Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny) discusses recent actions at the Statehouse and gives an update on Senate Republicans' agenda and priorities for the remainder of the 2021 legislative 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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As we enter the final weeks of the 2021 Iowa legislative session, we sit down with a state leader helping to craft final agreements. Iowa 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, April 9 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: The final weeks of the Iowa legislature are often met with stormy weather and anxious lawmakers. Key bills and budgets are still floating through the Statehouse chambers in mid-April as legislators eye adjournment in coming weeks. To discuss the current status in Des Moines we're joined by Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver of Ankeny. Senator, welcome back to the show.

Whitver: Happy to be here.

Yepsen: Good to have you. Also joining us across the table is Lee Enterprises Des Moines Bureau Chief Erin Murphy and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Senator, on Thursday the Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling about how they intend to handle redistricting. It didn't have a lot of details. They said they would try to follow the state law to the extent possible. What is your reading of that document? And what do you intend to do?

Whitver: Well, this is a really important issue because every 10 years we go through this redistricting process to where we set the districts, the state House, state Senate districts, congressional districts back to an equal size. Normally we'd be about done with that in any normal year. But because the census data has been delayed it has really made our process difficult, meaning we need to have that done constitutionally by September 1st. The Biden administration has said we're not going to get that data needed to make those maps until the end of September. And so constitutionally it makes it very difficult for us to do that. The Supreme Court statement was a little vague, but how I read that is they, like almost everyone, agrees that Iowa has a fair and one of the best redistricting processes in the country and they think we should use it. And so if it gets past that constitutional September 1st deadline it sounds to me like they want us to, even if it's later than that date, use the current process as outlined in Chapter 42 of the Iowa Code.

Henderson: So the legislature would draw the maps and that would be it?

Whitver: Well, the normal process is the LSA, the Legislative Service Agency, would draw a map and then the legislature votes it up or down, they draw a second one, we vote it up or down, and you can't amend it until the third one. That is the process that has been in place for about 50 years and it seems to me that the court wants to try to use that process if at all possible. And that is what, people across the country, redistricting has become very popular, and people across the country say Iowa has one of the best if not the best system. And so it makes sense to me that we should try to use that.

Murphy: Senator, as the session winds down here the focus starts turning towards the budget and one of the departments that has gotten a little heightened interest right now is the Corrections Department budget after the unfortunate, the tragic incident at the prison in Anamosa where a couple of workers were killed. First, let me just ask you, do you believe that staffing in Anamosa and the state's prison system in general, is it adequate? Or do we need more workers at those facilities?

Whitver: Well, first of all, that was an extremely tragic situation and those were two good public servants that unnecessarily lost their life and it is extremely tragic and we need to make sure that we do whatever we can to make sure our prisons are safe for those workers. We're going to continue to work with Director Skinner to make sure that our prisons are safe for our workers and provide the resources needed. And so those conversations are ongoing. But we want to work with her. She is the one that is the expert, not Danny Homan. She is the one that knows what our prisons need and that is who we want to listen to when it comes down to funding our corrections.

Murphy: And Danny Homan, for our viewers, is the leader of the union who has been saying that they believe that the prisons are understaffed. But you're saying that you would defer to Director Skinner on that?

Whitver: Yeah, she's the expert, she runs all of our prisons. Iowa's prisons are looked at as a model institution that are run extremely well. She is a great public servant. And she knows and we're going to work with her to provide the resources that they need.

Murphy: And speaking of those resources, you have proposed I think a $4 or $5 million increase. House republicans have proposed a $20 million increase. Where will that land? And what will that money --

Whitver: Well, part of that discrepancy is we rolled out that number the day after the incident happened. So that process of figuring out how much we need in addition, if there are safety concerns, has not been vetted. And so the House rolled their number out maybe two weeks later to where they had done a little bit more work. So obviously it's going to come somewhere in between there after talking with both the Governor and Director of Corrections.

Yepsen: So there will be more money for the prisons?

Whitver: Absolutely.

Henderson: The Senate has passed a repeal of the inheritance tax, speeding up income tax cuts that were planned back in 2018. You've voted to get rid of the property tax obligation for county property owners in regards to the mental health system and have the state taxes cover all the costs of the mental health system. You've done some other tax items. Which one of those are a must do in your negotiations with the Iowa House?

Whitver: Well, you did a good job of laying out what we've been working on this year in regards to taxes. But as I've said, as long as we're in the majority and as long as I'm leader we're going to continue to try to reduce the tax burden in Iowa. And this year we have put forward several different bills. Eliminating the death tax is in the House right now. Getting rid of the triggers is in the House. The switch from property tax to the state as far as paying for mental health is in the House right now. All of those are important ideas. But the Governor as well as the Senate have said, getting rid of the triggers is the most important thing that we can do.

Yepsen: Just so our viewers know, the triggers are thresholds that are built into current law and you can't cut taxes unless you have a certain amount of state revenue.

Whitver: Yeah, so in the 2018 tax reform bill that everyone said was going to bankrupt the state, which was totally wrong, we have more revenue than we've ever had, we put in place triggers that the next set of tax cuts would not happen until we hit certain revenue triggers. The last estimate that came out just a week or two ago from the Revenue Estimating Commission show that we are right on the verge of hitting those arbitrary triggers. And so for predictability purposes instead of waiting to see if we might hit that trigger or not, we're so close, we believe and the Governor has said that we should get rid of those triggers. So that is important. The other one that is really important to Senate republicans is this concept of paying for mental health at the state level and not on the backs of property taxpayers. Most states across the country use state funds to pay for mental health and we have a system that has locked in mental health funding for over 20 years on property taxes and Senate republicans have now passed a bill to not only bring that, the property tax level down $100 million, but also increase funding for mental health. That is something that we have campaigned on, we believe in it, even before the pandemic. But mental health need has only increased since the pandemic. And so not only are we reducing property taxes, we're adding more money to our mental health system. So we believe that is a win-win for the people of Iowa.

Henderson: What is the likelihood this debate will last until 2022? You have some uncertainty about the strings that are attached, the federal pandemic money that was passed by Congress in the American Relief Act. Are you expecting to resolve these tax issues this year? Or might it be advantageous politically for republicans to act on taxes next year in an election year?

Whitver: I never think about what would be politically better to wait another year on something. We want to reduce taxes and I don't want to wait another year. I don't think Iowans want to wait another year. So whether it is an election year or not, I don't typically worry about that. We believe it's the right thing to do and I believe this is the year to do it because especially when it comes to the state picking up a larger share of mental health and adding money, our state budget is in a really strong position right now and next year it's going to get tighter with increased costs coming. So this is the year when our budget is in a strong spot to do that.

Yepsen: But can you do that without running afoul of this new federal stimulus requirement that you can't, states can't use the stimulus dollars just to backfill and cut local taxes?

Whitver: Yeah, and there are some people that are making that argument. But number one, we're not going to let Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden tell us what we can do with taxes in the state of Iowa. Number two, we're not using stimulus money to do that. We're using our state budget, state revenues that have a surplus, to reduce those taxes. This has nothing to do with the federal money. You make a good point, Kay, when it comes ot the federal money, there are a lot of strings attached to that. We're still trying to sort that out. Frankly I don't think the people in Congress that voted on that even know what is in that bill yet. And so it's going to take some time for us to sort through that. But the tax proposals we have put forward have nothing to do with any federal money that has come forward.

Murphy: Some of the Governor's proposals and priorities that she outlined at the beginning of the session are still up in the air in the legislature. Funding for broadband, you have passed a policy bill but the funding is still a question. Affordable child care and affordable housing. Where do those issues stand as things are kind of winding down now?

Whitver: Well, we're certainly working close with the Governor on those priorities and I expect to see some resolution on all of those. We have passed the broadband policy bill, which frankly is the more difficult part to get through. Now it's just deciding on what number of funding that we're going to produce. Still working on the housing bill. Still working on the child care bills. But overall her priorities that she set out at the beginning of session are alive and well in the Iowa Senate.

Murphy: And you said you do expect those to come to some resolution, especially in child care and housing?

Whitver: I do.

Yepsen: Will every city in the state and Iowan in the state get high speed faster broadband? You guys have talked about broadband for a long time.

Whitver: We have and we've been working on it a long time. It's not easy but with increased technology, with increased funding, with increased focus on getting it done I think we're as close as we've ever been. And it does take time and it does take resources. But with the focus from the federal government, with continued focus from Iowans here, we're going to continue to offer as fast of Internet to as many places in Iowa as possible. But the COVID really highlighted a lot of issues and this is one of them, that you need good solid broadband throughout the state, not just in the metro areas, you need it in every corner of the state. And that is what this is about is trying to reach those areas that aren't financially feasible for companies to go to. That is why they need incentives in certain areas of the state.

Henderson: On Wednesday, Governor Reynolds said that she would by executive order or hope to sign legislation to forbid so-called vaccine passports which have been in the news. You and your colleague in the House, Speaker Grassley, met with the Governor on Thursday. Did you resolve this? Is she going to do an executive order or are you going to take this up as a bill?

Whitver: Well, when it comes to vaccines, first of all, Iowa has made a tremendous amount of progress in Iowans getting vaccinated. We're up to about 23% of Iowans now that have been vaccinated. And I would encourage anyone that is able and willing to get vaccinated because the way for us to get back to normal is to have herd immunity and as many people vaccinated as possible. And for a year that is what everyone has said is we want to get back to normal and vaccinations are a huge part of that. But now that comes into question the vaccine passports. Now you're talking the government issuing some sort of piece of paper or smartphone app to prove that you have been vaccinated. That is not normal. That is not what we do in America. And so when you say we want to get back to normal, yes we want people to get vaccinated. But no, we don't want to have this system where you have to show your government issued passport to go to a ballgame, to go to a concert, to go shopping, to go to church. And that is what this is about. And so we haven't resolved what that looks like yet. But we want to get back to normal which means a lot of vaccination but not this new society where you need to show this government issued piece of paper.

Yepsen: Have you had a shot? Have you had your shot?

Whitver: I have not had my vaccine yet.

Yepsen: You're not old enough.

Whitver: Well, I mean, I am old enough. But I've said since the beginning and maybe on this show in January that there are vulnerable populations in Iowa that I think need it first and when it comes to my time and my turn I will probably do so.

Yepsen: Okay. But let me ask you about this. There is a fault line over who is getting the shot. We're seeing resistance from republicans more so than democrats over taking the shot. If you look at the sort of the pattern of where they've had COVID cases it's up there in northwest Iowa, heavily republican area. What is your message to fellow republicans who are nervous about getting the shots?

Whitver: Well, I'm certainly no doctor and I certainly don't study this. But what I just said is we want to get back to normal and there's a couple of ways to get back to normal and that is herd immunity and people being vaccinated. And so the sooner we do that, the sooner we get back to normal, but not go so far that we're in this new society where you have to have this passport to just survive.

Murphy: To follow up on that real quick. There's a difference between a government mandate to carry some kind of card versus what if a business say wants to require that an employee have a vaccine before they are hired or an airline that wants to require passengers to show proof of vaccine before they can travel? Is that okay? Or are you troubled by that as well?

Whitver: Those are all of the details that we're working through right now. I agree with the Governor that this is dangerous territory to have these passports. But what that looks like, how it impacts different businesses and different people, those are the details that need to be worked out over the next few weeks.

Yepsen: Another issue in the news, refugee children. The Governor said she doesn't want to see them here. What do you say?

Whitver: Well, first of all, that's a federal issue that I haven't spent hardly any time working on.

Yepsen: President Biden is asking the states to make space.

Whitver: Yeah, and we're so immersed in our state issues that I haven't had any conversations with anyone frankly about that issue. So really it is not something that has been on our mind and I would trust the Governor if she says we don't have the capacity to handle that. I would trust her on that.

Murphy: Senator Whitver, last session in a pretty remarkable moment both parties came together and passed some police reforms and social justice legislation in the wake of the death of a Minnesota man who was in police custody at the time. Everybody on both sides of the political aisle at that time said it was just the first step in the process. This session we've seen legislation that supports law enforcement in a myriad of ways but we haven't seen anything advance that would be classified as social justice or racial equity legislation. Why has that not happened? Where is that second step I guess?

Whitver: Well, you are right that we are one of the first and maybe one of the only states that actually passed legislation in the heat of the moment last June amongst a national conversation on social justice and we did that in a bipartisan, I believe unanimous, way. But, we're all for peaceful protests and having this conversation. But where our caucus has started to focus is when you cross the line towards assaulting police officers and shining lasers to injure their eyes during these protests, that is something that we want to stop and need to stop. And so some of the issues that we put forward relate to that this year more than anything. The one thing that we campaigned on this last year was yep, all for the conversation of peaceful protests, but we're going to back our blue. We made that promise to the voters of Iowa and we have done that with several pieces of legislation this year.

Murphy: But has that come at the expense of not addressing the other side of that equation?

Whitver: I don't know if it's at the expense of that. The bills that came to my desk through the committee process that our caucus wanted to work on generally slanted towards back the blue. And we wanted to keep that promise that we made to voters.

Henderson: The legislature has the authority to pass resolutions that start the process of amending the state constitution. Earlier this year the House passed an amendment that was abortion related. This past week the Senate passed the same proposed amendment but you changed the language. Why?

Whitver: Well, this issue goes back several years when the Supreme Court basically out of thin air created a right to abortion in the state of Iowa. If you read our constitution that right is nowhere in there until the Supreme Court wrote it in there through their decision. And so this is just about unelected judges making law as it is abortion. What we have passed last session was language that has been -- when you pass a constitutional amendment it goes to the voters and ultimately the voters are the ones to decide if the constitution gets changed. You need over 50% of the voters to support that for it to go into the constitution. And so any time you're trying to develop a constitutional amendment you want it to have the support of the voters so that it actually passes and goes into the constitution. The language that we passed last year was language that was tested, that does have the support of Iowans, that we do believe would pass and go into the constitution. The House at the beginning of this year changed that language. And so all we did was change it back to the language that has been poll tested, that the pro-life community has brought to us. And so we have kept the language that pro-life advocates have wanted all along. The House changed it at the beginning of the year, we just changed it back.

Yepsen: Clarify the timing for our viewers. If the legislature passes a constitutional amendment, abortion for example, this session in 2021, you have to pass it again after the 2022 election in the 2023 session. And then it could go to the voters presumably in the 2024 election. Is that right?

Whitver: Yes, so this is just the first step of basically a three-pronged approach. You have to pass it this session, next session and then it goes to the voters.

Murphy: Kind of our Groundhog Day question, the bottle bill, it comes up every session, every year we talk about it. There does seem to be a little more movement on that this year. Maybe the pandemic drove that discussion a little more and talking about the state recycling program. Is that going to be something that gets resolved this year?

Whitver: I mean, it's probably a groundhog answer from when I was on here in January, which is there's still a lot of ideas out there. And I've said, if there's 12 different ideas, there's not 1. And you need 1 to make it law. And so I know a lot of legislators, a lot of interests on every side are working on this. We haven't got a whole lot closer than we were in January. But in January it was far as it has ever been. So I would say this, there is still progress being made, but it will be difficult to wrap that up in the next three weeks.

Murphy: So we can ask you about it next year --

Whitver: Yep, it will probably be back.

Yepsen: The groundhog question. Senator, a lot of stimulus money coming out of Washington to state government, local governments, a lot of money, billions. How worried are you if at all that some of this money is going to get wasted or spent fraudulently? And if so, what is going to be done to make sure that this money is not misspent?

Whitver: Well, first of all, I am very proud that in Iowa our budget is balanced, we do have a surplus and we're not one of the states that is just begging for federal money to come. And you raise a great point that that's a lot of money to spent appropriately, without fraud, without wasting it. And so we've been working closely with the Governor to set up some sort of process or tracking system to make sure that money is spent appropriately. The biggest concern I have from a budget standpoint is that is one-time money. So any entity that gets that money if they use that for something that creates an ongoing cost they're going to have a huge cliff and a huge hole in their budget going forward. So the biggest thing is trying to use that money on things that are one-time so that it doesn't get built into a future budget because we've seen that in the past, even here in Iowa back in '08, '09, '10 where they used one-time federal money to plug ongoing expenses and that doesn't work out in the long run. And we spent several years getting our budget balanced after that. So we do need to track that. We do need to keep very close account of that money. But we also need to make sure it is spent in an appropriate way meaning one-time money for one-time expenses.

Henderson: The legislature is proposing sort of a status quo budget for the three public universities. What about the concept of a tuition freeze as well?

Whitver: Yeah, that is, I would say that is the House proposal at this point. They rolled out a zero increase for Regents and a tuition freeze. I believe in our budget we had $8 or $9 or $10 million for the Regents. And so there is disagreement there at least in our initial budget proposals. I think it's difficult to give them zero new dollars and freeze tuition. They have to be able to fund their university somehow. But that proposal from the House was rolled out just yesterday or the day before. And so like everything in the budget we'll continue to talk with the House about that.

Henderson: Do you think a tuition freeze is a good idea?

Whitver: I think certainly keeping the cost of higher education down is a great idea. Everybody wants that, not only the cost but the debt that comes along with it. And so the lower we can keep tuition the better. Whether that is an actual freeze or working with the Regents to keep it down we'll have that conversation.

Yepsen: What is the republican problem with higher education in this state? You're angry about tuition, zero increase in spending. What is the message republicans sending to state universities?

Whitver: Well, first of all, I'm a big Cyclone fan. I love our universities. From a conservative base standpoint one of the issues they have is the pushing of liberal ideas through our college kids and preventing republican or conservative ideas from even being considered or having a conversation on campuses. And that is why we have passed several measures over the last couple of years to just allow colleges to be what everyone says they want them to be, a free speech zone where kids can go to college, hear all ideas and come out with their own mindset. But that has not happened in a lot of places. And so we have passed free speech bills here in Iowa that said whether it's a liberal idea, a conservative idea, a good idea or a bad idea, we should be able to have that open free speech on our campuses. And again, we're one of the first states, I think we created the model legislation for that, that other states are doing. But really it's just about having an open, honest conversation --

Yepsen: Now that you've done that, Senator, why still a starvation budget for our state universities?

Whitver: I just said our budget rolled out almost $10 million extra for our universities. You'd have to ask Speaker Grassley and the House on that.

Murphy: Another issue that conservatives have been concerned about is free speech in social media companies and republicans have addressed that through legislation. The concern that some have expressed is that could have a negative impact on economic development. What is your big picture view of that? Do you share that concern that these bills could scare off companies that are thinking about coming to Iowa?

Whitver: I think these companies come to Iowa for a lot of reasons. We have the land, we have cheap energy, we have very few natural disasters. There's a lot of reasons these companies come to us. But there is a concern from our caucus of this censorship that is going on with big tech companies. They want to allow one side of the conversation but ban or censor the other side and that's a problem. And when these companies are getting state dollars in tax incentives, giant tax incentives to come to our state, we just want, again, open, fair, honest conversation.

Henderson: Your current term ends in the next election. Do you intend to seek re-election to the Senate or some other office?

Whitver: That is the plan, yes.

Yepsen: To run for re-election and not some higher office?

Whitver: Yes.

Yepsen: We've got just a few seconds left. Any effort underway to legalize recreational marijuana?

Whitver: That will not happen this year.

Yepsen: How about in the future? Illinois is doing it. New York is doing it.

Whitver: We typically don't follow the track that Illinois has gone on anything. But obviously this is one that has gotten more popular. I don't see it happening in the near-term in the state of Iowa.

Yepsen: Okay. We're out of time.

Whitver: Thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks, Senator, for being here, appreciate it. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining 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.

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