it play out as the caucuses progress. Both of the state parties need to hold their county conventions soon. The republicans have said that they will move forward with theirs, which are this Saturday. The democrats have said that they're going to postpone theirs. Those are scheduled for March 21st and they have not scheduled a date but they said they're going to be looking for guidance from public health officials for when that is best to allow people to convene. The national parties have to decide whether they're going to move forward with their national conventions. These are massive gatherings of people.

Murphy: And if you want an example of how serious this is being taken, Chuck Grassley canceled some of his town hall meetings, the famous Chuck Grassley town halls that he holds to complete his 99 county tour. Obviously Chuck Grassley is in that dangerous age range for people who contract this virus and could react to it more severely than other people. So that shows that he is taking this seriously by not holding those public events, for now anyways, which again, like Brianne alluded to, shaking a lot of hands and talking to a lot of people face-to-face.

Henderson: We saw Beto O'Rourke sort of build a national presence because he did things on "Facebook Live" and so it will be interesting to see this dynamic of how these five sort of unknown candidates who are hoping to challenge Joni Ernst, who is sort of a run on commodity in Iowa, can sort of generate interest between now and the first Tuesday in June when voters are going to have to decide, hey do I know the name of one of these people and will I vote for them?

Yepsen: Well, maybe it's not all bad. The Biden/Sanders debate on Sunday is not going to be in front of a crowd. And people are saying, oh that's terrible. But I don't know, Kennedy/Nixon and Howard K. Smith. Brianne, what do you think? Do you think it could actually be a more civil debate?

Pfannenstiel: That's a great question. We've seen the crowds really interact differently over the many debates that we've had over this presidential cycle and so sometimes the candidates can really feed off the crowd, sometimes it can kind of take away from the civility.

Murphy: I've moderated some debates where I wish there hadn't been a crowd so I'm interested to see how this will be.

Yepsen: So have I, Erin. Erin, the filing deadline for legislative races was Friday. What is the dynamic there? What is happening on re-elects?

Murphy: Well, one of the most interesting things that we've seen is the number of retirements in the legislature and that is always, I don't want to go too far with this because that's not uncommon, there's always retirements, especially in the House where terms are up every two years. But if my numbers are right, 9 House retirements among republicans and 7 in the Senate and democrats already feeling emboldened about their chances to flip control of the Iowa House in particular, only need to flip 4 seats to do that. So when they see those retirements that gives them even more confidence that there are some openings there for them.

Henderson: And the new leadership in the Iowa House, Pat Grassley, who is the grandson of Senator Chuck Grassley, indicating that they are hoping to target members of the House in districts where Joni Ernst won, Donald Trump won and Kim Reynolds won and by their calculation there are 8 of those and they have recruited republican candidates to challenge those democratic incumbents.

Yepsen: Didn't the democrats get a real break when Senator Schneider decided not to seek re-election?

Murphy: Well, the democrats would tell you he was on the ropes anyways in that district that is starting to trend more democratic and that he was in trouble. And I suppose there's probably some cynics out there who would suggest that's part of the reason why he's retiring. The President of the Senate --

Yepsen: The President of the Senate -- west of Des Moines in the Waukee area.

Murphy: Right, so that was a target for democrats even with Senator Schneider, the incumbent Senate President in that seat. Now that he has retired that becomes even more of a pick-up opportunity for them.

Yepsen: Kay, what is the effect on legislation? Any?

Henderson: Not at present because we haven't gotten down to the wire on some of these issues that could make a difference. You could have someone who is retiring and throwing caution to the wind and totally voting in a way that they might not otherwise vote where they're going to the voters and asking for re-election. That could matter on issues like tax policy. But we don't yet know that they have a tax policy on which to vote.

Yepsen: In other words, you think they may walk away from it?

Henderson: Yes.

Yepsen: Brianne, the Register has done some polling on the politics of this year. Tell us about it.

Pfannenstiel: So, we polled on Governor Kim Reynolds' approval ratings. She has slipped just a tiny bit, about 5 percentage points from the last time we polled in February of 2019. She is at 54% so she has still got a majority of Iowans saying they generally approve of the job she is doing. We also polled on Senator Joni Ernst, who is up for re-election this year, and she has slipped by more. She is down by about 10 percentage points over the past year. And so her camp of course would point to a lot of the negative advertising that has already been done. There have been millions of dollars of negative ads spent already in this campaign cycle against her. But that's a pretty significant percentage point that she has fallen. She is down now to 47% from 57% a year ago. So that is kind of the negative for her. The positive thing is that when we asked people who they would vote for, a plurality said they would still definitely vote to re-elect Joni Ernst. That is 41%. 31% said they would definitely vote for someone else. That leaves about 20% in the middle who say they're still persuadable. So that kind of tells us that this race still has a lot to do, there's still a long way for this to go as people make up their minds.

Yepsen: And how does the President fare?

Pfannenstiel: The President is still the President. The republicans still are largely approving of his numbers and the way he is going right now.

Yepsen: That polling would indicate that it may be a little rough for republicans but they're still in pretty good shape here in Iowa as of right now.

Pfannenstiel: They are. They're in good shape and especially when you look at Joni Ernst's approval numbers across the congressional districts. It kind of gives you a sense of how those districts are faring. She wins in every district except for the second where she ties and so the third district is closest, the first district she is further ahead. As people have pointed out, the margin of error gets bigger when you look at those smaller sample sizes. But it gives a sense of where those districts are.

Yepsen: And to Kay's point, democrats, five people running may find it hard to break through all the Coronavirus coverage to try to get a message going.

Pfannenstiel: Well, the biggest takeaway for the democrats right now is that people don't know who they are. They are unknown to about 70% of Iowans. When we ask people to say, do you think of them favorably or unfavorably, the majority say we don't know enough to say.

Yepsen: Caroline, let's switch to legislative issues. The Governor asked for a sales tax increase for some additional money for mental health and the environment. How is that legislation?

Cummings: So it is being dubbed her Invest in Iowa Act and like you said, it would raise the sales tax by one cent and it would fund the Water and Land Trust that was approved by voters about 10 years ago and it would also fund tax cuts. So she'll make the pitch it's largely a tax reduction, she would never vote for an increase that didn't actually cut taxes. How it fares though among lawmakers is really fascinating because the republicans control both chambers and they are kind of hesitant to ever say that they are going to raise the sales tax or raise any taxes. So the Senate had a hearing on it and it didn't advance from a subcommittee. So it's looking bleak in terms of her full policy remaining intact. You mentioned mental health, part of this money would go towards mental health, but it's largely because it's shifting the cost share from largely property taxes to more general fund share and lawmakers feel confident that they could still move forward with the mental health funding package absent her Invest in Iowa Act. And they have remained committed to saying that's a priority. So if the Governor doesn't get that sales tax increase it is very likely that mental health will work its way separately.

Yepsen: Kay, are there any democratic votes for a sales tax increase?

Henderson: Not at this point because of the other components of the bill. They are very wary of the way in which water improvement projects would be sort of realigned and the recalculation of how that money would be dispersed. And so you have some democrats sitting back and saying hey, we may get the House, let's wait, let's do it ourselves in 2021. And then I had a couple of people who have been longtime Statehouse observers noting that she might have been able to build more momentum for this had this idea been out in the political atmosphere before legislators convened so that she would build a public sentiment for this plan from the various interest groups who are interested in it and she waited until sort of the last minute right as legislators are coming and all of our attention was diverted by a really hot presidential race.

Murphy: And to that I should note my impression from the Governor's staff is they are comfortable with this being a multiple session issue. It doesn't have to get done this session, or never, even if only a part of it gets done or none of it gets done and they come back and she could still advocate it for the next session. And to another point that Kay made, even if democrats flipped the House I think the Governor's Office is confident that even with split control legislature there's enough in here that could appeal to both parties and she could still continue to work on this.

Yepsen: But it is an awfully big package to just dump on the legislature.

Henderson: But the other component of this is you have a very robust majority in the Iowa Senate, 32 republicans, and they are very interested in actually getting rid of taxes rather than just whittling down at taxes. And so I think if the program had in some way eliminated a tax or two this might have had more mojo.

Yepsen: Caroline, do you think the Governor has been distracted by the Coronavirus controversy? She's got to spend time dealing with that. That is time she doesn't have to bring legislators down to work them over on voting for what is a tough vote.

Cummings: Well, I think that no one could have made any political calculations for policy about a few months ago we weren't dealing with this. So I think it's fair to say that is absorbing a lot of the oxygen among the public discourse and from her as well having to deal with this. However, there's plenty of behind-the-scenes maneuvers that her office makes out of our sight. So to make a characterization that she has just given up on it I wouldn't feel comfortable doing.

Yepsen: Erin, let's switch issues. Cannabis levels, that's a hot topic. Where does that stand?

Murphy: So we have competing proposals. The Senate passed a package and the House passed a package and they're decidedly different in one key way and that is the potency of the product. Senate passed an allowance for people to have 25 grams over 90 days of the product, the House passed something that aligns with the Governor and the state cannabis board that they recommend only 4.5 grams over 90 days. And so they have to come together and find a compromise. I suspect this year, unlike last year when they compromised, sent a bill down that the Governor didn't want and she vetoed it, they were burned by that, they're not going to let that happen again. If they come to a bill today or this session it will be one that the Governor will support. Now, the question then becomes, what is that compromise and do advocates and patients feel that it's strong enough to help them out?

Yepsen: Well, she said on this show, sat right there and said 4.5.

Murphy: And there are many people, the argument has been made that that will actually weaken the potency of the product for some people who are currently in the program now.

Henderson: But her argument and some republicans in the legislature counter that by saying the bill as written allows a doctor to recommend a higher dosage if they believe that is beneficial for their patient.

Yepsen: To be continued. We've got another issue the Governor is feeling strongly about, felon voting. Brianne, the paper polled on that issue. What did it find?

Pfannenstiel: Well right now Iowans who have been convicted of felonies can appeal directly to the Governor's Office to have their voting rights restored. And so there is an effort underway in the legislature led by the Governor to allow people to automatically have those voting rights restored once they have completed their sentence. And so we polled Iowans about how they feel on this and they approve of it on a 2 to 1 margin, so by pretty strong numbers they say they like this amendment. It gets a little hairier when you dig down into the weeds and say, what does it mean to have completed your sentence? And we see the legislature dealing with this as well. What does it mean to have completed that? And so even among those who say they support a full restoration of those voting rights, 63% say that those convicted of the most serious crimes, things like murder, should have those cases approved on a case-by-case basis by the Governor.

Yepsen: Caroline?

Cummings: And I would just add that this restrictions proposal that the Senate passed and that the House said they would be willing to take up and the Governor said she supports would also require full payment of victim restitution. Now that is kind of at the heart of actually a case down in Florida where a federal judge ruled, this includes court fines and fees as well, saying it's unconstitutional to deny someone's voting rights simply because they are unable to pay. So republican lawmakers say, well we're not concerned about that for our legislation because it doesn't include court fine and fees, but it does include victim restitution and they say that they think the two are different when you're not owing the government money, that couldn't be considered a poll tax. So that is something we'll be watching about how this shakes out because there's likely to be a court challenge if this is ultimately passed.

Yepsen: But politically the Governor has got to take this issue to the people for a vote. In order to get Iowans to support this idea don't there have to be some restrictions on it, as Brianne points out in the polling? So isn't there some restriction, limitation, clarification going to be necessary just to get it in a referendum?

Cummings: And that is what republicans have argued saying let's do this differently than Florida did because Florida voters approved of their constitutional amendment but then they went back retroactively and passed statutes detailing those limitations. So lawmakers say let's put forward this constitutional amendment to the people with their knowledge of this other piece of legislation will kick in assuming that the constitutional amendment is passed. So they're saying that we are laying it all on the table to voters.

Yepsen: Kay, we've talked about the legislature may switch control. That means a lot of republicans are saying we've got to get our agenda enacted now. What effect is that having on abortion issues in the legislature?

Henderson: Well, there's a pending proposed constitutional amendment on abortion that says that the Iowa Constitution does not confer that right, it relates to an Iowa Supreme Court ruling a few years ago that overrode a state law that the republican-led legislature and republican Governor had supported. There's also pending action in the Senate primarily about a waiting period. Of course that is the process that was the subject of the court ruling that I referenced. But you have key Senators, republicans, who want to try that issue. And so we're all keeping an eye out because we expect them to attach that to some budget bill and require some sort of waiting period for an abortion.

Yepsen: Another issue republicans care a great deal about, Erin, is Medicaid work requirements, requirements to work to get Medicaid. Where does that stand?

Murphy: Pretty similar to where it did a year ago at this time. The Senate passed it and now we wait to see whether the House has the stomach for it or not. They did tweak the bill a little bit this year to make it a little more amenable maybe to House republicans but we haven't gotten an indication of whether that is headed to the House floor yet or not. It's a wait and see game on that once again.

Yepsen: Kay, school funding, they're done with that issue.

Henderson: They are. On this program the Governor indicated that she wanted $100 million more new money for schools and that was what they ended up with in the compromise between House republicans and Senate republicans. One interesting dynamic that has emerged from this session is that you see House republicans who are facing a tough election year closely allied with the Governor on a number of issues, the previously discussed medical marijuana issue. And I think they're counting on her, and she is popular as your poll showed, to be out there on the hustings with republican legislators and say hey, they were right there with me, please vote for them. That is what they're expecting.

Yepsen: Brianne, how do you see the battle for the legislature? Republicans going to be able to keep control or will the democrats have a chance now of flipping it?

Pfannenstiel: Everything feels so up in the air and so different since 2016, we've seen such fluctuations. But I think democrats are looking at the Senate and saying, we have a real shot, we have a real pathway to get there. And so it's so impossible to tell what this presidential race is going to end up being and what it's going to look like, who is going to have coattails in Iowa. Is Donald Trump popular enough among republicans that he is going to pull people up? Or are we looking at the suburbs again where people are disaffected, where independents are potentially going to a Joe Biden candidacy and affecting these down ballot races?

Yepsen: Kay, one thing, we've got just less than a minute left. The Governor now will have appointed four members of the Supreme Court. What is the effect of that going to be?

Henderson: She has totally remade the Supreme Court. She has actually said that she hoped to move the needle to the right and she has indeed done so. There is a new Chief Justice. Her name is Christensen. She is the daughter of a longtime justice on the court. And the abortion issue is something the legislators are hoping this newly constituted court is able to address.

Yepsen: They tee up these issues, get those challenges in front of this new court.

Henderson: Right, exactly.

Yepsen: We're out of time. Thank you all. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at noon on Sunday. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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