Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press we convene a panel of Iowa political reporters to discuss the various legislative and political outcomes of the 2021 Iowa legislative session. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Dave Price, political director for WHO-TV; Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa; Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises; 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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The 2021 Iowa legislative session is in the rearview mirror and political conversations are already shifting to 2022. We gather a reporters' roundtable to sift through the legislative winners and losers 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, May 28 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: After 129 days, the Iowa legislative session officially wrapped up in mid-May. But a litany of last minute bills and political jostling dominated the final days of the session. So where does this leave public policy for Iowans? We have assembled a reporters' roundtable of journalists who have covered the twists and turns in Des Moines this year. Joining us today is Dave Price, Political Director at WHO-13 in Des Moines. Katarina Sostaric covers the state government for Iowa Public Radio. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Welcome to you all.

Yepsen: I'd like to have you all field the first question. I'll start with you, Kay. What is this session going to be remembered for? They left town banning masks in schools at the last minute for kids. What do you think this session will be remembered for?

Henderson: Well, of course that will be one of the key moments of the legislative session. The Governor signed that bill into law in the early morning hours and many people found out about it in the morning when they got up with their kids to go to school. When I look at that bill, one of the things I see though is the following day Governor Vilsack signed a law that bans so-called vaccine passports. And to critics of vaccines that did not go far enough.

Yepsen: You mean Governor Reynolds?

Henderson: Beg pardon?

Price: You said Vilsack. You just had a flashback.

Henderson: Oh I'm sorry. I had a flashback. Governor Reynolds signed that bill the next day. And so I think those two things were done in tandem. One was supported by people who were critics of vaccines and the other was opposed.

Yepsen: Katarina, what do you think this session is going to be remembered for?

Sostaric: Jumping off that, I think the pandemic obviously was a big mark on this session, just how it was handled with a lot of business being done virtually, much fewer people in the building than is typical. The Senate, for example, had subcommittees over Zoom, which I think is something that never would have been predicted in past legislative sessions. And then also there was just disagreements between republicans and democrats on safety measures. And the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in the state ended up saying there were major safety concerns related to COVID at the Capitol this session.

Yepsen: Erin, same question.

Murphy: I think what stood out to me was the number of bills that we saw where republicans in the majority felt wronged by something and their reaction was to write legislation, new state laws. If you were a county auditor that conducted your elections a way that republicans in the majority didn't like, they wrote a law for you, and now made you a felon if you break state law. If you are a college professor who taught a certain subject in a way that republicans or conservatives don't like, they tried to take away your tenure. If you are a social media company that is maybe banning conservatives for spreading false information about the election, now state legislators have said you don't get state grant money if you do that. So it was a, I don't know if vindictive is the right word, but it was very much a session filled with bills where republicans kind of put in the crosshairs groups of people that they felt had wronged them.

Yepsen: Dave Price, what do you think this session is going to be remembered for?

Price: I think maybe a couple of things. Mental health, the way they are changing the way this is funded, have the state take over instead of local property taxes. The down payment on broadband expansion. This could be just one phase. And maybe that is one thing that will be more bipartisan, looking ahead there could be more fundamental changing. To go back to what Kay was saying about the masks though, and I wonder if -- the election is a long time away here -- but I wonder with the masks, this is all anecdotal stuff so who knows if this even going down the right path here. But overall if more Iowans approve of the way the Governor handled the pandemic than disapprove, I'm not saying everybody is on board, just get on social media with the #COVIDKim so you know where her biggest opponents are on this. But, if by and large people think she has kind of woven in a way that has helped the state make its way through this, the masks caused chaos at the end. So this little thing was tacked onto that standings bill at the end, which is the catch all way they end the session here. But there was almost no notice to anybody. So we see the Twitter video that the Speaker shared at 12:30 in the morning or whatever that was when this was signed and administrators, unless they were up at 12:30, 1:00 to see that this actually happened, these administrators across our state are waking up to this about we can't have masks anymore, we can do it voluntarily, can't force it. So I know at our school district they're sending out messages early that morning, you're trying to prep your kid as you walk out the door about hey here's what is different and then you have the conversation about we either believe in masks or we don't believe in masks. That part was all chaos. It may not matter in November of 2022. But I thought maybe of all the things that have happened in the pandemic now perhaps this is the most recent so it's standing out. But is this the thing that became perhaps more, whether vindictive is the right way, but this sort of celebration of freedom that took effect immediately rather than July 1st when most stuff usually changes.

Yepsen: Erin, let's look ahead. What's left for 2022? What is ahead? What are some of the subjects you see coming at us?

Murphy: Well, one thing kind of a package of things that I'll be interested to see is the Governor had made some pretty significant proposals that didn't get off the ground for whatever reason this year. She proposed an ethanol requirement at gas stations all across the state and that kind of pitted some unusual political normally allies against each other and that didn't move.

Yepsen: Big gasoline and big agriculture, big gas versus big corn.

Murphy: Yeah. And you had the individual rights people too coming out and saying it takes away choice at the pump. So that was an interesting one. Will she come back and make another push for that? They did a lot in school choice. The one thing that didn't get done are the scholarships, democrats call them vouchers, the public funding for private school tuition. Will she take another crack at that one?

Yepsen: So that will be back. Katarina, what other things do you see coming next year, leftovers from this session?

Sostaric: One of the things towards the end of the session that Governor Reynolds said she would like to sign a bill on transgender athletes. There has been a push by republican-led states to ban transgender women and girls from participating in women’s and girls sports and that is something that republican lawmakers said they were working on at the end of this session and that they want to now work on in the interim before the next one.

Yepsen: Dave, what do you see coming?

Price: I don't know what's next. Some of it may depend on what is happening in our state at that moment. There were a lot of things that it does feel were reactionary, this sort of cultural, philosophical kind of things that they jumped on that sort of maybe followed up what we experienced in the 2020 election. So I don't know if there is necessarily the obvious one. To me, they already did taxes. So whether you start getting into more welfare reform kind of things --

Yepsen: How about water quality? Do you think they'll do something with that?

Price: They haven't for a decade now. Would this really be the year to -- would next year be the year to raise taxes in any capacity?

Yepsen: Not in an election year.

Price: You wouldn't think.

Yepsen: Although it has happened. Kay, what do you see coming?

Henderson: I wouldn't give up on the idea that Senate republicans will push for more and deeper tax cuts. There were proposed tax cuts included in several packages that never made it through the House. And what we saw during the past few months is that there's just a little bit of a difference between how far House republicans were willing to go in cutting taxes and how far ahead of them Senate republicans were, number one. Number two, Senate republicans for the past several years have tried to enhance income verification for people who are enrolled in Medicaid and are receiving food stamps and they have indicated a strong desire to try to push that again next year.

Murphy: And then another thing I'll just add to Dave's point earlier about the mental health legislation and reform, that will be coming back because now that is being funded out of the state pot so that is almost going to be an annual issue in front of the state legislature is making sure that system is funded appropriately. And there's also details to be, and this was the point that Speaker Pat Grassley made a lot when he talked about their hesitance to jump on board with that, was making sure that all these different services are being offered as they are required and that they are being properly funded. It was a good feel-good moment in a lot of ways and something that a lot of people including advocates have been pushing for but there's very much a devil in the details that is going to have to be watched on this.

Henderson: And just one other thing, I believe that the Governor is having a task force meet and make recommendations about how to improve access and the price of child care in Iowa and I would look for that to be one of her legislative priorities in an election year and that would be a bipartisan advance on her part.

Yepsen: Right, that appeals to obviously women's groups but it also appeals to the business community looking for --

Henderson: And parents who can't find child care for their kids and can't go back to work because they can't find a place for their kid to be babysat.

Yepsen: Katarina, what about the bottle bill? Is that going to, do we throw that in the scrap heap? Is that put in the recycling bin?

Sostaric: I'm sure there will be some more work on it next year. This year there was some talk that they had gotten closer than ever to a deal than in past recent history. But it is one of those things that is always contentious and as some of the lawmakers will say, if some of the stakeholders don't make some sacrifices in these negotiations there won't ever be anything done on it.

Yepsen: But that is a good example of what you were talking about earlier in terms of the pandemic having an effect. The grocery stores said we're not taking these cans back during the pandemic. So they start piling up. And all of a sudden we're forcing a debate in this state about who is accepting them and who isn't. They said they would start accepting them again. Fareway said no. So that is being litigated. So that issue is, you're right, it has been around forever but it never seems to go away. The fizz is still in it. Erin, before we get to 2022 we've still got another session this fall. What happens?

Murphy: Yeah, so they're going to have to come back and talk about redistricting when we finally get the census numbers and the hope, pardon me, the latest hope is that we will have enough data to redraw those political boundaries by the time that the Constitution requires. If not, the Supreme Court seems to be sending the signal that they'll allow legislators to do that work even after that deadline. The question is, the open question is, it's a special session called for that purpose, but it doesn't mean that's all they have to do. What other issue might some lawmakers bring to the table? And I think that is an open and interesting question.

Yepsen: Dave Price?

Price: On that line, there's always something that they can clean up some language that you didn't anticipate or it wasn't clear enough or whatever it was. But I wonder if maybe a P.S. to this part and then our earlier conversation is just all of that money that has come through with federal COVID-19 related relief, $2.5 billion or so that I think is still available in some way, shape or form. And while they have a couple of years perhaps to use this, where will that come in? We expect some of it will go into the broadband that they did the $100 million for the first year on this so it will be a pot in there. But it's just so much money that we're hearing some of the local communities start to talk about what they may do with it. But is that going to somehow be a factor that comes up in the special session? But especially next year where is this stuff going to go?

Henderson: But heretofore, republican legislators have said we're comfortable giving Governor Kim Reynolds authority to do with it what she will.

Price: Although there was -- sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off -- but before this session a team we did hear from, maybe it was the small, small minority about they were, some of them were uncomfortable right as far as using her authority?

Henderson: But then on this program in January we heard Jack Whitver, the Senate republican leader said, we're not going to visit that issue in the middle of the pandemic.

Price: For sure.

Murphy: Yeah, so to split the difference here, the leaders have lined up behind the Governor. There are some in the rank and file who, to your point, thought the mask mandate went too far, especially when churches were closed.

Yepsen: Katarina, with all of this money sloshing about is one of the stories we're going to be covering in the years ahead going to be fraud, misuse of funds? The Governor has already gotten in trouble, she hands out a contract to somebody that has got some connection to her office. What do you think?

Sostaric: It's very possible. I mean, as you noted there was already a story about the Governor having a contract with Workday, that big software company for the state that the federal government then said actually you couldn't use this money for that and she had to pay it back. And so I think there is definitely a chance that we're going to see some more things like that with just how much money there is going around.

Yepsen: What about, Kay, about local governments? As Dave mentioned this money sloshing around. It is, it's an incredible amount of money that the state has never had and public officials in this state have never had to handle. There are restrictions on what they can spend it for, there are timetables for how soon they have to spend it. What do you think? Is this going to be a big story in the next few years?

Henderson: Indeed and it will involve citizens going to city council meetings and trying to figure out how their small community is using several hundred thousand dollars. Are they using it to fix the potholes or are they using it in some other manner? We're all focused on state government but I think the places where the real scrutiny will happen are around city council meetings and county board of supervisors meetings. And one of the things that we have seen during the pandemic is for the first time citizens have been able to watch those online. So the real question is will that continue? Will citizens still be able to monitor the activities of their local governments online?

Yepsen: Yeah, it will be a hot issue once they start paving the road in front of the supervisor's house or the mayor's house, then we're going to hear about it. Dave Price, switch gears. Is this a republican state? Republicans had the trifecta. They to me seem very disciplined. But does that reflect the fact that Iowa has moved into becoming more of a republican state?

Price: I think your tie would demonstrate the official tie of the state right now, yes. It feels very red.

Yepsen: I've always worn a red tie.

Price: I know and I love my cardinal red. It feels like it, right, and it has been trending this way for a while. I don't mean this is a permanent switch or anything but you just follow the demographics, follow the elections, it just keeps getting redder.

Murphy: That was the point I was going to make, you've had the trifecta through three elections now. So republicans have gained control, had the majority, enacted their agenda and voters keep sending them back. They haven't rejected that yet. In fact, they have grown their majorities in the House and Senate in this most recent election. So, for those of us who were around when it was still a very purple state it's hard to let go of that completely and say it has shifted, but boy the evidence is growing that this state is turning red.

Yepsen: And to your point about redistricting, it's hard for democrats to get a game going when nobody knows what the district lines are going to be for the legislature or for Congress and for a challenging party you need that time to ramp up.

Murphy: Absolutely.

Yepsen: Katarina, switch gears. Iowa has flatlined in population. The business community wants to attract people. We have had a lot of talk about people attracting young people to Iowa. There was debate in the session that some of these, this transgender bill and some of these social issues were turning off younger people to living in this state. And in fast you had Mike Ralston, the head of the Association of Business and Industry on this set say, they are having private conversations with legislators about this. What do you think? Did Iowa make itself a more attractive place for younger people?

Sostaric: I think there are some in the business and the tech community that say, yeah we're concerned that younger people aren't going to want to say here because obviously things change from generation to generation, younger people are more interested in protection of LGBTQ rights, I think from a broader perspective than maybe some older generations are. And I think looking at some of those things and also not to mention Iowa's economy also benefits from immigrants coming here. There are companies that are recruiting people from outside of this country to come and work for them and maybe when they see things like this is kind of restrictions on diversity training in a bill that was passed by the Iowa legislature, I think all things like that could make Iowa less attractive to certain people coming in.

Yepsen: What about higher education? Do you include them in that list? Their budgets were flatlined. They may have to raise tuitions and talk about limits on tenure. Is that going to work in this same pattern of maybe it doesn't make us very attractive to younger people?

Sostaric: I think that could certainly limit people in the higher education sphere from wanting to come here. And I think tuition is going up pretty much everywhere so I don't know that makes it necessarily unique.

Yepsen: Dave?

Price: I just think also one added thing on there would just be all this talk about racial equality, especially with younger people that is something they talk about a lot. But big picture I also wonder if you have two forces pounding here, all the points that Katarina made along with racial justice and then this idea with broadband, because I keep coming back to that, the whole sales pitch is mom and dad are getting older, you live in San Francisco right now working for Twitter or something and you can come back and work remotely from the farm or smaller town or whatever it is. But is it going to be attractive enough to you culturally?

Yepsen: You talk about racial justice. Talk more about that. The government made a big deal, we're going to have an announcement, we're going to have a package sent to the legislature trying to diffuse the demonstrators earlier in the year. Half of that became law, the other half didn't.

Price: Yeah, and you can tell the way she is talking about it when she was on Fox, she is also looking back at what they did last year which was the immediate effort, kind of a one day thing they passed through, so banning chokeholds in most cases for one thing. But the additional protection she wanted when it came to racial profiling that she pushed publicly, we don't know what the discussions were behind the scenes and how much she was pushing legislators to get behind her, but publicly she had talked about that. That didn't make it through but the back the blue did.

Yepsen: Erin, he mentioned the Governor appears a lot on Fox News. Is she worried about firing up the republican base in 2022?

Murphy: I don't know worried about but she definitely appears to be making that concerted effort. And look, Iowans watch Fox News too, so she can still say she's speaking to Iowans through that. But it's definitely a conservative leaning viewership. She has done three of those now in the past few weeks, which is unusual. I don't know that Terry Branstad ever did anything like that. So it seems to be a ramping up towards a campaign and getting a message out to as many of her base as possible.

Henderson: I will say from Fox News perspective they don't have a republican president anymore but they do have chief executives of states. And so from a programming perspective it makes sense for Fox News to sort of elevate all of these voices of Governors around the country and the things they are doing in executive ways as a contrast to what the Biden administration is doing.

Yepsen: But one of the things republicans learned in 2018 was that when President Trump isn't on the ballot a lot of his voters stay home. So my question is, when Kim Reynolds is talking to a conservative audience through Fox News is she in effect trying to fire up the republican base here in Iowa to get the vote?

Henderson: Sure and it also helps with fundraising to be honest.

Yepsen: And what about the gun amendment that will be on the ballot?

Henderson: That will be hotly debated on both sides. I would expect that to motivate some voters on the right side of the spectrum and some voters on the left side of the spectrum.

Murphy: That one will be, it will be just like another election race on the ballot. We'll have campaign ads about that, we'll have outside groups coming in making the case on each side. That will be a big deal, that will be just like every other race at the top of the ticket.

Yepsen: Real quickly, we have just a couple of minutes left. Is this an historic session, Dave?

Price: We'll see. I guess I'm thinking about mental health. Who knows, it's a big change but it puts us more in line with the other states in the country. So does this become we do this and then next year they do this and the next year they do that? I don't know.

Yepsen: Erin?

Murphy: I think it has the potential for that and it will be interesting to see what the election law changes, what impact those have on turnout. You do hear a lot of experts say, even when these laws are enacted turnout finds a way especially if the candidates motivate the voters. So maybe it won't. But I think that is something worth watching.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: It will be historic if the companies that extend and expand broadband speeds actually get customers. If people can't afford it, it's not going to have the historic impact that people are purporting that it will.

Yepsen: Katarina, do you think it will be an historic session?

Sostaric: I think there was a pretty historic increase for the state's prisons, a $20 million funding increase, and that followed the deaths of two corrections workers at the Anamosa prison this year.

Yepsen: Dave, what do you think in terms of taxes?

Price: Taxes maybe but it probably continues on that line. I feel like I need to piggyback on Kay twice because I totally agree, next year may be the way they try to add more to the tax cuts. But your point about broadband I feel like probably hasn't been made a lot. In that big picture yes it expands the potential here but if you can't pay for it what's the point?

Yepsen: Just a few seconds. We remember Harold Hughes as Governor because he started the community colleges. Will Kim Reynolds be the Governor that got Iowa broadband?

Price: We'll see. She didn't get what she wanted from the legislature yet. She wanted $450 million over three years. She got $100 and then she'll kick in some federal money. But let's see how it works.

Yepsen: It's a good start. We'll have to see what the clock looks like and we're out of time. Thanks to all of you for being here today and helping us out. Good luck and have fun this summer.

Thanks.

Yepsen: 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 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.

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