Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Prichard (D-Charles City) discusses House Democrats' priorities and agenda for the 2021 legislative session.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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

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Democrats have taken leadership control of the presidency, U.S. Senate and U.S. House in Washington. But back here in Iowa it's full republican control. So what is on the agenda for Iowa democrats in the Iowa legislative minority? We sit down with Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard 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 22 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: This past week marked a sea change in American politics as President Biden was sworn in as the nation's 46th Chief Executive. But as democrats in Washington assumed power in the presidency, the Senate and the House, Iowa democrats earn an opposite position. 2021 marks the fifth consecutive year of full republican control in Iowa's Governorship and both legislative chambers. To get some perspective, we're joined today by Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, a democrat from Charles City. Leader Prichard, welcome back. Good to see you.

Prichard: Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure.

Yepsen: I want to remind our viewers that we're taping this program on Thursday afternoon. And the journalists joining us across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Representative Prichard, many Iowans wonder when they can get that shot in the arm. Are there things in your view that the legislature should be doing to speed that process?

Prichard: Yeah, we all need to be focused on getting through this pandemic. And I think the information that I have is we'll go to the next category beyond the health care workers and that group of people who are working in the health care industry and the nursing homes, that we're going to go and transition to the next category around February 1st. This thing just can't happen soon enough for anybody's timeline. And I think we in the legislature, we need to deal in truth about how dangerous the COVID virus us, educate people, educate our constituents about what the dangers are and how to get information and how to get in to get the vaccine. We'd like to see that roll out as quickly as we can. And I'm pleased to see that that is a priority for the Biden administration too.

Murphy: Speaking of ways to mitigate the spread of the virus, you come to us right from the Capitol fresh off a debate about rules at the Capitol, whether or not to require face masks. Republicans, who have majority in the building, have been resistant to issue a face mask mandate. Do you feel safe at the Capitol? Should Iowans feel safe coming to the State Capitol?

Prichard: Well, and that's really what we want. It's what I want is I want people to understand they can come and be a part of the process, they can be heard, the public can come and participate in the process at the State Capitol. I have my concerns. I think that we could do a better job in safeguarding those that work in the Capitol and those that want to visit the Capitol. I think there are some things that we could do like mandating masks. We can utilize technology better than what we are doing with the rules that we have approved on allowing people to have input and discussion remotely and virtually. We have the tools to do that. I think we should be doing that so people feel safe participating in their state government. And so that is a concern that I've had with the rules debate that we had this afternoon.

Yepsen: I want to turn to politics for a moment. You were just re-elected as minority leader. In my experience, it's not very often a minority leader gets re-elected. If you're in the minority and you don't make the majority, you're out, and somebody else comes in. So what are you going to do differently? You lost seats in the Iowa House. What went wrong? What are you going to do?

Prichard: Well, that is kind of the million dollar question is what went wrong for democrats in Iowa. And I think we have to ask ourselves the tough questions. Was it something wrong with our message and the policies that we're promoting? I think us leading on issues like jobs, on health care and education, I think that is what is natural for democrats and where we're comfortable talking. Maybe we need to do a better job of communicating those issues and where we're at. I also think that the big factor in this last election was Donald Trump and he certainly had coattails and he certainly seemed to help down ticket candidates. I look at the candidates that we ran for the legislature, a phenomenal group of people. And I think a lot of this, the races across the state became nationalized.

Yepsen: Well, President Trump is no longer President and in two years it will be an off year for democrats in the White House. Normally the conventional wisdom is that the party in the White House gets hurt in the off year elections, which means bad news for you. What do you expect to happen in the 2022 elections?

Prichard: Well, I think from our standpoint what we're going to do is we're going to continue to be advocates for our constituents and for working people across the state. So I don't think our focus changes. I think, I don't want to go away and think that from the 2020 that everything we need to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, that everything that democrats stood for needs to be reconsidered or thrown out. I think what we need to do is we need to do a better job just engaging. I'm one of the few rural democrats left in the legislature and I think democrats need to learn how to speak to issues in rural Iowa. But then I've long said that the issues that the democratic party is suffering from is not just rural/urban, we need to do a better job of explaining to voters, working Iowans, where we're at on the issues. I think we offer a lot for working Iowans.

Yepsen: Did democrats make a mistake in not going door-to-door? Cindy Axne was on this program and said so. So, do you agree with that?

Prichard: I wouldn't go so far to say that that was going to make the difference. Maybe in one or two races, but a lot of these races I think they were not close to where door knocking was going to make the difference.

Henderson: Last week Governor Reynolds gave a speech in the Iowa House and her republican peers in the legislature are poised to advance a series of education-related measures. Let's go through those. The Governor would like to require 100% in-person learning in Iowa schools. Is that something democrats support?

Prichard: We support 100% in-person learning. Who doesn't want to go back to in-person learning? We know that's the best way to educate children is to have that in-person. But we want to do it safely and I think that is what the Governor is not talking about is how to do that safely. What I hear from the Governor, what I see in the legislation that is coming through the committee process now in the legislature, is just this rule by fiat, that we in Des Moines, we know best of how all of these school districts across the state from Sioux County to Fort Madison, how they should deal with COVID and how they should educate their children. I think that's a big mistake. I think it's dangerous, it's not following the science. Really what is lost in this debate is the honesty from the Governor's Office about how dangerous this pandemic really is and what are the consequences of what could happen with our schools if we just ignore the science and ignore the safety issues that the pandemic poses. So I don't think that is a good move and it could be a disaster for some communities.

Henderson: There are five school districts in the state that have diversity plans and because they do they are able to deny transfer requests, open enrollment requests from parents. There's legislation pending in the House that would get rid of that. Is that something that you support?

Prichard: No.

Henderson: Why?

Prichard: Absolutely not. I think when you look at the Governor's plan that she has unveiled this week and last week, I have never seen in my time such a comprehensive undermining of public schools in this state. And I think this is an example where the very purpose of public education in this country is undermined by this policy. Public schools are the great unifier and equalizer. We come to a public school, no matter who you are that school is charged to educate that child and set them on a path for success in their life. And I think what makes us strong as Iowans, as Americans, is our diversity. I say that as an Army veteran from a very diverse organization that is the U.S. Army. Our diversity is our strength. And I think that she is, for some reason, picking something that is not wise.

Murphy: Another proposal that is coming forth in this arena, the Governor has called them scholarships, they have been called vouchers in the past, however you want to call it, of putting state money aside for tuition, to help pay tuition for a student who wants to go to a private school and then a charter school program also being established. What is democrats' ability to support or level of concern with those proposals?

Prichard: Again, speaking for this democrat here, it's again part of this undermining of public education in this state. This is a state that has valued public education for decades. And I see this as an undermining function.

Murphy: Is it not possible to do both, to have strong public schools and --

Prichard: It's absolutely possible to do both but we're not doing it. We've got to use public dollars first to fund our public education system. And so I think there is a real issue from the democratic side of using public dollars to fund public education. I'm all for school choice. I'm all for people that want to educate their children in a private school setting. I'm all for people that want to homeschool their children. That's their choice. But saying that we're going to divert public dollars, taxpayer dollars to do that, and at the expense of schools, of public schools is simply to me not wise.

Murphy: And speaking of public school funding, another issue unique to the pandemic this year is the declining enrollment in a lot of districts and what that might mean for funding levels for next year. What is the legislative solution there?

Prichard: Yeah, so democrats as part of our COVID response, this is something that we have been talking about as democrats and we'll be filing legislation in the coming weeks, is to make sure that we have set public schools and our school districts across the state up for success through the pandemic. We don't want them to have lingering effects with their budget or with their enrollments or anything like that beyond the pandemic. We know that some schools have suffered because of the pandemic in enrollments. We don't want them to be a victim of the pandemic next year and two years down the road.

Henderson: Republicans in the legislature in the early days of the legislative session are advancing these proposed constitutional amendments. Let's talk about the first one. It would add a language to the Iowa constitution if approved by Iowa voters that would essentially overturn precedents set by the Iowa Supreme Court that says Iowa women have a right to an abortion. It didn't clear the Iowa House last year because it didn't have enough support among republicans. Do you think it does this year? And how will that advance in your view?

Prichard: Yeah, I don't -- the vote count I don't know. We've got a number of new members and new republicans and how they'll vote on that issue I don't know. It certainly is controversial. It would place Iowa I think in an unenviable place in the country where we have what I would consider basically an outright ban on abortion and lead to things for women's health care that we don't want and take the state backwards. Where we're at as democrats on this issue is that women's health care and those types of choices about pregnancy are best left to women and their doctor. It's a private decision, the state should not really be involved.

Murphy: Another proposed constitutional amendment working its way through the process right now would put something similar to the federal Second Amendment, the guarantee to bear arms, in the state constitution. I know that democrats have concerns that the proposal in Iowa goes further than the federal one and there's all kinds of concerns about that. But rather than litigate that, what I'm curious to hear from you is because it looks like this is on the track to being passed by the Iowa legislature and will head to the ballot for Iowans to decide. What is your sense once that is put to Iowans, to a vote? Is this something you think Iowans will support or will have hesitance over?

Prichard: There's a couple of things to unpack there. You've got to forgive me, I come at this as a lawyer and so --

Murphy: So you want to litigate it anyway.

Prichard: Well, I don't know if I can help it. What I would say is one, if it was simply just putting the Second Amendment, the federal Second Amendment body of law into Iowa law, my caucus would be in favor of that, we have that vote and we voted for that over the last few years. It has been our alternative. What the republicans are proposing is not the Second Amendment, it's something that goes way beyond what is needed to safeguard gun rights in this country and in our state. And so I think if Iowans are educated about how far this legislation goes and the risk that it poses to what people would be basically consensus regulations for firearms, I don't think it would pass. And so I think people who really understand this strict scrutiny language, I've got to throw it out there as a lawyer, I don't think it will pass because it's something that goes far beyond what most people think of when they think of Second Amendment gun rights, certainly when I think of Second Amendment rights.

Yepsen: Speaking of votes in the 2022 elections, the Governorship is up. Some people have mentioned you as a possible candidate for Governor. You thought about it once. Are you thinking about running for Governor in 2022?

Prichard: Not really, I really don't have enough time to think much about Governor. I'm focused on the House, I have been for a number of years. I'm one of these people that used to watch these shows when people were asked what's their future plans, are you going to run, they say oh, they're all going to run or whatever. But it's a big decision and it's something I haven't talked about with my family or anything.

Yepsen: Let’s switch gears to some other issues in 5the legislature. Child care. A lot of people think we need to be doing something to protect our children more than we're doing and also free up parents to go to work. Is that a consensus bill in the legislature? Do you think something will pass on that?

Prichard: Yeah, I think it is a consensus bill. We are definitely talking about child care. I mentioned the democrats' COVID recovery package. Child care is an essential part of that. It's something that we've been talking about for years. We talk about tax cuts, we as democrats would like to provide more tax cuts or credits for families that have children in child care. But in the state, our child care system, it needs help. We need more access to child care. There aren't enough child care providers. We need, they've struggled financially, a lot of in-home providers have struggled financially during the pandemic. We'd like to work with employers and there's a lot of talk on both sides of the aisle about incentivizing employers to have daycares available for employees. So that is something that can definitely be consensus and bipartisan.

Henderson: Democrats in the past have proposed raising the minimum wage. It is now appearing that democrats at the national level are talking about a $15 minimum wage. Is that too high for Iowa?

Prichard: We'll see where the federal discussion goes. But I think Iowa is definitely due for an increase in the minimum wage. We're tied to the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour. Nobody works for $7.25 an hour. I talk to employers, they don't pay that wage, and they can't expect to get and keep employees at that wage. And so Iowa is due for a minimum wage increase. Is $15 right for Iowa? I wouldn't sit here and say a number so much, but we need to have this discussion, we've tried to have this discussion over the last few years, we need to raise the minimum wage in Iowa.

Henderson: It seems there is consensus that Iowa doesn't have enough housing, particularly in rural parts of the state, yet there doesn't appear to be a consensus on how to resolve that.

Prichard: We have tools for dealing with what I would call the housing crisis. I look at in my town in rural Iowa, Charles City, we definitely have a need for housing. In some ways we're growing and the lack of affordable, quality housing is stunting our growth in our town. And we have tools like the Workforce Housing Credit that provides tax incentives. The Governor has talked a lot about cutting taxes this year. We would love to cut taxes, but we want to make sure that those tax cuts come in a way that helps working Iowans. The Child Care Tax Credit, the Workforce Housing Tax Credit, are the types of tax credits that we'd like to talk about and put on the table that will do, solve these issues that we're facing across the state.

Henderson: So what is a Workforce Housing Tax Credit?

Prichard: It provides an incentive, a tax credit for new construction in certain parts of the state, or throughout the state. So it's a program that we have funded. It has been oversubscribed. I think the Governor has recommended more allocation to it and it's something we'd be supportive of.

Murphy: The Governor has also proposed a package of legislation that would not only, it includes efforts to advance social justice causes, it addresses racial profiling by police, but also combines that with a proposal to protect police officers, give them options if they are injured on the job, attacked by a protestor, punishments for rioting, punishments for local law enforcement agencies that reduce their law enforcement budgets. From democrats' perspective, is keeping those two things together as one proposal tied together the right path? Or would you like to see those separated and tackled individually? And I guess also just broadly what are your thoughts on that?

Prichard: Yeah, I think broadly, again I come at this as a former prosecutor and lawyer, and too often this discussion about civil rights and police tactics and police regulation, it is viewed particularly by I think the Governor's Office and people on the right as this, what we do for civil rights we take away from police, and what we do for the police we take away from civil rights. And that is a false choice. That is not how we should look at this. Really what we should be, how we should be approaching this is from a public safety standpoint. What is going to make the public safer? What is going to make police officers safer? And so from our standpoint we want to look at things as making sure that we are giving police officers the best equipment and training and giving them the tools and best practices to make themselves safer, but at the same time build trust with the community and then therefore make the public safer. When I was in the County Attorney's Office in Floyd County I found that the best thing I could do in working with my law enforcement, working with my communities, was to build that trust between the public and law enforcement for people felt comfortable with law enforcement and law enforcement knew their community. And that is where we want to get to this.

Murphy: So, but in an effort to get something passed, do you agree with the Governor's approach of combining those things together where you may have to, in order to get this you may have to give up something?

Prichard: Yeah, I think we're definitely open to compromise and that discussion. We'd like to see some gains I guess in police tactics and that usually deals with the profiling studies and understanding how police officers are making decisions on the street and getting that feedback for our departments. And then looking at things that support our law enforcement. I think that is something that we can do together, it can be in one package, and I think we can find common ground very easily if we try.

Yepsen: We've only got a few minutes left and way too many questions. Kay?

Henderson: Small businesses have taken a huge hit during the pandemic, particularly restaurants and bars in small towns, and in large towns. What in your view should the legislature be doing for those businesses beyond the direct aid that the Governor has allocated from the federal pandemic relief money?

Prichard: We think that we can do to a lot more than what the Governor is proposing in terms of direct aid funding. There's more money that the state has available to give to small businesses. It's restaurants and bars I think that were kind of on the front line and took a lot of the brunt of the economic toll of the pandemic and I think that we can be doing more for them in terms of direct aid. We've got the money to do it without having to go into reserves and things like that.

Henderson: So you're talking about using just general tax, state tax dollars, not dipping into what is called the rainy day fund or the cash reserves?

Prichard: Yeah, what we're talking about specifically would be like the ending balance. We've got a considerable amount of money in the ending balance that we can use, that is available, that holds our reserves harmless.

Yepsen: Erin?

Murphy: One of the jobs of the legislature this year will be to approve new political boundaries that will be drawn up by the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency. Do you have a sense of what those will, what the political impact of those will be? Are the new maps going to be better for democrats for the next 10 years?

Prichard: Well, from the democratic standpoint we just want non-partisan maps. We want maps that are fair, that are not gerrymandered. We want voters to pick the politicians, not politicians to pick the voters. And I think as long as we stick to the system that Iowa has created in that we use non-partisan maps, we'll be fine.

Yepsen: Do you have any indication from republicans that they're going to change that?

Prichard: There's been some talk, not specifically, but I think there's some people that have said, well if we go to the third map, which could be a politicized map. I don't think that's necessary. I think once we the opportunity from the LSA, from the non-partisan LSA to produce one or two maps, that should be sufficient.

Henderson: Is this the year that legislators tackle the bottle bill? We have less than a minute left.

Prichard: You know, something needs to happen with the bottle bill. I get more emails and constituent feedback when that makes a headline. Iowans like the bottle bill, they realize that it keeps litter out of the ditches and roadways. But we've got to make it work for all the players. There are some major health concerns from the grocers in terms of having used bottles in their stores. We've got to be cognizant of that. I get a lot of emails with that response with the bottle bill, always do.

Yepsen: We've got just a few seconds left. Are you expecting any changes to the election laws in the wake of the recount hassle in the congressional district in Eastern Iowa?

Prichard: I think there's some timelines that we should probably look at in terms of doing the recount to make sure that we've given ourselves enough time as a practical matter to do the recount. As I understand there were just some impossible timelines to actually conduct the recount. So yeah, there's things that we should probably be looking at.

Yepsen: And I've got a timeline too, Representative Prichard. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Prichard: Always a pleasure. Thank you all.

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. 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