House Speaker Linda Upmeyer

Feb 3, 2017  | 29 min  | Ep 4421 | Podcast | Transcript


A change of pace at the Statehouse in Des Moines as majority republicans push an ambitious agenda. An update with House Speaker Linda Upmeyer on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, February 3 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: When one political party takes control of the Governor's Office and both chambers of the Iowa legislature it's called winning the political trifecta. Republicans won this trifecta last year and have already tackled mid-year budget cuts while rankling minority democrats on school aid and Planned Parenthood. House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, a Clear Lake republican, joins us at the Iowa Press table to talk about it all. Speaker, welcome back to Iowa Press, good to have you here.

Upmeyer: It is a pleasure to be here. And welcome back to Iowa and Iowa Press for you as well. It's wonderful.

Yepsen: It's great to be home. Joining us for the conversation are political journalists James Lynch, reporter for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Let's start with that Planned Parenthood defunding bill. Every republican in the Iowa Senate voted for it. When it reaches the floor in the Iowa House will every republican there support it?

Upmeyer: Okay, we've passed this legislation, very similar wording, in our budget bills through the House in the past so I anticipate that as the case. Now, we've not had a full caucus and talked about it so to parse words here, every single member, I believe so but we have not caucused on it and we have new members that have not had this discussion before. But it is something that the caucus supports, something we support and so I'm excited to bring that bill up.

Henderson: There was quite an outpouring of protest over this bill when it came out of a subcommittee and a committee in the Iowa Senate. The Statehouse was jam-packed. Is there political consequences for pursuing this for republicans?

Upmeyer: Well, as I said, this is not a new topic to certainly House republicans and Senate republicans as well if they'd have had the opportunity I think. But for House republicans we've talked about this before. So, I really think we are doing exactly what our supporters, the people at home, have asked us to do and that is not add dollars to abortion providers. And so we want to make sure those dollars go out and provide all kinds of women's health care all over the state, but not going to abortion providers. So certainly that is what we've talked about in the past, I think that's what we will move forward to do.

Henderson: Will lines get longer? Will it be a longer wait to get a reproductive health exam at a traditional doctor's office because of this?

Upmeyer: No, I don't believe so at all. I don't believe so at all. We want to make sure we have the support out there that is available to women all over, but it already is. The places exist, we will add to that, we will make sure resources are available, but I don't believe that will add to long lines.

Lynch: President Trump has signaled that he might, there might be some political consequences for sanctuary cities that shelter immigrants. And there is a bill in the Public Safety Committee that would require local governments and universities in Iowa to fully comply with federal immigration laws and enforce those. Is that going to get to the House floor?

Upmeyer: Well, what I believe is that communities should follow the law, we should all follow the law and that if we wish to change the law for cities considering this it would be more productive to actually work to change the law. So that would be my advice to communities. The bill itself will work its way through committee and the majority leader will discuss it and we'll bring it forward if the caucus wishes to do so. I'm not sure what form that is going to take but we'll take a look at it.

Lynch: Would that be a political gift to democrats to bring that bill to the floor, give them an opportunity to talk about how mean-spirited republicans are?

Upmeyer: I don't believe so. What we're talking about is safety and security, right? When someone who is in the country illegally is picked up, what the federal government asks of us is to hold that person to make sure that they have not broken laws in other places and make sure that's done and for possible deportation if in fact they have and if they're here illegally. So I think if we want to have a debate about immigration then let's have a debate about immigration. But until that I think we should make sure that we're protecting security and safety for Americans. That's the federal government's job.

Yepsen: Madam Speaker, how do you do -- there's a balancing act that republican leaders have to do and I'm thinking, how do you keep your base happy, the pro-life, the Second Amendment conservatives who worked very hard for many years to get you all elected, while at the same time not going too far where you wind up with a situation like in Kansas where the republicans cut taxes too deeply, or in Indiana or in North Carolina where they got sidetracked with gay marriage and transgender bathrooms, and even lost the republican Governor in North Carolina as a result of that? How are you doing this balancing act that's in your party?

Upmeyer: I think, first and foremost, what we try and keep in mind is that we're here to serve to do the best thing for all Iowans. So absolutely there are people whose interests and beliefs perhaps align more closely, but we want to do the right thing for Iowans. We learn things from other states, certainly we could have told Kansas that if you cut taxes you need to cut spending as well. So there are some things that we all learn and act on a little differently. But I think as long as we're keeping in mind that it's the right thing for Iowans as a whole I think that puts us in the best position and we genuinely believe that we're listening, we're having good feedback, good discussions with people all over the state as people go home on the weekends and have those conversations, we're getting input. And remember, you've got 59 people from all over the state. So they have to agree first.

Yepsen: So what did you learn from other states?

Upmeyer: Well, certainly as you look at the way you approach taxes, for instance, what works? What doesn't? What makes your state more competitive than another state as you try and vie for the next great business that's going to, excuse me, locate in the Midwest or something? We learn about that. I think we learn too from other legislators in other states how best to approach things like health care, education. When we're looking at reforming education Iowa stepped forward with the Teacher Leadership Program a few years ago. That's something that we can take out to other states and demonstrate what we learned from that. As we move into Medicaid reform and modernization, 40 other states had done that, so we learn a lot about, okay, the beginning can be bumpy but this can work. So we learn in so many different ways. The other thing that happens is you have legislators that are connected with each other around the country and they learn individually as well as collectively. So I think we can bring things, it's why states I think are viewed as the real laboratories in the country and why I fight faithfully for more opportunities to work on things at the state as opposed to Washington.

Henderson: It's the view of business leaders that it is best to have a uniform, statewide minimum wage. Will the House advance a bill to do that? And if you do, will you at the same time raise the state's minimum wage?

Upmeyer: As I said I think since before we started session, that we will be taking up a bill on pre-emption. I believe that bill is nearly ready so that we can have more uniformity. Having a patchwork all over the state doesn't work out very well. And now we have also a patchwork within a county. So Johnson County has not only got a county-wide minimum wage but city minimum wages individually. It's just very difficult to have a patchwork system so we're going to correct that. And I don't hear members wanting to change the minimum wage. I think what we need to keep in mind is that businesses can pay, employers can pay, anyone can pay more than what is current minimum wage. But I predict that there will be amendments that cause that discussion certainly in debate.

Henderson: Well, what will pass then? Is there a sentiment among enough republicans and democrats to raise the wage in the House?

Upmeyer: I'm not hearing that right now, Kay, not now anyway.

Lynch: There's a couple of transportation bills making their way through the legislature, one dealing with traffic cameras. Will the House go along with banning traffic cameras or regulate traffic cameras?

Upmeyer: We've done the traffic camera bill in the past. That, again, is working through committee. So I don't know. It's something we haven't caucused on how they would like to handle that this year. But it could very well come up.

Lynch: The House has passed a ban in the past.

Upmeyer: We have passed a ban in the past.

Lynch: Do you think the sentiment is the same this year? You have some new members.

Upmeyer: We do have new members and that's why it's always hard to tell if people -- also, as time goes by and we learn more, right, that people may have changed positions. But right now I think there's not a great deal of support for having traffic cameras, especially speed cameras. So, we'll be listening to the caucus and see what they'd like to do moving forward. The committee will do its work first.

Lynch: There was a group at the Capitol this week who talked about passing a law requiring people no handheld phones in their cars, no texting while driving, they would have to have a hands-free phone. How far will the legislature go in that direction to improve safety on the highways?

Upmeyer: Well, I think that discussion is one that certainly the Governor has talked about a little bit in his State Address and has talked about that he thinks we should take a look at that. Traffic accidents have been higher. So I think we'll talk about that. I don't know how far that will go, if we'll end up with a primary texting law or we'll end up with something hands-free. But we are looking for more data, we want to understand the situation. Only 15 states have gone hands-free so far. I think we have a great education, a great deal of education to be done before we actually would enact that. But I think the discussion will begin, as you know, some of these things take a little time to actually work through when you’re going and talking to the public about how they would like us to approach that, when members start learning more about the ideas that they haven't thought about in the past perhaps. So, whether that gets a full discussion this year as hands-free, I'm not sure yet.

Yepsen: Madam Speaker, is this one of these issues that legislators don't want to do because they're out there texting while driving and they're out there talking on the phone? Really, you hear debates, this always comes up, a member says I'm out there, I got so many tickets. Is this a problem?

Upmeyer: Certainly members are on their phones, I have no doubt. I think most people by now understand the danger of texting and I hope most people aren't texting on the roads. But I do think people are on their telephones, certainly they're returning calls, we drive great distances. I know I'm on my phone returning calls. Can we do that hands-free? Absolutely. Is that still a distraction? Perhaps. But nonetheless, some of the things that we need to do to make it hands free are almost equally a distraction when you think of the complex systems we have in our cars these days. But I think moving forward, figuring out how to be safer, how to do things safer and maybe the conclusion at the end of the day, unless it's a change. But I think that's a conversation we're having right now.

Henderson: Governor Ray signed a collective bargaining law that has been in force ever since his administration. Why does it need to be changed?

Upmeyer: Well, the fact that it was Governor Ray perhaps is the example that it has been 40 years.

Henderson: So what are the abuses you see?

Upmeyer: Well, it has been 40 years since we've taken a thoughtful look. If you think back to I think it was 2011 when we actually did a pretty fairly comprehensive look at collective bargaining and Chapter 20, made some changes passed through the House, had a good debate on that. It went over to the Senate and of course did not receive a favorable view in the Senate at that time. So now we have an opportunity to take another look at it with a different receiving Senate perhaps to look at it with us. But I think over the years every time we have created a new mandate, every time a contract is reviewed it is one more finger on the scale that tilts it just a little bit. So what we'd like to do is to rebalance this a little bit. One of the places that we see the scale getting tipped perhaps the most is in arbitration where you have a situation where the arbitrator cannot consider public sector wages, while we all compete for the best and brightest minds in the state and in the country, we can't consider what is being paid in the private sector as part of that consideration. The other thing that the arbitrator must consider is that taxpayers or the entities have the ability to tax. So it sort of turns taxpayers into an ATM machine and rebalancing that a little differently I think would create some, a little more fairness in the system. Additionally, we think there are some great opportunities, the Governor raised a good point I think about offering opportunities for health insurance, that if we set up a state pool as an option, not a mandate, but an option, because I don't think we'd support a mandate, we recognize there are differences around the state in pools where they are self-insured, that sort of thing. But if you have an option that could also be an opportunity where you could save some dollars that could be then reinvested back into the city, county, school, state, whichever entity it is. So there are just some opportunities and we would like to have a discussion about that.

Henderson: So how far are you going to go? Are you going to tell police officers, for example, they can't negotiate about how much the department pays in terms of Kevlar vests and weaponry?

Upmeyer: Well, I think we're very sensitive to public safety and their needs and we'll continue to look at that. Representative Deyoe has been working very diligently on this ever since I named him Labor Chair and I think he has been talking to people and I think he's very close to having a bill ready that we can all take a look at.

Lynch: The Des Moines Register has been reporting on health insurance that lawmakers are enjoying for as little as $20 a month premium. How did this happen? When union employees are paying much more for their personal coverage and family coverage, how is it that lawmakers are paying only $20 a month for health care coverage? And what are you going to do about this?

Upmeyer: Well, actually I can't tell you how it actually started because it was before my time that it started. But I can tell you what I know over especially the last six years. We noticed the same thing, but actually we were paying precisely the same thing as union members six years ago and we wrote bills and in fact let me even go back before that because it was when we were in the minority, we observed that we were paying a different level of contribution than the private sector, it just didn't match up very well. There was a real divergence of the way health insurance was going. We offered amendments at that time because our bills weren't being looked at very well, so we offered amendments to actually raise that. We offered different numbers, genuinely in the hope that we would have something that might be attractive to those that were in leadership and moving it forward. They were rejected. Then when we came in, in '11, we offered a bill that would change that -- 20% I believe is the number we used.

Yepsen: What are you going to do about it now?

Upmeyer: Now that we have a Senate that will take it up we absolutely will make those changes because we sent that bill, as you might recall, over to the Senate to increase to a 20% contribution, which would have exceeded what was being paid by others, but nonetheless, it was rejected in the Senate. So, Senator Gronstal did not want to run that bill.

Lynch: Should lawmakers pay the difference, the benefit they've been getting over the past few years, should they make that up?

Upmeyer: Well, you're suggesting that the benefit was not in compliance with what was said. We were following the law. What we were trying to do is change the law. So I guess I don't understand exactly what they would be making up.

Yepsen: Madam Speaker, why do legislators even need health insurance from the state? Why do legislators get pension? We talk about a citizen legislature. Every citizen out there looks at those kind of discount rates that you folks are paying for insurance and the pensions that members get and they say the legislature is out of touch. Why in this day and age does the Iowa legislature need to get health insurance and pension benefits from the state?

Upmeyer: Well, I think there are, again, that is something that precedes, predates my time in the legislature. But that has been something that has always been there. We're happy to take a look at this. But we do have a citizen legislature, absolutely we have a citizen legislature. But it also is not only a four month a year legislature. So many legislators have been forced to over a period of time no longer work in a regular job that is a full-time job at home because they're working part-time, full-time, citizen legislature, however you want to describe it, as a legislator because we continue our work all through the year and part-time at home. So it has been an option that has been available.

Henderson: Before you were a legislator you were a full-time nurse. How do you feel about legislation that would give Iowans another option to opt out of having their children vaccinated against dangerous diseases like Measles and Polio?

Upmeyer: I understand people's concerns because there are adverse reactions to immunizations. We know that every medication has a risk. But nonetheless, I'm supportive of immunizations. We need to have an immunized population. I think the bill did not move forward in the House. I think Representative Heaton is not moving that bill forward. So while I understand people's concerns on one hand, on the other hand if we do not vaccinate with regularity we also have a situation where we have super strains and you probably don't want me going into that, but nonetheless, immunizations have saved lives all over the United States when we've been able to eradicate disease and I don't think we want to back up from that.

Lynch: Medical cannabis is another health related issue that keeps coming up and more than half the states allow some use of medical cannabis. You have indicated you would prefer direction from the federal government. But how long can Iowans wait for the federal government to make some decision on medical cannabis?

Upmeyer: I think now we have the perfect time when we can expect clarification. I think we should at least ask for clarification. We have a different Attorney General. We have a different President. So I'm not sure if the same precedents will be in place. So once again, those are, no matter what approach we take, that is actually breaking the law and I'd prefer not to break it but instead please change it so we can do what we need to do or make a decision. So that would be step one. But that doesn't preclude us from doing something if we choose to if we don't get a signal that something is changing.

Henderson: 150,000 Iowans don't have a driver's license. How will you provide them with an identification if indeed you do pass a voter verification bill?

Upmeyer: Secretary of State has indicated that his office would be responsible for making sure IDs are available. Currently the driver's license state, the Department of Transportation, makes IDs available for people with or without a driver's license. You can go in and get an ID. But even more seamlessly the Secretary of State would be doing so as well.

Lynch: School funding is going to come up this week. There is a public hearing and then the House is likely to take up the 1.11% increase in school aid. Is that realistic? Is that realistic for school districts, that level of funding?

Upmeyer: Well, we've had conversations with superintendents ever since after the elections especially and in the beginning of the year and certainly we have conversations about various amounts of money and what would be most helpful. But one of the things we did hear was setting it within the first 30 days is immensely helpful to them, being able to predict a number that they can count on. If you recall, we held them harmless in the deappropriation bill for that very reason. It's something they need to be able to count on. We work very hard to do that. Additionally, we had long conversations about the kind of flexibility that would be helpful to them. We've talked about examples of that but very specifically one of the superintendents said he has filed a report this year, that he has filed for several years, and suddenly this year it popped back in for whatever reason. They're spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to make that report pass muster I guess with the Department of Education. The same report is being filed at the federal level in a slightly different variation, creating some opportunities to push those decisions back to the local school boards and filing reports in one place that will work for both, all those kinds of things create the flexibility to create savings in time and function for them as well. A final thing and then I'll stop is the inequities. We want to address those too. So at the end of the day I think we do have a package that they're very interested in.

Yepsen: We've got about a minute left. Tax cuts. The Governor isn't talking about tax cuts, yet some of your members are. Are you going to be able to afford tax cuts? Or will you get yourself in a jam like Kansas did?

Upmeyer: I can't imagine a year that republicans don't come in and look at how we might put more money back into taxpayer pockets.

Yepsen: How do you afford it?

Upmeyer: Well, I think the question is right now what is possible and what is not? Every year we balance that with the reality of our revenue, the reality of our economy and we have that discussion inside that context. So we won't quit having the discussion but I think right now we're looking at opportunities for things that will make it simpler, fairer and make Iowa more competitive in the country. So those are the things we'll focus on. But we'll always do that in context of what we have for available revenue.

Henderson: If there is a GOP primary in 2018 for Governor will you support Kim Reynolds?

Upmeyer: I tell you what, I think Kim Reynolds is going to be a great Governor. I can hardly wait to serve with her. And I will be supporting her as she makes this transition. It's going to be wonderful.

Yepsen: Madam Speaker, we're out of time. Thank you for being with us. We've got a lot more issues to discuss. We'll have you back to do that another day.

Upmeyer: Thank you. Thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks for being with us today.

Upmeyer: Oh, it has been a pleasure.

Yepsen: And we'll return with another edition of Iowa Press next week with Iowa Political Party Chairs Jeff Kaufmann and Derek Eadon. So join us for Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at

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