Rep. Pat Grassley and Sen. Jack Whitver

Jan 8, 2021  | 27 min  | Ep 4821 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rep. Pat Grassley (R-New Hartford), Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, and Sen. Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny), Iowa Senate Majority Leader discuss their priorities and the Republicans' legislative agenda for the 2021 session. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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The 2021 Iowa legislative session begins only days from now. But what is on the agenda for another year of republican control of the House, the Senate and the Governorship? We'll sit down with Iowa Speaker of the House Pat Grassley and Iowa's Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver on this edition of Iowa Press.

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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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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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, January 8 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: After the republican wave election in 2016, Iowa government began an era of republican control in November. Despite President Trump's loss in the national election, republicans in Iowa had a strong night solidifying at least two more years of republican trifecta control. But what is left on the conservative agenda? And how much ca be done as the nation looks to recover from a global pandemic? Joining us today are republican leaders Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley of New Hartford and Iowa's Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver of Ankeny. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Good to see you back.

Thank you.

Good to be here.

Yepsen: Journalists across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Senate Whitver, let's begin with this, however. What is your reaction to what happened Wednesday in our nation's capital?

Whitver: Yeah, it was really a sad day for this country. Violence should always be condemned. And this is a great country that has given me so much and given all of us so much, allowed me to grow up in Grinnell, go play football at Iowa State, become a State Senator and it's a great country. And violence like that should never stand and it should always be condemned.

Henderson: Speaker Grassley?

Grassley: I would agree with Jack. The same thing that we have been saying for the last eight months with any kind of protests going on around the country, you should have the right to obviously express your opinions in a non-violent way, in a non-threatening way. I hope this is not the way this country is moving towards. We need to see, be able to express your opinion without having violence. And I would say, I've been very consistent, even going back into the summer, that that's not the proper way to do it. There is a proper way to do it and what we've seen in the last eight months isn't always it.

Henderson: What preparations are being made at the Iowa Capitol should similar protests break out in our capital?

Grassley: Well, as you know, so the doors are locked, other than the secure entrance. We have secure entrances and then we have security guards that bring people in and out of the entrances we have for the public. We also have State Troopers at the building. When we returned in June we faced some of that, in our return in June we faced some of that. We just had an increased presence. And I think that between the security that we have in the Capitol and then the State Patrol as well, I think that we're well equipped. And I think some of what we saw in June, if it were to be anything like that, that kind of prepared us to know some of the steps that may need to happen.

Murphy: Senator Whitver, do you have any concern that this incident will be seared in the minds of Americans and could hurt republicans moving forward in either advancing agenda or in elections?

Whitver: I think this is a small group of people that went and acted and I don't think they speak for republicans in general, and certainly doesn't speak for what we want to do as an agenda. Part of the reason we have been successful here in Iowa with our elections in the House, in the Senate, with the Governor, is because we focused on Iowa and we focused on what we need to do to make Iowa the best state we can and that is what we're going to continue to do.

Yepsen: How worried are you, Senator Whitver, about a copycat situation in Iowa as what happened in Michigan? This episode in Washington could trigger other groups to get a little carried away. Are you concerned about that?

Whitver: I am not. We know Iowans. Iowans are respectful. That is not how we operate as Iowans. And as the Speaker said, as far as the security goes, we've had protests for the last four years at the Capitol, we've had some very active debates, some very lively debates, some lively protests. We've had riots outside the Capitol. We have beefed up security over the last few years and so I am not concerned about that.

Henderson: Mr. Speaker, you are starting a session in the middle of a pandemic. What role, if any, does the legislature have in speeding up the process of getting shots of the vaccines in Iowans' arms?

Grassley: Well, you mean from the standpoint of legislators specifically? I would say that like everyone else we should be a part of the rollout in order. I don't think the legislators should be jumping ahead of anyone in line. Obviously the department is handling the rollout and who is going to be in that line. But I don't think legislators should be jumping to the front of the line by any means.

Henderson: So do you think that the legislature has a role in providing more money, clarifying which groups should get the vaccine?

Grassley: Well, to be consistent going back all the way back into March we have tried to rely on the experts that have the knowledge. I'm just a farmer from New Hartford, I've told you that 100 times. I don't have that, necessarily that expertise. If there is more funding that is needed to roll that out I think we need to have that conversation. But as far as us putting our thumb on the scale of who we think, personally I would like to rely on the experts.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, Congress is getting vaccinated for a continuity of government issue. Is there a continuity of government issue in your mind in Iowa?

Whitver: What we have done is we have asked legislators who feel like they are in those vulnerable populations to submit their names and get in line with every other Iowa. I know myself I'm not going to jump to the front of the line. I think there's other populations and people in Iowa that need to get the vaccine before I do and so I'm not going to do that at this time. But there are some members of our Senate, some members of the House that are vulnerable that should consider that vaccine. So we're going through that process right now. 

Grassley: And I would just add onto that, that was a policy that the House and Senate has. We had the members share that determination so again it wasn't Senator Whitver and I saying who we thought, republican, democrat, whatever it is, we wanted our members to submit that to the Department of Public Health to share what level of risk they felt they had.

Murphy: So tell me about the ways that legislators may address the pandemic this session. I know that there are members in both of your caucuses who have expressed concern that they feel in their opinion too much authority was seeded to the executive office and maybe the state public health department in responding to this pandemic. Let's start with you, Senator Whitver. Do you agree with that sentiment? And do you expect any legislation that would in some way curtail the executive branch's authority in addressing a pandemic whether it be closing businesses or churches?

Whitver: I think Iowans across the state and Americans across the country have had an extremely difficult year. And I'm not sure that anyone has had a more difficult year than governors in this country and the decisions they have to make every day, sometimes with not nearly the information they need to make those decisions. And they're trying to make those decisions very quickly. And so I commend Governor Reynolds on quick, decisive action, trying to balance the various interests of this pandemic and I applaud the work that she has done. I know there's concerns about those types of executive powers with some members. But there's a time and a place to address it and in the middle of a pandemic is a really difficult time to have that conversation and try to change executive powers.

Grassley: I'll bring you into the conversation we had within our caucus. I think there is total agreement the Governor has done a tremendous job of managing this. There wasn't a playbook that we had to work with, the Governor didn’t have a playbook to work with that you can look back to another situation. And just I think the sentiment in the caucus, at least House republicans, is there will be a time for us to review probably all the way from the Governor down to the legislature everything that we have made for decisions collectively or individually. And I'm just not convinced that right now is the right time. But when we're ready to have those conversations I think we're all ready to engage in what those are.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, in mid-December you told me that you would like Senate republicans to be aggressive in tax cuts. Have you fleshed that out more in the past few weeks?

Whitver: We're working on that. Tax conversation is one that usually takes the entire session. We know the Governor rolled out a tax bill last year that we started to work on, I expect her to continue to have that conversation and possibly roll something out in her State of the State Address. But the tax conversation and tax changes don't happen in a bill filed day one in the legislature usually. So what I know is as long as I'm majority leader and as long as we're in the majority we want to continue to improve the tax climate in the state of Iowa. And so we'll work within the budget, we'll work within the legislative process. But we do want to continue to improve the tax climate here in Iowa. Iowa is in a pretty strong position considering the pandemic, considering the struggles in the economy, because of a lot of the changes that we have made over the last few years. And so we don't want to take our foot off the gas with continuing to improve the state of Iowa.

Henderson: Speaker Grassley, the man who is in charge of the tax writing committee in the House said, hey, in December, maybe we should wait and see how the pandemic plays out, what happens with farm policy and farm payments in the Biden administration. Are you in a more go slow process in the House compared to what is happening in the Senate?

Grassley: Well I would say to Senator Whitver's statement, tax policy is an entire work through the entire session. Not only that, we've got to see what the March revenue estimate looks like. I can tell you that I think the priority in our caucus is making sure whatever decision we make does not affect the 2018 tax cut that we passed. When we passed that we implemented that with triggers and stuff to make sure that if there was something unforeseen, like we find ourselves in now, that our tax cuts could be fully implemented that we passed in 2018. So I would say our priority is going to be that. But I think that we want to be a part of that conversation. We are going to, we're seeing higher than expected revenue growth. If we have those opportunities to return dollars back to the hardworking Iowans, we want to do that. But I think our priority is going to make sure that whatever decision is made does not jeopardize the current tax cut.

Yepsen: Senator Whitver, is this a time for maybe doing nothing. A recession is no time to be raising taxes, when you're in a recessionary environment, the way some people want to do with the sales tax. But you're also in a period where you need the revenue. You've had some cutbacks in revenue. So is it really a time to be cutting taxes?

Whitver: Well, I would say the state needs the revenue, but do so Iowans. And when we're talking about tax cuts, we're talking about individual income tax cuts. And there's Iowans out there that are hurting and we believe they should be able to keep more of their money. And so certainly as republicans we're not looking to raise taxes. We see that happening in Illinois and we see people fleeing Illinois. That's not where we're going to go.

Yepsen: And you expect the federal deductibility phase out to continue then?

Whitver: Yes, that is part of the 2018 bill and we expect that to trigger at some point, hopefully this year, maybe next year.

Murphy: So, looking at the budget more broadly, you mentioned the Revenue Estimating Conference. The December estimates showed that despite this pandemic state revenue did grow a little bit. The budget actually has a surplus. The cash reserves are full. Should every element within the state budget expect at the very least a status quo if not a little increase? Or is there still the possibility that we may have to trim the fat somewhere? Senator Whitver?

Whitver: I think, first of all, we need to recognize what you just said about the budget is not normal across the country with surpluses, reserves full, rainy day full, and that is because we have made really tough decisions over the last four years. And we had a lot of people coming to us saying, you should spend more, you need to spend more. And we were prepared for tough times. We did not know that tough times would be a global pandemic. Nobody knew that. But we were prepared for tough times and when the pandemic hit our projected $500 million surplus became $300. But we didn't have to go slash spending across-the-board in the middle of the year. We want to continue to be conservative because even worse than not giving increases to different areas is coming midway through the year and saying, I know we promised you increases, but we can't fund it and we're going to take it back. And so those tough decisions we have made, we're going to continue to make and because we do believe we need to have a surplus, we do believe we need a rainy day fund. That doesn't mean we can't make certain investments. We do have a surplus. If there's investments in things like mental health or other areas that we need to make, we're certainly going to do that through the budget appropriation process. But it's not going to be a free spending session by any means just because those accounts are full.

Grassley: And I would just say from the standpoint of the -- I was here in the legislature when there was a 10% across-the-board cut under Governor Culver and I think a lot of us that are still here learned a lot from that. We want to be able to fulfill the commitments that we make. So whatever decisions we make on the budget it's going to be with that in mind, a commitment we make we want to make sure that we can keep. We have been able to do that with education funding, we have been able to do that with a lot of the services even going back to June trying to keep everything status quo. So that is going to be the driver within our budget. What I have been telling our caucus, and I think our caucus is hearing, there is going to be more requests on the budget than potentially I've ever seen in my time in the legislature. So we have to be consistent with the way that we have budgeted because we have left ourselves in this position, like Senator Whitver said, based on these decisions that we have made.

Henderson: Speaker Grassley, in mid-December you said you want education decisions on policy issues to be focused on parents, parental choice. Does that mean that you will be giving parents a state subsidy to send their children to a private school?

Grassley: From my perspective, where I think that House republicans are going to start is everything is on the table. That would be consistent with what I said going back even earlier in the month. I think we should start session everything is on the table. And when I say that, parental choice and student choice being involved in that, I think they have been in a lot of school districts have been forgotten in these conversations. So from my perspective where we're going to start is everything on the table, but as we're making these decisions the driver is going to be making sure that the parent and the student are at the table and have their voices heard. Look back into the election, there was a lot of seats, and I know Senator Whitver could probably comment on this better than I could, there was a lot of districts across the state that I think that they played a huge role, that issue and the fact that parents didn't feel they were even being listened to when it came to returning their children into school district to reopen in person. I think that Iowans spoke loud and clear that that is their expectation and in fact, I think it affected a lot of races in November.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, do you think that the state should give parents tuition assistance to send their child to a private school or a parochial school?

Whitver: I think that, like the Speaker said, that's on the table. When you talk about parental choice there's a lot of different things that go into that. It's whether, can you transfer out of Des Moines Public Schools or not? It's whether, are your kids in school five days a week or are they all virtual? It's public-private. So there's a lot of different areas of that conversation when you talk about parental choice and we're going to have to sort through those. We're going to work closely with the Governor, we're going to work closely with the House, we have one our strongest members, Amy Sinclair, that is in charge of our Education Committee. We have full faith and confidence in her and her ability to help navigate all these education issues. But it's everything from funding or in-person or virtual to parental choice. And so education is going to be probably the biggest conversation of this entire session.

Murphy: So speaking of the election, we had a super close race in the Second Congressional District here in Iowa and that shined a light on the recount process there and maybe some concern about inconsistencies or a lack of clarity in state law. Senator Whitver, I'll start with you on this. Do you expect to see any legislation, debate legislation that would address the state's recount process?

Whitver: Well, I think what the 2020 election told us more than almost anything is election law matters. And having secure elections that people believe in matter. And that's why even back to years ago we were trying to bring some integrity to our elections to make sure that Iowans have confidence in our elections. And even as late as June and July we were trying to make decisions and I said this on the show in June, the number one thing we need out of our elections is they need to be secure, people need to trust them, and the rules need to be in place far enough in advance so both parties know what the rules are. And so we made many changes last year in June and in the legislative council to make sure that was the case. I believe in Iowa people did believe in the integrity of the elections, I believe they were secure. There are other issues that popped up, like the recount process, that I think we do need to address because secure elections that Americans believe in is the foundation of our entire country. That is what America is and we need to make sure that we have full faith in our elections and anything to clean up the recount process we should be looking at. And what some of the auditors did as far as trying to go around the rules with the voter ID, absentee stuff, that can't stand either. You can't have 8 counties doing one thing and 91 counties doing another thing. It needs to be consistent across the board. And so there will be some cleanup stuff, but overall our election law is in a really good spot. We've had Roby Smith, Bobby Kaufmann, working on that for years and they are doing a really good job. And again, it's to try to make the playing field balanced for everybody.

Murphy: So if it is overall, you talked about maybe some little cleanups, so should we not expect anything that significantly changes state election laws or voting, anything along those lines?

Whitver: I think it's too early to tell that. We give a lot of faith to our committee chairs to work on these. I certainly don't sit around and dictate every little change we're going to make and they have been working on it. But I think overall our election laws are pretty good and there is a little bit of cleanup we need to do.

Yepsen: Mr. Speaker, whenever I hear legislators talking about tweaking elections laws, I can also imagine that some people don't think it's a tweak, that it's a massive rewrite. It just depends on whose ox is getting gored. What about what Senator Whitver said, do you think we need to just simply work on the recount issue in the legislature? Or do you have other things?

Grassley: No, I think at this point in time, when it comes to election law our priority needs to be, and we have seen this for the last several months all across the country, is Americans, not one party or the other, I think want to make sure that we have secure, reliable and safe elections. And to your point specifically, I would say that if we have to do, if things need to be on the table that further advance that so that Iowans have faith in their elections, from the House's perspective I think that needs to be part of the conversation.

Yepsen: Do either of you expect to make changes to Iowa's absentee law system? Democrats cleaned up with that. They did a better job, they put more emphasis on it than your party. Speaker Grassley, will you be making more, imposing restrictions on absentee ballots?

Grassley: Again, whatever -- at this point I think it's too early to tell from that standpoint. If it brings further faith and confidence in our elections I think the legislature has a duty to look at those.

Yepsen: So, Senator, restrictions on absentee ballots?

Whitver: I think the number one thing that we need to look at with the absentee is what the auditors did to try to get around the law. The court shot them down three, four times, but it still doesn't change the fact that they were trying to skirt our absentee law.

Murphy: And the reason, to your point Representative Grassley, a lot of the lack of trust in the electoral system has been caused by some elected officials putting out misinformation about the election process, making complaints that are completely unverified. So are we setting ourselves up to make changes for a problem that doesn't exist?

Grassley: I think we heard the same thing when we passed voter ID several years ago, just this last session we heard the same complaints when we tried to have an even more secure absentee ballot process. I can't control what other people are saying or what they claim, especially in other states. I think we had record turnout, we had a great election here in Iowa, very safe and secure. But if we need to do more things that give that security, I think we need to be having those discussions. And it wouldn't be based on anyone's tweet or anything we read in the newspaper, it is going to be actual things that we hear from Iowans. That is going to be our priority.

Whitver: I would just add that the number one argument we hear at the Capitol on the debate floor is republicans are about voter suppression and that is BS. We had the largest turnout we've ever had. It's about making sure that when the election is over Iowans believe in the result. And that is what we have been working on. There is no voter suppression. We have higher turnout than we've ever had. But they are secure.

Yepsen: But Senator, there are 22 democrats, 22 voters in the Second Congressional District who are concerned that their vote in that race for Congress was not counted. They do feel suppressed.

Whitver: I don't know about those 22 people. I know that has been through a lengthy process for 3 months and Senator Miller-Meeks, now Congresswoman Miller-Meeks has been seated. And that is the process that is in law and it has been followed.

Yepsen: So when you look at the recount process, would you expect to clean up that sort of situation so that it doesn't happen again?

Whitver: Yeah. We're happy to look at all of those things, yes.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, on this program last week viewers saw a discussion about the bottle bill. Is that something legislators can tackle and make changes? Or is it just too complicated?

Whitver: I will never admit anything is too complicated to solve the problem. That is what we do is try to solve problems. The bottle bill has been around for over 40 years now. It has a purpose, it has served a purpose. And there are so many different interests and opinions on both sides, this is not one that is a republican versus democrat idea. I have people in our caucus that want to pull it out by the roots, I have people that want to raise it to 10 cents. It is a very complicated issue. So I'm not saying we can't fix it or change it, but to your point, it is complicated. I don't know what will happen with the bottle bill this year.

Henderson: Speaker Grassley?

Grassley: From my perspective, the number one priority is to make sure that the bottle bill does not go away. With the current process that we have I think it has worked. Now, there may be some changes that need to be looked at, and they are every year, back to what Senator Whitver said. From my perspective, the program has to stay because I think Iowans -- I think it is working the way it was intended from the standpoint of not seeing them in the ditches and trying to keep them out of landfills. So from my perspective that would be the priority.

Yepsen: Just a couple of minutes left.

Murphy: Just a couple of minutes and so much to get to. Worker safety during the pandemic has been an issue from the start. Republicans addressed this a little bit last year with the liability shield for businesses. Is there further work to be done on that front and weighing the worker's rights versus trying to keep the food system moving? Senator Whitver?

Whitver: Yeah, that's a complicated issue. And during our 12 week break last legislative session the number one issue that we heard from constituents, organizations, different entities, was about how can we get back to normal as quick as possible? And it was churches, it was grocery stores, it was food manufacturing facilities. It was everybody saying, how can we get back to normal? I know in my hometown we had a school that wouldn't allow baseball practices at the park because they weren't sure what their liability might be if people got COVID. And so we thought it was very important to bring forward the COVID liability bill just to add some assurance to churches, schools, non-profits, for-profits, that they're not going to get sued for frivolous lawsuits. If there was negligence, that is still able to be addressed through the court system. And so we have what I think is probably one of the most strict laws in the country regarding COVID liability and I haven't seen any new changes that we need to make at this time. But it is a strong law that we have in place right now.

Yepsen: Speaker Grassley, just a few seconds left. What about this issue of worker safety in meat plants? Can we have worker safety and keep the meat line moving for our beef and pork producers?

Grassley: Again, each specific case would probably be handled differently. The bill that we passed does not just grant blanket immunity for everyone. If you're a bad actor, the bill that we passed does not give you those protections. And I think, like so many other things with COVID, it's going to be an ongoing conversation that happens throughout the entire session and as we learn things and hear things that come up, it's just like every other legislative session, it just happens to be with COVID.

Yepsen: Gentlemen, time is an essence here too and I'm out of it. Thank you both for being with us, look forward to having you back.

Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at Noon on Sunday. We'll be joined by the lone democratic member of Iowa's federal congressional delegation, Representative Cindy Axne on Iowa Press next week. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa