Podcast

This edition of Iowa Press convenes a panel of Iowa political reporters to discuss the state’s ongoing pandemic response, top issues and debates at the Statehouse, and party politics. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa; Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises; Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio; and Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register. 

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

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An Iowa legislative session is grinding forward on issues ranging from education to voting, all while the state of Iowa continues its pandemic battle. We gather Statehouse reporters to explore the issues on this Roundtable 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, February 19 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: As the Iowa legislative calendar reaches late February, key issues are falling or rising to the surface. Everything from new voting restrictions to education changes to countless budget questions are yet to be decided. To gather insight we're joined by a Reporters' Roundtable of Statehouse journalists. Katarina Sostaric is the Statehouse Reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the legislature for the Des Moines Register. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Welcome everybody. I want to start, just go around the horn and get your thoughts about what I think is probably the biggest issue in Iowa politics right now, the vaccine rollout. How is this being handled? Kay, what are you hearing from people?

Henderson: Well, it sorts of reminds me of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you ask people, some people think it's not good, something it's really not good and some people think it's really, really not good. You don't hear a lot of people saying, this is going smoothly, partly because the supply is so limited and the number of people who are seeking to get the vaccine is so large.

Yepsen: Stephen, welcome to the show, your premiere appearance. Good to have you.

Gruber-Miller: Thank you very much.

Yepsen: What are you hearing on this vaccine rollout? How is it playing out?

Gruber-Miller: Right. I think, yeah, as Kay mentioned the supply is a difficulty and that is sort of coming from the federal level so there's limited things to be done about that. But I think the Governor has been criticized this week for canceling this contract with Microsoft for a centralized appointment system. There are a lot of people who are looking for appointments and they're having trouble figuring out where they can go to get them. The Governor says they're going to work with local websites and agencies to get that set up. But it's a challenge.

Yepsen: Erin, do you want to talk about this?

Murphy: Yeah, well and to piggyback off what Stephen said, that's kind of the biggest issue we're hearing right now is there are people who are in that group, that cohort that are eligible for the vaccine and they're wondering when it's going to be available and when they can take it and are having a hard time finding out more information about when their turn is up, when they will be able to access that. And that is why a lot of people are advocating for some kind of clearinghouse at the state level. Other states have managed to set something like that up. Iowa hasn't yet. They're still suggesting people lean on their health providers and their local public health departments for that information.

Henderson: And the cohort that is trying to get vaccine right now may not be the best at managing a smartphone. They probably, many of them don't even have a smartphone. And so that is adding to the calamity here.

Yepsen: Katarina?

Sostaric: Right, and I think there is a lot of confusion and dismay just among people who thought this computer system was coming, that would make things easier to sign up for vaccines and it's not coming now. And there's people calling numbers that they think are going to help them sign up for a vaccine and it won't. So it's just a lot of confusion and I think people are just disappointed.

Yepsen: Stephen, how do we compare, how does Iowa compare with other states? I saw some figures early on, we were fairly low ranking. Now, maybe that has come up.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, the ranking of the percentage of distribution of vaccine has come up compared to other states recently. It was near the bottom, as you said before, now I think we're near the middle. So there's improvement on that. And the federal government, like I said, is going to increase supply further.

Henderson: And there's a lot of confusion because some of the vaccine supply is going directly to pharmacies, some of it is going to the state and the state is sending it to the 99 county public health departments. And then you have vaccine that is going to the two Veterans Administration centers in Iowa and being given to veterans and that is not really part of the whole state calculation. So it's hard to get a handle on actually who is getting shots in their arms.

Yepsen: Erin, how much heat is the Governor taking over all of this?

Murphy: Well, that's -- heavy is the head that wears the crown, right? That's where the buck stops during something like this. So any individual that has frustration ultimately that comes to the Governor's desk. And that is why they are working and their public health department has said they are working late hours on this trying to get something ready to get more information out to people to help them set up these appointments. Critics have asked why there wasn't more preparedness. Why wasn't this thought of weeks, even months ago, so when we got to this point the state was more ready for this? And when we've asked that of state officials they say, well, and Kay mentioned, the supply is so limited it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because even if there was a system in place now that 5they don't have the vaccine doses to give out to everybody anyway.

Yepsen: Katarina, how does it -- the Governor issues these orders periodically and it really helps to be a lawyer to understand them. But, nevertheless, that is the way she is managing this crisis is through the executive powers of governorship. But she surprised everybody recently on a Friday night changed mask orders and other orders that she had, just the Friday before the Super Bowl. What is going on here?

Sostaric: Not just changed, but took away essentially all restrictions that were there because of the pandemic. And it did happen on a Friday afternoon, a day after she had a press conference where I think a lot of people would have appreciated the opportunity to hear her reasoning about that at that time. And when she was later asked, why did you do this on the Friday before the Super Bowl when no one could ask you about it, she said, well we were kind of just watching the hospitalization data right up until the last minute and that was the reason she gave for that. But I think there are also a lot of questions about that timing.

Yepsen: Stephen, is she in political trouble over this? I look at that, doing that on a Friday before the Super Bowl as her having a sense that her blue collar base is not happy with these restrictions, mask orders and rules and she wanted to get small bars and restaurants open, get her constituents in a little better mood.

Gruber-Miller: I think there are a lot of people, businesses and people, who were happy to see those gone. I think there's a lot of conservatives who were upset with those restrictions and will be, they are sort of tuned into that message that she said of just take personal responsibility. So I think that she was happy to sort of oblige since the hospitalization numbers, like Katarina mentioned, are coming down.

Yepsen: Kay, isn't it true though almost every Governor in the country is taking heat over the way this thing is being handled? The fact is we haven't had one of these in a hundred years. But she is certainly not alone in being criticized.

Henderson: Right. Every Governor is taking heat, as you said. In fact, Governors who had been sort of the darling at the beginning of this, New York's Governor is now taking heat for the way that nursing home deaths were not reported. The other thing here is that when she sort of took the executive action erasing the restrictions that she had put on businesses, I think you have to look at this in context of what is going on in the Middle West. Especially Kristi Noem, a neighboring Governor who had really no restrictions whatsoever. And as we move toward an election I think Reynolds might have been concerned about comparisons with neighboring Governors in states who have been popular with their republican base and how they have handled this.

Yepsen: Stephen, isn't it true that this is going to be the big issue in the election of 2022?

Gruber-Miller: It could be. I try not to make too many predictions but certainly it is on everyone's minds right now. And I think Kay is right, that even the message on the campaign trail last fall was Iowa is mostly open compared to other states and that is even more true now. And I think the Governor will really be talking about that a lot.

Yepsen: We still have yet to go through what the effect of these new variants of this COVID will be. So, switch gears, Erin. I want to talk about the session. I want everybody to weigh in on this. I want your impressions of this session of the legislature. What is going on? What's not happening? How is it playing out?

Murphy: Well, the one thing, I'll take the low hanging fruit since I get to go first here and say it's just such an unusual session because of the pandemic and the way it is operating with far fewer people going to the Capitol to testify on legislation, a lot of things being conducted virtually. So it is business as usual in some ways, but in a lot of ways it's a very, very unique session that way. Whether we're getting good governance out of it that way or not I guess remains to be seen.

Yepsen: Katarina, what are your impressions of this session? What is happening? What's not happening?

Sostaric: It's different and it seems, usually there's a lot of different events that lawmakers attend together in non-pandemic times where they are socializing with each other. They are friends, even if they are of different parties, there are many bipartisan friendships in the legislature and it seems this year tensions are high. And you saw that right in the first week of the legislature with the pandemic and the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the different party responses to those things, it just seems like there is a lot of tension and maybe not those opportunities to relieve that tension that you might see in other years.

Yepsen: Stephen, one of the reasons for that tension is the republicans have the trifecta, they are in charge and they're not fooling around. They are very disciplined in pursuing their agenda and the democrats are unhappy and can't do anything about it. Election law changes is the latest one. What's happening with that?

Gruber-Miller: Some of the republicans in the House and Senate dropped very large changes to how Iowa's elections would work this week and they are moving very quickly through the process. They were introduced Tuesday, they got subcommittees Wednesday, committee votes Thursday and they may get floor votes yet next week. And so this bill would do a lot. It would shorten Iowa's early voting period by 11 days from 29 to 18. It would create new criminal charges for some county auditors who disobey state rules and that is one of the things that republicans have been upset about is they feel like last fall there were some county auditors who acted in ways that were contrary to what the legislature wanted and they want to put punishments in place to deal with those things if they happen.

Yepsen: I see Speaker Grassley says it will shorten campaigns. I think it's going to be the exact opposite. People are going to have to start absentee ballot campaigns even earlier if this thing becomes law it seems like.

Gruber-Miller: Right, the justification they have given for shortening the early voting period is they said, well on the campaign trail people told us that they wanted the whole thing over and done with and they just wanted a shorter campaign season. And democrats point out that if you cast your vote early you stop getting those texts telling you to cast your vote. And so maybe it won't have that effect.

Murphy: One of the interesting things about this bill is we're coming off an election where we had record turnout. And what this bill does is there were reasons for that record turnout and this bill eliminates or bans a lot of those reasons. It shortens the early voting window, which Stephen mentioned. It bars election officials from mailing out absentee ballot request forms. That was a huge part of last year's election. It makes it harder for election officials to set up satellite voting locations. So all of these things that happened in 2020 that made it easier to vote and we had a record participation rate, a lot of those things would be struck down by this bill.

Yepsen: Kay, we talk about divisions in the Republican Party at the national level, but we've got a pretty good one going on here in Iowa. Ethanol, big corn versus big gas. The Governor has a proposal to help the ethanol industry mandating different sorts of pumps and blends and the convenience store lobby, ABATE, the motorcycle lobby, they are opposed to that. What is happening here?

Henderson: She has proposed essentially a renewable fuel standard for the state of Iowa. It would require every gas station to have pumps that have at least E10 and within four years she could essentially hike that herself, if she is still the Governor, to requiring E15. It also requires biodiesel, which is the soybean-based fuel people may not be as familiar with as they are with corn-based ethanol. During a hearing this past week someone from the Iowa Motor Truck Association representing them suggested that even though the legislation allows a pump that has non-ethanol containing fuel in it, it may be a game of, as they said, hide and seek to try to find it if you're at a large institution. And there's huge pushback from truck stops and from Casey's and Kum & Go, the major players in Iowa. They argue that the cost of implementing this, installing new pumps, maybe even tanks to have the fuel on hand will, the cost will be passed onto consumers and that means the cost of fueling up will go up for consumers.

Murphy: This has been an interesting thing politically speaking, the battle lines this has drawn. Kay kind of touched on it. Some of the groups that are opposed to this are groups that have fervently been in Governor Reynolds' court in the past, the gas stations have donated tens of thousands of dollars to her campaign. Americans for Prosperity which is a free market principle-based advocacy group has always aligned with the Governor. They are opposed to this because they say it eliminates choices at the pump. Very fascinating.

Yepsen: Katarina, what do you think of this issue? How are they going to get it resolved?

Sostaric: I don't know if they will. I think there's a few proposals that the Governor has put forth this year that are very controversial and there's things before that she has put forth that haven't passed and that could be the case again. So we'll just have to see.

Henderson: Well, and David, you were around when democrats in the Iowa Senate, led by then Senate President Jack Kibbie, tried to do this quite some years ago and republicans stopped it because it is interfering with the market. So as the folks across the table mentioned, this faces huge backlash.

Yepsen: Well, Stephen, when have we ever seen a fight where you've got all these republican interest groups at odds with each other? What is your take on how this is going to end up?

Gruber-Miller: Right. I think that everyone else, Katarina and everyone else are right, this may not get resolved. I think it certainly may not get resolved and passed the way it currently exists. Maybe they strike some compromise that is a little bit more lenient. But I guess there's a lot of people who don't want this particular version to go forward.

Yepsen: And Erin, is betting on the ethanol industry a little bit like betting on the buggy whip industry? And I say that because the rise of electric cars, which is happening at great speed, is going to make a lot of this oil and fossil fuel infrastructure irrelevant.

Murphy: Yeah, and if you follow, there is an economist at Iowa State University who pays attention to this stuff closely and he has noted that demand for ethanol has kind of plateaued in recent years. And maybe that is why this legislation is here as a way to kind of reignite demand for that product. But it's a fair point you raise. It is an industry that has already kind of seen a plateau and more fuel efficient cars or just straight up cars that don't use fuel at all is only going to make that problem even more of an issue for the industry in the future.

Yepsen: Katarina, I want to ask you about schools and school attendance. That is a very hot issue with a lot of people in the state. The legislature acted very quickly to impose some requirements on schools. What do you make of this fight? I see they're cutting off funding to places, or want to, to places like the Des Moines School District because the Des Moines School District doesn't particularly do what the Governor and the Department of Education wants to do. What is happening with that issue?

Sostaric: There's a couple of competing proposals. The House and Senate republicans haven't yet agreed on how to distribute that extra money you're referring to. It's sort of COVID relief money for schools. And the Senate would only not give that money to the Des Moines School District. And the House would distribute it based on how many days people were fully in-person in school. So that would kind of send money to different school districts in different amounts and not just single out one school district. But this is just something that I think it has turned into kind of a political issue, having children in schools during the pandemic, it's very controversial. The Governor has said repeatedly, I think kids need to be in schools. And now they are distributing money in a way that supports what the Governor has said. She asked for this. They are doing it in a way that they think is going to be acceptable to their voters.

Yepsen: Stephen, talk about some of the cultural issues that we see up there at the Capitol. The limitations that people want to impose on using the 1619 curriculum to teach about the history of racism in America, the bathroom bill where transgender people are not allowed to use bathrooms outside of their birth sex? What is happening with these bills? Why are these bills coming up?

Gruber-Miller: Well, we're still relatively early in the legislature session which means there is time for lawmakers to introduce some of their priority bills and some of these may not make it through the legislative process. But this is the time when everyone sort of gets to put forward their issues that they ran on, on the campaign trail. And so yeah, republicans they really don't like the 1619 project, they say that it misstates facts about American history and as you said it is a project that teaches about the history of slavery and sort of refocuses American history based around the year 1619 when enslaved people were brought to what would become the United States. And the bathroom bill, as you mentioned, this would apply to schools and you would have to use the bathroom that matches the sex on your birth certificate rather than your gender identity. Opponents say that it would lead to bullying of trans students and it could have a harmful effect.

Henderson: And also folks who were watching this program last week saw the Chair of the House Education Committee, republican Dustin Hite, suggest that it's not going to come up, that particular bill is not going to come up for a vote. The other thing about these bills that we're talking about, and I'll add tenure at the state universities, The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Legislators often introduce pieces of legislation to send a message. Hey, quit it. And so that is really what is going on with this tenure thing. We have seen bills of this nature in previous legislative sessions but there has been a bill introduced and there has actually been an oversight committee hearing among legislators interviewing people who work at the three public universities about instances in which they believe students' free speech rights, and I'll say conservative students' free speech rights were impeded by people who were employed at those universities. And so there has been an airing of those grievances. I interviewed Governor Reynolds this week and asked her if this was something that she wants to sign into law and she basically punted to the legislature and said, oh I don't want to tell the legislature what to do in that regard.

Yepsen: Erin, is there a danger that this stuff, while it's pandering to the base, you've got to keep the people who elected you happy, that is understandable in politics. But it sends some bad signals. In North Carolina when they did a bathroom bill it created a huge backlash, caused that state to lose athletic programs. And here we are, we're in the process of looking for a new university president at Iowa and you hear these, see these things with tenure. Who is going to want to come to work in Iowa with these kind of signals?

Murphy: Yeah, and to that exact point you will often see business interests opposed to these kinds of bills because they find that it makes it less appealing for people to move to a state to live and work here, so business groups will often oppose those bills. You mentioned the education groups are vehemently opposed to them because even if they don't pass into law, just the fact that they're out there kind of sends a signal and creates an atmosphere of hostility towards higher education and that, the Regents people will tell you, has a very real life effect even if it never becomes law.

Yepsen: Stephen, redistricting. We've got under two minutes left. What is going to happen with the requirements to redistrict our legislative seats?

Gruber-Miller: It is going to be an unusual year for redistricting because the data from the U.S. Census about population and everything else that they need to draw these new maps for the legislative districts, the U.S. Census has said it will be delayed until the end of September. And Iowa has a constitutional requirement that the legislature needs to pass and enact maps by the middle of September, otherwise it will go to the Supreme Court to draw those maps. So I don't think that lawmakers really know what they can do, if anything, about this if the data really comes so late. They may be left out of being able to draw those maps.

Yepsen: Kay, does that mean we have to save our speculation about who is running for what until later?

Henderson: Absolutely because legislators are weighing their options. Are they going to run again to be a member of the Iowa House or Senate, or are they going to choose maybe to challenge a sitting member of Congress?

Yepsen: We're all out of time. We'll come back at another time and speculate.

Henderson: Oh good.

Yepsen: Thank you all for being here. We'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night. And you can always find us online at iowapbs.org. 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