Reporters’ Roundtable

Dec 27, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4719 | Podcast | Transcript


Presidential candidates are seizing the national headlines and traipsing through Iowa. But Statehouse politics at the Iowa legislature are heating up too. And many issues could be bubbling to the surface in 2020. To talk about it we sit down with a trio of Iowa political reporters 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 Public Television, this is the Friday, December 27 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: It's hard to escape presidential politics across the country and especially here in Iowa. More than a dozen candidates actively campaigning while Washington, D.C. is focused on presidential impeachment. But a litany of state and local issues will come into focus at the Iowa legislature in coming months. To dive into those Iowa-centric questions we've gathered a trio of Statehouse reporters. Joining us today are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Caroline Cummings covers politics for Sinclair Broadcast Group. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: We've got a lot to talk about, gang. And I want to go around the table real quickly and starting with you, Kay, get an overall impression from you of what you expect out of the republican trifecta at the Statehouse this year.

Henderson: It's hard to tell. We don't know if they're going to move with all deliberate speed on any number of issues that are important to the republican agenda, abortion, tax policy, or if they will be sort of mired down by a change in leadership in the House and letting House Speaker-select Pat Grassley, who will be the next House Speaker, sort of get his bearings and determine how he may lead House republicans.

Yepsen: Erin, what is your take? What are the republicans going to do? They've got the trifecta, they may lose the House in the election, so do you have candidates who want to pass a budget and get out of town? Or do you have, excuse me, an activist wing of the Republican Party?

Murphy: Yeah, I think there's a little bit of both and it is going to be interesting to see to Kay's point what leadership wants to do. There's definitely legislators that have some items and some issues that they want to work on that they want to do, the question is how does leadership view this session? Do they want to get into some knock down drag out debates over some of these issues that we're going to talk about later? Or do they, like you said, want to just get in, do the basics, have a nice quick year and get out? I think we'll see some fairly interesting debates. Tax reform is going to be a big overarching theme this session again. So there will be something. There will be some meat on the bones in this session.

Yepsen: Caroline, how do you see it?

Cummings: We're going into year four of republican trifecta and I think we can certainly say that they are going to pass a conservative agenda. And I know in previous years when they have passed some very controversial things like collective bargaining, abortion restrictions, these things that kind of took center stage, you think well what else is there left to do? And I think we can certainly bet that we will see some perhaps controversial things in terms of democrats strictly opposing it but definitely conservative agenda whether that is taxes or maybe some abortion issues as well.

Yepsen: In a tough campaign you've always got to fire up the base first. Erin, tax policy, you mentioned taxes. What do you expect to see on tax questions?

Murphy: So there's an interesting discussion that is already taking place ahead of the session and when you talk to legislators and advocacy groups that are looking ahead to the session around, it kind of starts with the conservation fund, the three-eighths cents of sales tax that has been dedicated to conservation funding but has never been actually funded, they have to pass the actual three-eighths cents tax rates. Where that discussion has ballooned to now is maybe we raise it a whole cent, include that three-eighths to go towards conservation funding, water quality projects, and now we have this other five-eighths cents to do with it what we want, maybe mental health funding, maybe tax reform, a break in another place. It's going to be interesting to see how that gets tackled. It sounds like a good idea on paper. A lot of people on both sides get what they want. But a lot of people will also have some wants. Let me put it this way, five-eighths cents of sales tax to say okay, now we can use this to fund something, without knowing what that is going in that is a big piñata and there's a lot of people with bats up at that Statehouse that will want a crack at that.

Henderson: The other thing is there is going to be sticker shock. You've already heard business groups talk about if the tax, sales tax rate in Iowa goes up we're going to be sort of the thumb sticking out there when you have neighboring states like South Dakota with a sales tax of 4.5% so there is that pressure. And there is a pressure from interest groups all around the board who if you're going to have tax reform, reform my taxes, reform my corporate taxes, reform my property taxes, so it will be really an achievement if they come up with some sort of tax package in an election year.

Yepsen: An old legislator I once knew, Jack Nystrom, a republican from Boone, he always said, it takes two cents worth of needs to pass a one cent sales tax increase. So I think we're about to see that come true. One of those needs, Caroline, mental health issues.

Cummings: Yeah, so we're talking about what to do about this remaining five-eighths and one of those areas that is discussed is sustainable mental health funding. The Governor has advocated for mental health issues. The legislature passed two bills, one expanding adult services, one establishing a children's system. And the long debate has been well, you've got all these mandates of new services, how do you sustainably fund them because people argue the property tax model is not sustainable. So there is some discussion about could we use those five-eighths of that penny sales tax, potential penny sales tax, for mental health funding. But there's also democrats who want to see flexibility with counties and those county regions to up their property taxes whereas some people are arguing get rid of the property tax model all together. At a public budget hearing just this past week the Farm Bureau said to the Governor, we think the state should absorb all of the costs. The Governor told reporters after that she thinks local governments should have skin in the game. So she says she has promised sustainable funding to those advocates so where that funding comes from will be a big question mark this session.

Yepsen: Kay, another issue, felon voting rights. What is going to happen with that?

Henderson: Kentucky got a new Governor and one of that Governor's first acts, a democracy by the way, was to grant felon voting rights to folks who had just been released from prison who committed sort of non-violent crimes. So that leaves Iowa sticking out there as the only state in the country where you have to apply to the Governor to get your voting rights back. The Department of Corrections this month has taken some steps to sort of help people they are releasing from prison fill out the documents and find out all of the casework they need to do to present that document to the Governor to get their voting rights restored. The focus in the legislature will be on the Iowa Senate. The House has embraced the Governor's proposal to amend the state's constitution. Senators were reluctant arguing that the victim's voices need to be heard here. So the three people at the table here who cover the legislature are going to keep our eye on particularly the Judiciary Committee in the Iowa Senate where it just failed to pass.

Cummings: And what restrictions that they want to see because that was a stickler for the Senate republicans, we think that there should be some people carved out of this voting restoration. And so they want to look at certain crimes and certainly is victim restitution paid. So those are the key issues.

Murphy: And that's the problem with that is too many of those things, it almost makes it harder than it is even now, which is already hard enough, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Yepsen: Why does the Governor not want to just do this with the stroke of a pen, she can pick and choose who she wants? Is she looking to share the blame if there's any backlash to this?

Murphy: Yeah, she hears that a lot too from advocates for this saying, we appreciate you going after the constitutional amendment, but in the meantime you could fix this with the swipe of a pen. She has maintained that the constitutional amendment is the only prudent path forward because if another Governor comes in and has a different view that would just be undone again with another stroke of the pen.

Cummings: And she also argues too that if I sign an executive order there will be no impetus for Senate republicans to act on this. So she sees it as this is the way to get something more permanent in the long-term.

Yepsen: Keel the pressure on. Caroline, another issue related to this is called restorative justice. The Lieutenant Governor has headed a task force. What is happening with that?

Cummings: So, piggybacking off of her vouching for felon voting last year, she says she wants to build on second chance initiatives. So she taps this task force on criminal justice headed by the Lieutenant Governor, but it's also law enforcement advocates, corrections officials and they looked in broad strokes, first re-entry barriers to in turn reduce recidivism rates, and then later they'll look at the system as a whole and try to pinpoint where there's biases from corrections to prosecution to policing. So they came out with a list of recommendations of what the Governor ought to consider in terms of legislative proposals. Among them were looking at banning the box for public employers. So that is to say anyone applying for a state job or a county or local job, they do not have to disclose that they have a felony record on the application, that will be delayed until later in the hiring process. Some other things, looking at expanding treatment in prison. There's a whole litany of things and it remains to be seen what the Governor will agree to bring forward next year.

Yepsen: Kay, one of the things I have noticed in politics is often times a lot of the right things happen for the wrong reasons. Now, have people in the Statehouse all of a sudden decided to be more charitable to people who have fallen by the wayside? Or are we really looking for more workers in Iowa?

Henderson: That's true. You've heard the business community this past month talk about the need to have better training inside the state's prison system for inmates who will eventually be released so that they are employable because unemployment in this state is incredibly low, businesses can't find workers to fill the job openings they have, and the business community is joining this effort that the Governor has. The other thing here is that by reducing recidivism you reduce expenses in the state's prison system. So there's also a conservative spending component to this as well.

Cummings: And public safety is another one that they'll bring up. If you train people to assimilate back into society, they have a job, they're paying taxes, all of that meeting workforce needs but also they're not going back to crime, it's better for the state as a whole.

Yepsen: And a lot of employers are saying these people tend to be pretty good workers, they're looking for that second chance. Kay, another issue blowing up in the legislature is wind energy. Sorry.


Yepsen: Tell us what is happening with wind energy issues.

Henderson: Well, you're starting to see in these debates among county officials establishing ordinances, countywide ordinances that restrict where wind turbines may be built. The Governor this summer at the Iowa State Fair told reporters that that's just fine with here, whereas the state legislature in the 1990s acted to enforce statewide standards for where you can build livestock confinements. It doesn't appear that the Governor is interested in statewide standards for where you can erect wind turbines. There has also been conversation about where you put these huge massive turbines once they go out of service. Where do we put them? In a landfill? Which landfills will accept them? So that is a percolating issue that is really one of those grassroots sort of rising to the level of perhaps getting some legislative scrutiny. But unless the Governor leads on this I don't think legislators will touch this.

Yepsen: Erin, this is a tough issue. We're all for wind energy and yet a lot of people living in pastoral Iowa are waking up some mornings to a bunch of blinking red lights.

Murphy: Yeah, and to Kay's point, the more that this becomes a local issue and those people start talking to their state legislators about that, the more you'll hear about this at the state level. You'll see legislators bring this to their leaders and say hey look, I'm hearing a lot about this --

Yepsen: County supervisors want to kick this to the legislature.

Henderson: To that point there was a meeting in Page County a couple of weeks ago and one resident said she moved to Page County because she doesn't like visual pollution.

Yepsen: Caroline, marijuana legislation, legalizing it, recreational, medicinal, where does that issue stand?

Cummings: So we can say for certain that legalization for recreational use will not happen. The Governor has staunchly said, nope, that's not going to happen under my watch, Senate republicans say more or less the same thing. So the Governor vetoed a bill last year that would have expanded the program, one of the ways was allowing more THC, which is the component that makes recreational users high, but medicinally advocates say this is a key part for their medicine. So she vetoes the bill over concerns about that and now lawmakers are saying, well we've got to go back to square one and we've got to make this a priority because they're hearing from advocates and the manufacturers that we need to have more flexibility here to serve more people. And you've got the component of Illinois legally, having legal marijuana for recreational use. People are fearing that they'll cross the border and get marijuana over there and bring it back to Iowa, again diminishing the business and the model that Iowa put in place. So it's definitely going to be something brought up this year, it's just a matter of finding common ground with the Governor. Where is she comfortable in terms of THC limits?

Yepsen: Erin, what happened on this issue in the last session? You've got the republican legislature passing a piece of legislation the republican Governor vetoes. That doesn't happen very often. Wires crossed? Why weren't they on the same page?

Murphy: Yeah, that was an interesting one and you had some people who maybe weren't, kind of after the fact weren't sure about what the actual THC limit meant and how that all equated and then you have some people who think this should be, we've got this state board that is set up to handle this, that should be in their court anyway, we shouldn't be handling this. So to Caroline's point, it's going to be interesting to see how they circle back on that and I assume that the second time around a little more concerted effort will be made to make sure everybody is on the same page before that bill is passed.

Yepsen: Erin, another issue lining up for some of that money you mentioned earlier, child care. What's happening there?

Murphy: Yeah, this is one of those issues we hear a lot about on the presidential campaign trail as well and all kinds of groups and legislators are talking about this and not just advocates, we heard a couple of business groups this week talking about affordable child care being an issue and it gets to a workforce issue because their concern is people are making that calculation whether to stay home because it's cheaper to stay home and watch a kid than it is to have a job but try to pay for child care, people talking about spending more than $20,000 a year on child care. One of the specific things that we'll watch for that I heard about is they talk about the cliff. There is an assistance program for people up to, forgive me if I'm off on the number, but I believe it's 144% of the federal poverty level, and you get assistance for child care up to that level and if you go beyond that it drops off to zero. So it's very much a default line for people deciding whether to go into the workforce. What some lawmaker are proposing is maybe there is a way to kind of taper that where you don't go from here to here, you can get some gradual assistance.

Yepsen: Kay, another workforce issue, welfare reform and benefits, qualifying for benefits. What are they going to do there?

Henderson: Well, viewers of this program saw the Senate's republican leader say this is a priority. One of the issues that was discussed last year and tabled, which will likely be revived is more frequent checks of eligibility for SNAP benefits, the food stamps whereby perhaps you have to prove that your income is still low enough to qualify every three months. The other proposal that really seems to have the most juice is requiring able-bodied people who do not have children to work if they are going to qualify for federal welfare benefits. And you've seen action from the Trump administration in this regard. So I predict that that is one of the things that the legislature will do this year.

Yepsen: That will be an incredibly emotional issue. You've got a lot of democrats who want to help people at the low end of the spectrum and you've got a lot of republicans who are hearing from their constituents that they're seeing the wrong kind of things being purchased by people with those benefits.

Henderson: Right. And if republicans intend to use the trifecta that we discussed at the beginning of the show you have a Governor who wants to do this and you have legislators who want to do this.

Yepsen: They better do it now. Caroline, vaping, some talk about trying to limit that. Where does that issue stand?

Cummings: So there was a bill introduced late last year from Senate President Schneider to up the age for all tobacco products, including vaping devices and juul's to 21. That was an effort to get those products out of the hands of teenagers when we were seeing an uptick of middle schoolers using vaping products. So that bill was introduced, it didn't go anywhere, but over the summer with the uptick in vaping related deaths that added a new impetus to this issue, the Governor launching a campaign to get middle schoolers and teenagers aware of the effects of it, but all of this might not be relevant considering it appears that at the federal level they are taking action on upping the age of all tobacco to 21 in Congress' spending plan. So if that is the case I don't see it moving anywhere in the legislature. But if not, it is likely to be brought up this year.

Yepsen: Erin, education spending, a lot of demands for more money for schools and higher ed.

Murphy: Been a perennial issue after decades of schools getting pretty consistently around 4% annual increases in funding. It has over the last 10 years or so been more in the 1% to 2% range and they say that is at the K-12 level really catching up to them and making it hard on their budgets. So that has been an annual point of contention. I expect to hear that argument again and at the Regents level too, the universities, and we hear a lot about the cost of college and student debt. You have the University of Iowa that entered into this unique agreement with a company to manage their utilities as a way to try and be able to set that money aside for educational purposes instead. So that will be an issue again here.

Henderson: It's worth mentioning, David, that a panel of experts who estimates state tax revenues is predicting that the state will have about $234 million more to spend next year than is spent this year. The pressure here will be from the education community, please give us some of that money, whereas some republicans will argue let's give it back to taxpayers. So that is going to be a big debate among legislators.

Yepsen: Right, so you're fighting about what to do with a penny sales tax increase and then what to do with the existing budget. Does anybody sense one of the fault lines in American politics right now is who has a college education and who doesn't? People with college educations are more inclined to vote democratic than they are republican. Does that mean higher education has a tougher time of getting appropriations out of a republican legislature? Erin?

Murphy: Well, I think in general republicans, it's not projecting, you've heard them talk about it in debates and on the chamber floor their frustrations with different aspects of college education, republicans, conservatives in a lot of way feel that colleges have become liberal. Brad Zaun's annual 10 year bill is another example of republicans being at odds with college public education. So there is a little bit of that. Is that what is motivating them? I can't sit here and say that.

Yepsen: But it's also true that legislators tend to think money at community colleges pays a more direct benefit right at home than Iowa City, Ames or Cedar Falls. Kay?

Henderson: One interesting thing as we come to the end of this decade is looking back at what enrollment was in colleges, community colleges, universities, trade schools at the beginning of the decade. It was about 335,000 students in Iowa. You get today, the most recent data is from the fall of 2018 enrollment, it was 225,000. That is a horrendous dip, partly fueled by people getting back into education during the recession, trying to enhance their skills. But you hear the Governor Kim Reynolds and the previous Governor Terry Branstad arguing we need more people to get in that education pipeline. It's a real tension that this state is going to have to address according to many of the people that I've talked to over the past months.

Yepsen: Right, and some people you get them a college education and they leave the state. Caroline, switch gears, one issue always hot in the legislature is abortion. Anything happening on abortion issues?

Cummings: We can certainly expect that there will be bills introduced. Whether they go anywhere is another story. But as long as you have conservatives in control they talk about we're the pro-life caucus and we'll always fight for that. One thing that I do expect to see again is a constitutional amendment changing the language of the Iowa Constitution to say women are not guaranteed a right to an abortion. Of course that is in direct response to a Supreme Court ruling on the 72 hour waiting period saying women are guaranteed a right to abortion under the Iowa Constitution. So it's a direct way to upend that ruling because right now any other abortion legislation would be essentially stopped in its tracks. We saw it with the six week abortion ban. The Governor didn't appeal it specifically saying because she thought there was no avenue based on the precedent that the Supreme Court said. So that is something I think we'll see again. But again, it got a committee hearing but not a full floor vote. And that would of course be a yearlong process again to get that passed and I don't know if there's any appetite in the House for something like that.

Yepsen: Kay, that's a real issue in the pro-life movement around the country, they want a strong anti-abortion stance in the code but if they go too far they run the risk of court rulings backfiring, setting their whole movement back.

Henderson: Well, but conversely there are people in the conservative movement who want a test case to get all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court because they think that Trump has changed the nature of the U.S. Supreme Court and a case on abortion would be successful.

Cummings: And there is a very fine line with the six week abortion ban, those suing were suing on state grounds because they knew Iowa's laws were stronger. So it is kind of just a game, a real gamble of are you going to get to that level at all?

Yepsen: And on that note, we're out of time. Thanks guys for being here today and doing this. We'll do it again. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. And a programming note, starting January1st, this network will have a new name, Iowa PBS. But while the title may change, our mission here will not. Iowa Press will continue to bring you the politicians, reporters and newsmaker interviews that have defined this program's existence for nearly 50 years. So for all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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