Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver

Apr 5, 2019  | 26 min  | Ep 4630 | Podcast | Transcript



The calendar has flipped to April. Key bills are reaching the home stretch in the state legislature. We sit down with Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. 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.    


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, April 5 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

Henderson: There was a bit of spring cleaning at the legislature this week. Some bills got swept aside, others advanced and will be voted upon in the coming weeks. One of the decision makers deciding which bills get voted upon is Senator Jack Whitver, the Majority Leader in the Iowa Senate. He joins us again here at the Iowa Press table. Welcome back.

Whitver: Very glad to be here.

Henderson: Across the table, James Q. Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio.

Lynch: Senator Whitver, as Kay mentioned it was house cleaning time for bills to advance a self-imposed deadline. One of the Governor's priorities didn't make it and that was her proposal that felons would have their voting rights automatically restored when they discharged their sentence. It sailed through the House, 95 to 2, but couldn't get out of committee in the Senate. What happened? What was the opposition in the Senate?

Whitver: Well, overall in funnel week I think we had a very productive funnel week with a lot of the priorities getting through the funnel. The Governor came in with four major agenda items, Empower Rural Iowa, children's mental health, the felon voting rights and the behind the counter birth control issue. And the felon voting rights is the one that did not make it through the second funnel. And the Judiciary Committee had a lot of questions and concerns that I think we need to sort out in the Senate and the main one is when you think about this issue there's really two different pieces. There's the piece in the constitutional amendment that allows felons to vote. Then there's a piece in statute that will say whether or not that's all felons or whether that is only certain types of crimes that you get your votes restored, voting rights restored. And that is the conversation that I think we need to have in the Iowa Senate. Other states that have done this, most recently Florida, their ballot measure for the constitutional amendment said that sexual offenses and violent crimes you do not get your rights back. Well, after they passed that and that became part of the constitution, they had a major legislative battle about what a sexual offense is and so determine is that rape, is that child molestation, is that child pornography. And they're going through a legislative battle to determine that. And so in the Senate I think the path forward this year is to try to determine what that list is. If you killed somebody and you're a second degree murderer and you get out after 24 years the person you killed will never get to vote so maybe you shouldn't either. And those are the types of things that we're going to be considering going forward.

Lynch: Should those parameters be in the amendment or a separate policy bill?

Whitver: That is to be decided. I the Governor would prefer at this point to leave that out of the amendment, just say as prescribed by the legislature, if we're going to go down this road and then in statute we start looking at those offenses. But that is still to be determined.

Lynch: Some people might think, Senator Whitver, that since republicans control the Governor's office, the Senate and the House, you'd all be on the same page on these priorities. But apparently not.

Whitver: Many of the priorities have survived the funnel and are moving forward in the Senate. We have already passed the behind the counter birth control measure. That is now in the House. The child mental health I think has very good prospects in the Senate as well as Empower Rural Iowa. And so we love the Governor, we get along with her very well, we're getting along with the House. This is just the normal legislative process. Hundreds and hundreds of ideas come to the table and the legislature's job is to sort those ideas out.

Sostaric: You mentioned the Senate did pass the Governor's birth control bill. House republicans seem reluctant on that, however. What is your message to them on that?

Whitver: This is something that makes sense. Most Iowans that I've talked to think it does make sense. The Governor has put a lot of time into setting it up so where women are protected and we thought in the Senate that it is something that we should be looking at and we should do. And so I'm not sure what the House will do with that, but I would hope that they would pass that.

Sostaric: On the flip side, the House passed an expansion of the medical marijuana program. Senate republicans changed it to make it actually stricter than the current law. But the Senate has traditionally been more open to expansion. Will this pass the Senate, this stricter version?

Whitver: That's to be determined. Yesterday in judiciary, along with the felon's voting issue, the medical marijuana issue came up and traditionally the Senate has been a little bit more willing to progress the medical marijuana issue. But the way that the bill was worded that came over from the House raised some concerns with some of our members on judiciary. And that bill did survive, and so as it moves forward we'll have to talk with our caucus and see if we want to pass the House bill or if we want to change it and send it back.

Lynch: Republicans have called themselves a pro-life party, but this year the Governor proposed, not the Governor, but the constitutional amendment to say there's no right to abortion in the Constitution has died. Fetal homicide bill died after one of your senators amended it to make it a personhood bill. Are republicans still the pro-life party? And why can't you move that agenda?

Whitver: Well, first of all any of the constitutional amendments it's a two year process. You have to pass it within a two year general assembly, you go to an election, you have to pass it again in a two year assembly and then it goes to the people. And so we have two years to work on all of these constitutional amendments. I would push back strongly on the concept that the fetal homicide bill became a personhood bill. That's not what it did, it has absolutely nothing to do with abortion. It deals with when a woman who is pregnant is killed, is assaulted and it kills the baby, it is language that is in 38 states, the federal government has the same language because of when if you remember Scott Peterson, the gentleman from California that killed his pregnant wife and I believe threw her in the ocean, they wanted to charge him with two crimes and there was nothing on the books to do that at the federal level. And so 2004 the federal government actually put very similar language in. We heard the same type of rhetoric from pro-choice activists back then that this was personhood. It's not. It hasn't made a difference at the federal level in terms of that issue. But that's what people want to portray this as. This has to do with when a pregnant woman is killed or assaulted and the baby is killed. It has nothing to do with abortion.

Henderson: So why did your House republican colleagues not advance that proposal?

Whitver: I don't know that. I have not talked to their leadership about why they didn't advance that. This week was the crucial week where things advance or don't advance and we haven't had a chance to talk to them about that. But that bill had nothing to do with abortion even though people want to make it that.

Lynch: That bill had bipartisan support in the Senate until it was amended by republicans. Is there sort of a lack of discipline in your caucus that you had victory and managed to sort of lose out on that agenda item by amending it?

Whitver: Well, there was no guarantee it would have passed the House with the previous language either. When Senator Chapman brought a proposal together to match the unborn child language that is, again, the same as the federal government, our caucus was willing to do that. And whether it passes in the House next year I don't know that, but it appears dead for this session.

Lynch: Last year the House and Senate passed a fetal heartbeat bill that limited abortion or pretty much banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. And the courts have blocked that. And the response this year from republicans seems to be changing the judicial nominating process, changing the way judges are selected. Is this a republican attempt to pack the court with conservatives?

Whitver: That is not, the judicial nominating issue is not a response to the fetal heartbeat ruling. There have been bills filed in the legislature for at least the last eight years to revamp the judicial nominating system. There has been case after case after case that the court has sent down that has went directly against the intent of the legislature and really we're trying to, when we came into session I talked to our caucus before session and said, we want to challenge the status quo, we want to put forward reforms that will modify or modernize or update state government for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years. And when we're making those reforms whether it's property tax or income tax or whether it's collective bargaining or worker's comp, judicial nominating was one that our caucus was interested in working on and we were able to get that passed this year.

Henderson: What are the other rulings you're steamed about?

Whitver: There's a whole list that Senator Dawson has put together and frankly the criminal justice bill that we passed out of the Senate this week largely dealt with decisions, for example, one where the court said that illegal aliens aren't charged with a felony because they have a fake ID where Iowa citizens are. The court said illegal aliens aren't because we don't want them to be deported. Well, who made that law and where did that come from? And so there's a whole list of cases that have happened over the last 10 or 20 years. Again, the worker's compensation reform bill that we passed last year was largely changing back to what the system was before the court made decisions to change it. And so I know there's people that want to make this about the heartbeat issue. It's about a lot of different issues. But more importantly it's about bringing fairness to the court. We had a system set up currently that eight lawyers are on the commission, eight Governor's appointments. After the bill we passed we still have eight lawyers and eight Governor's appointments. The only difference is we are no longer going to allow the Bar, the members of the Iowa Bar, under 10,000 people in the whole state of Iowa, select our judges by letting them pick those eight. And so the change is not that significant. But I think it's important long-term towards getting a fair court.

Lynch: Will that judicial nominating process be changed? Will it become law?

Whitver: I hope so. We passed it through the Senate with our entire caucus on board, 32 members. Right now it's in the House. I don't know if they have the votes to pass that at this time. That would be up to the Speaker. But I know that it's something that is very important to our caucus.

Sostaric: There is a bill still on the table in the Senate that would make wide ranging changes to election laws. The House had a narrow bipartisan bill to fix one issue with mail-in ballots. How much further than that House proposal are you willing to go in changing election laws this year?

Whitver: That will be a conservation that we have next week post-funnel. The House sent over a bill that really just addressed the single issue up in the Decorah area where there was debate over who won that election. That is certainly something we want to look at. Many other parts of that bill that Senator Smith is working on in the State Government Committee dealt with changes that the Secretary of the State submitted to us, he just put them in the same bill. County auditors across the state are asking for certain things that have been put in that bill. But what survives in that bill to advance to a final vote we're not sure yet but Senator Smith has worked very hard on that bill.

Henderson: Senator, republicans in the Senate have passed a bill that would require businesses to check the federal e-verify system. It doesn't appear that it has as much support in the House to advance. You also discussed and debated and passed a few measures which dealt with public assistance programs making some regulatory changes. Will you be back at that next year because it doesn't look like that package of changes will be embraced?

Whitver: Two years ago we set out with a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda here in the state of Iowa with the trifecta that we won after the 2016 elections and we really wanted to make Iowa the best state in the country for jobs. We have done that. Iowa is ranked number one in jobs in the entire country. We have the lowest unemployment rate in the entire country. And so when we're talking about the welfare reforms that we proposed really if every single group that comes to my office, it used to be just welders, we need more welders in Iowa, and now it's every single group that comes to my office whether it's welders or teachers or psychologists or electricians, you name it, they all are saying the biggest thing holding us back in the state of Iowa is the lack of workforce. So when you try to say okay, well what can we do for our workforce? You really have two options, we can get more people to move into Iowa and certainly I think they should and we should do everything we can to get them to move into Iowa. But the other part is we need to get people that are currently not in our workforce and get them into the workforce.

Henderson: But as an attorney, a federal judge has ruled that the state of Kentucky can't do this.

Whitver: Yeah, with the work requirements. I think the work requirements are important because let me talk about what we're addressing. When Obamacare expanded Medicaid that added about 160,000 to 170,000 people in the state of Iowa that are getting free health care in the state of Iowa based on their income level. It's not based on a disability like it was in the past, it's based solely on income level. And what we're saying is if you're an able-bodied adult, you don't have substance abuse problems, you don't have a child at home, you're not in school and you're getting free health care and benefits in the state of Iowa, we need you to work, we need you in the workforce. The businesses need you, our economy needs you, the other taxpayers need you. And so we need to encourage those people to work. And you're right, the federal court in the eastern side of the U.S. did strike down the Kentucky law. But this is a conversation that the administration in D.C. is asking us to have, they're asking states to do this, and I think it's a discussion that we need to have as a country whether we want people that are on our welfare system to get into the workforce. But if we can do that, if we can bring people out of the welfare programs and into the workforce it changes their life. It changes their kids' life. It changes the trajectory of their entire family. And that's what this is about.

Lynch: Can the House and Senate bridge their differences on traffic cameras? I think for the seventh year in a row you're debating traffic cameras and for the third year in a row the Senate passed a hard ban on the cameras requiring cities to remove the cameras by July 1st. The House has a bill that would regulate the cameras and the state would scoop 60% of the revenue. Does that make traffic cameras more attractive to senators?

Whitver: I think that there should be some compromise in there somewhere, somewhere between a hard regulation and a hard ban, there should be compromise. To this point both sides have just kind of stood firm and I hope we get it done. It's not something that I'm saying we need to get done this session or we're not going home. It's not that kind of priority. But it is something that our caucus feels strongly about and hopefully we can get the ban done.

Lynch: Cities say this is kind of hypocritical, the legislature has tried to ban the cameras in the past and now they're saying well, if we get part of the revenue we'll let you have the cameras. Is that hypocritical on the part of the state?

Whitver: No. I think the cities tell us it's not about money, it's not about money and I think that is just an effort about legislators saying well, if it's not about the money let's send it in and we'll use it on public safety at the state level. And so no, I don't think it's hypocritical. We think it's a constitutional issue. There are legitimate concerns out there with the traffic cameras, people driving other people's cars and how valid these tickets are that we have concerns with in the Senate. And like I said, hopefully we get it passed.

Henderson: You are a former Division I college football player.

Whitver: I am.

Henderson: The legislature is contemplating legalizing sports betting within the borders of Iowa. When you were in college, how did that affect the players and the team? And do you think it will have an effect on players and Iowa teams if the state does legalize sports betting?

Whitver: No, I mean, illegal sports betting is happening every single day in the state of Iowa. All you have to do is pop on the radio this afternoon and listen to talk radio and they're talking about point spreads and betting lines and all that. Sports betting has been happening illegal for decades. It happened when I was in school 15 years ago. I remember we sat down with compliance and they would show us videos of what happens to you if you try to shave points or try to throw a game and you get sent to prison. And so they really scared us into saying this is something that you shouldn't even consider. But the reality is there are, if you go to an Iowa State or an Iowa game on a Saturday there are bookies literally in the parking lots taking bets on their text or taking bets from the people at the tailgate on these games. And so the question is should we just ignore it and pretend that doesn't happen? Or should we legalize it and regulate it so that if there are concerns and there is corruption happening we have a better chance to find that and make sure it doesn't happen? So, with the compliance that is in place at the universities they do a really good job of keeping up with their student athletes to make sure that they don't get involved in things like this.

Henderson: As I understand it, there is a proposal attached to this in the Senate whereby you wouldn't be able to bet in game events. So for instance, if I'm the kicker for the Iowa Hawkeyes, you couldn't place a bet as to whether I'm going to miss that field goal. But that only applies for games within the state of Iowa. Do you think that's something that is needed in the bill? Do you need more for Iowa colleges and universities?

Whitver: I'm fine putting that in the bill and really the concern there is these in game prop bets where maybe one person can affect whether that bet wins or loses and it's one college kid that could affect that, how many shots they make or how many points they have, whether they make a kick or not, those are things that are more ripe for corruption than if you win or lose a game. As a single football player it's very hard to win or lose a game as a single player. And so if that is what we need to do to get that bill passed I think there's no problem with that.

Henderson: One thing that has been attached to the bill is an increase in the purses or prize money out at Prairie Meadows. Do you think that is appropriate? Is Prairie Meadows in your district, by the way?

Whitver: They are not in my district.

Henderson: Okay, but they're near your district, right?

Whitver: Yeah. And our original bill in the Senate excluded any of the money going to the horses. Right now the horses get over $20 million at Prairie Meadows from their regular gambling and Prairie Meadows has said the horses are getting enough money, they don't need to get some of this as well. And our original bill in the Senate did not give any money to the horses. Really what it's going to come down to at the end of the day is how many people want that and how many don't and how we can get the number of votes we need to get it passed.

Sostaric: Another Medicaid managed care company announced that it is leaving Iowa. This was a big topic in the 2018 election. Senators had a spirited debate on the Senate floor this week about that. Do lawmakers need to take action on this?

Whitver: Well, we stand ready to take action if needed. The Governor said in her Condition of the State Address that mistakes were made when it came to managed care and we have worked hard with her leadership to try to get that system stabilized. Obviously we are very disappointed that another managed care company is leaving. But if that is a company that doesn't want to be a good actor here in the state of Iowa, they're making unreasonable demands to try to take advantage of Iowans on Medicaid and the taxpayers of Iowa, maybe they shouldn't be here. Iowa Total Care, a Centene company, is already planning on starting July 1st, which is exactly when United would leave, and they were already planning on absorbing about half of United's customers anyway. And so a lot of those people are already planning to switch in July. The most important thing in this whole discussion is to make sure that any transition to Iowa Total Care or Amerigroup, the two current managed care systems, that it is done in a way that does not disrupt the coverage of people that depend on Medicaid.

Sostaric: Are you concerned that the two remaining companies now have a lot of leverage in negotiations because the state can't afford for them to leave?

Whitver: I think the Governor sent a strong message that even though we only have two right now when United came with unrealistic demands the Governor sent a strong message that you're not going to take advantage of us. And so I think the other two companies got that message and my meetings with them have been very productive and they feel good about absorbing the people that are currently on the United plan.

Lynch: I guess it wouldn't be a real legislative session if you didn't have a tax debate and this year the Senate has talked about doing away with inheritance taxes as well as taxes on pension income. The concern in the House has been that this would lower state revenue and the triggers that you put into the tax reform package last year wouldn't kick in and provide broad tax relief for Iowans. What is the future of the tax discussion this year?

Whitver: Well, our caucus is very willing to cut taxes in the state of Iowa. We believe this last election was largely a referendum on the tax bill that we passed. If you watched any of the commercials during the last month of the campaign it was about taxes and we believe the voters of Iowa sent us back here to continue to work on tax policy. My number one priority is on property tax. When I go door-to-door, when I talk to Iowans all across the state, property tax is something that comes up not just with republicans but independents and democrats as well. And we want to see if we can reform the property tax system to make it more fair for Iowans. And so that is the number one priority. There's other thigs that we're working on in the Senate that we would love to do. But property tax is where I think most of the focus will be the last month.

Sostaric: We've seen historic flooding in the state. What is your plan for flood relief?

Whitver: Yeah, it's a devastating situation out in Western Iowa and in many counties around the state of Iowa and there are some really dire circumstances. The Governor has shown a tremendous amount of leadership on this issue. She is on the ground, she's talking with local officials, state officials, federal officials, she's working with other Governors to make sure that we have the resources we need to rebuild these parts of this state and initially we didn't know if we would have to have any legislative action. Right now we're not sure. The federal government has acted very slowly on this and even if they're going to, President Trump approved the presidential disaster area declaration very quickly, within hours and days, but the Congress has not acted. And frankly it's very disappointing to me that when these presidential candidates, U.S. Senators from all around the country come to Iowa, campaign as presidential candidates, ask Iowans for their vote, they go back to D.C. and they come to Iowa, they go to the floods, they get their photo ops, then they go back to D.C. and vote against the flood relief package for Iowa. So I think the real question that needs to be asked is why are these people out here pandering for votes in Iowa by touring the floods and then they go turn their back on Iowans out in D.C.? That is a conversation we need to be having.

Sostaric: There's going to be some economic impact from this. Do you think you'll have to cut your budget next year?

Whitver: That is one reason that we have really wanted to be conservative in our budget. Our budget target in the Senate is lower than the House and the Governor and we're not sure of the impact to the budget on the flooding. The ag economy is a huge part of our economy as we know in the state of Iowa. And the disaster with grain and livestock down there could have an impact. And so we really want to make sure that we have a conservative budget so that we're not coming back and doing deapprops in the future.

Lynch: Senator Whitver, you nearly ran for Congress once and then changed your mind. Have you given any thought to that and possibly running, challenging Representative Cindy Axne, freshman Congresswoman?

Whitver: Right now I love my job as Senator Majority Leader and it's a job that, I have three young kids, eight, six and four years old. The Senate Majority Leader job is a job that allows me to be a good father and be at home. It allows me to take care of my businesses. So right now I'm pretty happy being Senator Majority Leader.

Lynch: When you look ahead do you see future political office? Governor? U.S. Senator?

Whitver: At this time I'm just looking day-by-day trying to get us through a Senate session.

Henderson: We have a minute left. You won in a suburban district by a little less than 3% in a year when many republicans in suburban and urban areas didn't win. Why was your race different?

Whitver: Well, the suburbs have definitely become more difficult over the last few years for republicans. But we just went to work and we knocked every single door that we possible could. We had ever independent door in the last week and just spread a message of what we're trying to do in the state of Iowa. I think the tax cuts that we did last year played a big part in keeping the suburbs.

Henderson: Do you need to recruit a different kind of candidate in the suburbs?

Whitver: I think no. You need good candidates and sometimes good candidates lose but as long as you're out recruiting good candidates and spreading a good message I think you have a decent shot to win some of those suburbs back.

Henderson: Senator, I control the time today and we're out of time on this edition of Iowa Press. Thanks for being back at the table.

Whitver: Thank you very much.

Henderson: We'll be back next week at the regular times, 7:30 on Friday night and Sunday at Noon. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, on the set and behind-the-scenes, thanks for joining us today.



Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. 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.    

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