Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives Pat Grassley (R-New Hartford) discusses the upcoming special legislative session and the redistricting process. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, 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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Fall 2021 is full of politics and now an upcoming special legislative session here in Iowa. We sit down for a preview with Iowa Speaker of the House Pat Grassley 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. 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 political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 24 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.

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Henderson: House Speaker Pat Grassley, a republican from New Hartford, was first elected to the Iowa House in 2006. In October of 2019, his House republican colleagues selected him as their Speaker. He is here today to talk about issues facing the Iowa legislature, namely that October 5th special session coming up to consider plan 1 of redistricting. Welcome, Mr. Speaker.

Grassley: Glad to be here with you, Kay.

Henderson: Also joining us at the Iowa Press table today are Stephen Gruber-Miller of The Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Lee Enterprises newspapers. Mr. Speaker, but first, your grandfather, United States Senator Chuck Grassley made an announcement early this Friday morning that he intends to seek re-election to an 8th term. He told many of the reporters at this table that he would be consulting with the family. Was this a unanimous decision of the family? Or was there someone who said, you're 88, time to retire?

Grassley: I think that the family has unanimously supported his efforts for years now, obviously to continue to do it. It's a tremendous sacrifice on a family and for him to do this and we know that that is where his passion lies and that his representation in D.C. for Iowa is so important that I think it was a unanimous decision by the family to get behind and support him.

Henderson: Erin?

Murphy: Mr. Speaker, Kay mentioned the special session that is coming up on October 5th where you guys, you and your colleagues in the Statehouse will be voting yes or no on the first round of new proposed maps that would redraw Iowa's political boundaries for the next 10 years. You are the leader of your caucus and you have the majority in the House. Are these maps going to get approved or are we going to head for a second round?

Grassley: Well, i think that right now we're still in the position of analyzing it. I've been calling through the caucus to kind of see what everybody is hearing back in their districts. It continues to be talked about who is going to keep what majorities and who is thrown in together and I remind Iowans that that's not really what you weigh the criteria on. You want to make sure that you're keeping counties together, that there is equal representation. So, we're looking through all of that, trying to get input from the members, see what they're hearing back home, the public hearing piece getting some feedback on that. So right now we're still in that process and obviously we have until October 5th to make that decision. But I think that right now we have to do our due diligence. We don't want to rush to, like you said, this is a decision for 10 years, I don't think it's something you just rush out immediately and be like yes or no. I think you have to make sure you really think through and take all the factors into play.

Murphy: You said you've been talking to some of your members. Which way are the winds blowing right now? Do you have a sense?

Grassley: I think members are, I think we're getting positive feedback from members as they talk to their constituents. I've been, not a lot of our members have been through a redistricting, I have been through a redistricting and so as you talk to your people in your district, oh you're not my representative anymore, some of those conversations happen or hey I know some people in that area, let's see what they kind of think. And you just want to make sure, you try to keep areas of the state that have some things in common geographically together. You don't want to have a district that spreads across and geographically just doesn't fit whatsoever. And I think those are some of the things that we're working through right now.

Murphy: And as the leader of your caucus what is your role in this? Are you telling your leaders vote however you want individually? Or are you saying we need to have a united voice as House republicans on this vote?

Grassley: Well, if I remember correctly 10 years ago I don't think we had a unanimous vote when we took the map for just republicans being in the majority making that decision. I approach this similarly as I do a lot of the other issues. I've got to get feedback from the caucus. I obviously represent them. At the end of the day I have to present them with kind of -- I'd like to see us unanimous in that but I know with as many seats as we have, when you have 59 seats, that isn't necessarily a guarantee. But I don't think it has ever been an expectation of a redistricting map to have everyone vote for it because there are some members that just may not feel that that's a good district for their constituents.

Gruber-Miller: You mentioned that you have been through a redistricting before. If this map passes you'll be thrown into a district with another incumbent just like you were 10 years ago. Are you intending or prepared to run another competitive primary?

Grassley: Well, again, that shouldn't be part of the decision that you weigh. That is not by state law what is part of this primary. In fact, I was giving Senator Whitver a hard time in our last conversation, I told everybody I'm going to tell everybody he's trying to recruit me to run in the open Senate seat. I jokingly say that. But obviously we'll each have to make our own decisions when it comes to the redistricting after that happens. And I know that there's a lot of focus on members being put in together. But again, that is not part of this process, that's really not what you're supposed to look at. But each member obviously is having those conversations with one another.

Gruber-Miller: There are some national republicans and some here in Iowa who are not pleased with the fact that this creates a congressional district that is more favorable to democrats. What is your message to those folks who have concerns?

Grassley: Well, I think when you look at the population shifts in the state we've had pretty steady population, it's just where the Iowans are living in the state. I think that as you're analyzing that, again, that shouldn't be part of what the criteria is, but to draw a map in this state with the way the population shifts have been made I don't think you necessarily have an unfair map by any means for either party necessarily and that really, you should not be passing a map based purely on political motives. That is not one of the criteria that we're supposed to follow. I know some people on both sides don't like parts of it. But really you have to look about the things laid out in the Code and what the expectations of the legislature is.

Henderson: The calendar flips to October 5th, you have a special session, you take a vote on redistricting. Do you plan to have other bills in the hopper to take votes on?

Grassley: My expectation at this point is to focus on the map. We're already, what, six, eight months behind where we usually would have done this during last session. We need to get this process in motion not just for republicans or for democrats, but for Iowans. Usually we spent this entire summer getting to meet people in our districts. We're behind on this timeline. So whatever we do I don't want to be bogged down with a bunch of other legislation. I'd like to see us focus on the maps and continue to move forward.

Henderson: So what is your message to the republicans that the three of us have interviewed who would really like the legislature to intervene and stop President Biden's attempt to require large employers to have a vaccine mandate for employees?

Grassley: Well, I think -- oh, sorry to cut you off, Kay. I think that there's ways for us to do that. I think obviously showing support for the Governor. I know we're kind of waiting to see what the rules and things would look like through OSHA and as those come down. I think our caucus is, we're in full support of the Governor fighting that at the federal level. So I think that is how we should show our support from that standpoint legislatively. It's hard to reach consensus necessarily on what that fix could be, especially in hopefully a very short special sessions. And what I would tell Iowans or the members is we're only a couple of months away from coming back into full session where we can really have the time to properly vet anything that we do. 

Murphy: And speaking of something you may do in that next session, you recently passed a state law that prevented schools from requiring face masks. That law was put on pause by the courts. I'm wondering first before I get back to that bill just kind of what is your reaction to as soon as that law was passed we've had at least a dozen pushing 20 school districts that immediately put face mask requirements in their schools. What is your reaction to that and how quickly schools wanted to do that once they had the ability?

Grassley: And I think obviously the state took action and overwhelmingly supported making sure that that was a decision that was made by the parents as well as their students. I know some school districts have immediately went out and done it, there's others that have not as well. And so I always try to remind everybody it's not like this has just been every school district, some are leaving those decisions up to the families and the students that live in their school district. As far as any new specific piece of legislation obviously we're looking to see how this plays its way through the courts and when we get to that proper point obviously we'll support Governor Reynolds in continuing to fight for that because, again, the legislature weighed in, we passed that through both chambers, it was signed by the Governor and so I think that continues to be our position that we support.

Murphy: And doesn't what you described kind of describe school choice? Some districts opted to have a face mask requirement and some didn't.

Grassley: And I would say, so I've been asked that question a lot and I say ultimately the most ultimate form of choice that can exist in anything when it comes to schools and a choice is made is going to be through the parents making those each individual decisions. And I kind of boil it down to this. I was at the Iowa/Iowa State game the other day, let's just say there's 75,000 people there whether it's in the stadium, outside tailgating, all those things. I only saw a handful of masks. Each Iowan came to that game, assessed their level of risk and planned accordingly. Maybe they didn't go. Maybe they went and took certain precautions. But I really think that that is what as leaders we're seeing that Iowans are making those decisions for themselves. And I like I said, that is a perfect example, those weren't all just republicans or democrats, that is a mix all across the state and they all assessed their own risk and made their decisions accordingly.

Murphy: I would just point out though that being outside amongst a group of people is different than being inside in schools.

Grassley: I understand that, but standing next to somebody, and I know we're not here to debate that, but standing next to somebody in the stands and all that for that time period, again, I look at it more from the standpoint each person was assessing their individual risk as well.

Henderson: The legislature did take action against the Des Moines School District which was the one that extended virtual learning the longest of any school district in the state. Do you anticipate that you will take action against these districts that have re-imposed a mask requirement?

Grassley: I think before I could answer that I want to see how this plays out through the proper channels that it's going to happen whether it's through appeals and injunctions, all of the steps that are yet to come. I want to see how that would play out before, I think it's premature at this point.

Gruber-Miller: So, the heart of this federal lawsuit that has caused the law to be blocked is about whether schools can accommodate students with disabilities. What do you say to those concerns about parents who have students with disabilities who are at higher risk for COVID and are worried about keeping them safe at school?

Grassley: Well, I think it's -- this is where it's very difficult is because I think you can also talk to a significant portion of parents across the state that maybe their student would have a disability that necessarily wouldn't be specifically a health-related issue when it comes to COVID. But at what point -- if it affects their child learning at what point should they say, okay this is affecting my child's learning or their ability to interact? How do we also protect those? Because it was having negative impacts not only to what Kay just asked of getting the kids back in schools. But if you go talk to a lot of teachers trying to spend their entire day keeping masks on a group of third graders versus being able to educate them. So I think, again, I think that is back to how I answered Erin's question is Iowans it looks to me are making their proper assessment for their own individual or their child's health assessments and then planning accordingly.

Gruber-Miller: We've seen this also getting really personal. At school board meetings people are angry, the temperatures are high. What is the role for the legislature in kind of cooling tensions a little bit around this issue?

Grassley: I think that any time you have any sort of threat or anything like that clearly no one thinks that is acceptable. That is just obvious. However, I think it does show that there is a level of passion -- again, this isn't about the threats and things like that, clearly that is not going to be condoned and it shouldn't be -- but when you have these large groups of people showing up, being very vocal, talking about local control that interaction I think that is actually healthy for our process. Again, there is a line which you can cross and you shouldn't. But I think seeing this level of participation and frustration and quite honestly playing out in some certain elections and I think you'll have big turnout when it comes to these school board elections coming up, I think you're going to see that those voices want to be heard.

Henderson: Mr. Speaker, let's turn to another topic, abortion. The legislature in Texas has passed a law down there with a novel approach to enforcing abortion restrictions. Is that something that Iowa republicans in the legislature plan to replicate in 2022?

Grassley: So, at this point we have, we're pretty focused on October 5th. We haven't had our policy caucuses and things like that. I can tell you that our caucus has been very pro-life, clearly from the actions over the past decade. But as far as specific conversations on any what next year's issues would like we haven't had those at this time.

Murphy: Speaking of general topics and not necessarily specific legislation, republicans in recent years have enacted some pretty significant tax reforms, reductions, and the pledge has always been and continues to be from Governor Reynolds and Statehouse republicans that there's still more to come. What does that look like in future sessions? And maybe specifically Governor Reynolds has floated the idea of phasing out the income tax. Is that something that is on the table in your mind?

Grassley: So this is what I'll say, House republicans always want to be a part of the conversation to reduce taxes. Obviously we know that we have to look at the long-term stability of the budget as well as trying to reduce taxes. We're in a situation where we're going to have well over a billion dollars not even in our reserve accounts, but a billion dollars in ending balance and taxpayer relief fund money. That is Iowans' overpayment, in my opinion, to the state that we need to make sure gets back in the hands of Iowans. So we are going to be a part of those conversations in reducing taxes. What that looks like at this point, again, kind of what I said to Kay, it's probably a little premature. But we expect to be a part of those conversations.

Murphy: And that is something that I hear a lot from republicans that we have this surplus and we consider that an overpayment, we need to send it back to taxpayers. You have people certainly on the other side politically but also from leaders of state agencies and other areas that will say, we've been taking less money over the last 10 years because we were told times were tight. Why not boost some of those areas now with this extra money instead of doing tax cuts? Why not donate some more spending --

Grassley: Well, I think the first thing to say, when you're looking at a projected potentially, again these are projected so it may change before the next time I talk to you again, but when you're looking at potentially a billion dollars in the taxpayer relief fund, in my mind that is what the intention of that being set up years ago was for. Again, that was set up in a way to reach some agreements to try to provide some tax relief. And so from that standpoint that money should not be used just to spend and inflate state spending. That being said, we've invested in things that need to be invested -- I know that there is always being a republican you don't put enough money into education, things like that. Education, Medicaid, those are some of the largest areas of growth that we've seen within our budget and even though we take a lot of heat for it I think you can just point to and look at any sort of a bar graph and see the level of support that we're giving to those certain programs.

Henderson: The legislature reauthorized, extended for another 10 years, the amount of money for water quality projects. The Governor when signing a bill in June said she is going to have a new proposal in terms of water quality. What do you think the state should do?

Grassley: Well, I think we need to continue to be a part, we need to continue our voluntary program that we have. Obviously being a farmer and talking to farmers, that is one of the good things about representing rural Iowa on an issue like this, these are the folks that I talk to every day, and I think these voluntary programs are working. If you look across the state the way historically transitions in agriculture have happened through seeing a neighbor do something or trying something new. So we want to be a part of that. I was a part of that conversation a couple of years ago when we started the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and then started putting more money into it. What that mechanism looks like I have not seen anything from the Governor so I won't be able to comment on that. But clearly we recognize water quality as being an issue and we've made significant investments in it and we want to be a part of that moving forward.

Gruber-Miller: On schools, we were talking a few minutes ago about parental choice and that idea, the legislature this year was unable to pass the Governor's proposal to give parents scholarship money for their kids to attend private schools. Is that an idea that we'll see come back in 2022?

Grassley: Well, I think, again, I think some of that is going to be based on what the Governor's agenda would look like as we head in towards the legislative session. And you're correct, we didn't have the level of support in the House to be able to pass that. But there are significant amount of interest with members in our caucus. And so whatever that looks like I think we need to make sure that we're not out there looking like we're attacking because I think right now where I'm frustrated is the argument always looks like it's public versus private. I think you can come up with a system in which you can be supportive of both, but again lend some of the options to those parents that maybe would want to have them put before them. But again, we'll have those conversations and see what the proposal may look like. I don't know if it will be the same or different from the Governor.

Gruber-Miller: Is there anything being done to ease potential concerns from your members because you mentioned there wasn't that level of support within your caucus?

Grassley: Support because we were unable to do that?

Henderson: You didn't have 51 votes.

Grassley: I would say from the standpoint we'll engage in those conversations. I think that is something, I'm not going to speak for the Governor, but I'm assuming it's something that she'll come to the legislature and have those conversations about. She drove a lot of that or was a part of that conversation last time. So we'll have those as we move towards next session. But as a caucus we realize we're not all going to get everything done that we want to get. We've been very successful and not every issue happens every year that it is brought forward.

Henderson: Well, the reason it didn't pass was because some of your rural colleagues said this would hurt my rural school. As a rural legislator what do you say?

Grassley: Well, I think back to the way I answered that, you have to be able to strike a balance if you're going to move forward that it cannot being we're attacking one to save the other or to create the other or whatever it needs to be. You have to be able to strike that balance. And so if we can move forward with that then I think that is the way it should be approached.

Murphy: One of the proposals that drew some interesting debate lines last year was the Governor's renewable fuel standard at the state level. That ultimately didn't have enough support or not enough agreement to pass and move forward. Will there be another crack at that? And has there been any discussion on that in the interim?

Grassley: So, I know that there is a lot of discussion going on amongst the groups that were involved with it last year, which I think is healthy for that moving forward. I know that there was a lot of folks that wanted to have further discussions and we kind of just eventually run out of time on the legislative session. So my understanding in talking to the groups that care about this issue, regardless of where they stand on it, there are productive conversations going on. I have been very clear that if as Iowans we want to, we're always going after the federal government for the decisions that they make when it comes to renewable fuels and usually not in a good way. And so if we're going to put our money where our mouth is and support renewable fuels we should try to reach the goal of getting something done here in this state. So I want us to try to reach that goal and I think it's healthy that the groups are meeting right now leading up to session so we can hopefully achieve that.

Murphy: And I should have kind of expanded for viewers who may not have been familiar, it would have set a certain requirement for renewable fuels in the state --

Grassley: The standard basically that it would have to be sold regardless -- so there have been different proposals out there but the objective I think ultimately from the legislature and maybe my standpoint and members of the caucus that are interested in this is obviously promoting renewable fuels and making sure more renewable fuels are being sold in the state.

Murphy: And the push back was from groups that thought it limited choice and from gas stations that thought it would be expensive --

Grassley: -- costs because sometimes when you up the blend of ethanol you obviously have further infrastructure costs. So some of that has been working through. The state already, we want to be a part of that helping solve that because, like I said, putting our money where our mouth is and making sure that we're investing in things that Iowans care about and renewable fuels is important to the long-term viability of the state.

Henderson: Mr. Speaker, we began this conversation with the announcement from your grandfather that he is running for re-election. I'm wondering since there was all sorts of speculation about your political future, have you ever considered being a United States Senator?

Grassley: I will give you credit, Kay, that is the most creative way I've ever been asked. Here is the way I'm going to answer this because I had a feeling, I didn't know the timing of all this was going to work out the way it had. Here is what I would tell you, and I say this to friends here, for the last year I have been telling you that I thought Chuck Grassley was going to be running for re-election and I just want you guys to make sure you listen when I'm giving you that early speculation. And honestly, I have been confident that he was going to run for re-election the entire time. Again, people would be stunned, Pat and Chuck Grassley spend a lot of our conversations arguing about gas mileage and the crops as much as we do if not more so than we do on anyone's political future or any piece of legislation.

Henderson: President Trump is scheduled to have a rally in Iowa in early October. Is that an event you plan to attend?

Grassley: I may. I haven't not made a decision. I haven't looked at the schedule yet at this point in time. It's something that I may attend. I haven't made a decision yet.

Henderson: So what sort of role do you think former President Trump has in the 2022 election for the changes of Iowa republicans to keep control of the legislature and win statewide races?

Grassley: Well, again, not knowing what the maps look like, so I'll just preface it by saying that. But I can tell you clearly we have been very successful when President Trump was on the ballot. Here is what I boil it down to, whether he is on the ballot or not I think he has opened up a lot of folks that maybe historically did not vote republican but maybe some of the message that Trump had stuck with them, it made them open their eyes and give us a chance to be able to come in and say, okay here is the message that we have coming out, making sure that government is responsible in its spending, lower the tax burden, regulation, things like that. I think it has given us an opportunity to reach out to a group of voters that didn't necessarily give us that chance in the past.

Murphy: You mentioned early on I wanted to circle back on the maps and the potential impact of what it means for your members and what districts they might be drawn into, and that shouldn't be a factor for whether you approve the maps, but there is that reality of that political fallout from that. When you look at the ones that are on the table in front of you is there anything in your gut that tells you, boy we have a 59 seat majority right now and it may only be 51 or 52 if we go with these maps or maybe even worse?

Grassley: I would have said this answer before the map even came out and I think it is consistent today. When you represent parts of or if not all of 97 of 99 counties I think you're in a position where being successful in the next election has a higher probability. I think it just shows that our message and what we've been doing, campaigning on issues and following through with that, is what Iowans expect of their legislature. So regardless of what this map, the previous map or any map looks like, I think when you have 97 out of 99 it puts you at a very high likelihood of being able to retain majorities.

Murphy: You mentioned Senator Whitver earlier talking to you and you thought he was recruiting you, is he going to convince you to try and join the upper chamber?

Grassley: I enjoy being in the House.

Henderson: When you look at the population detail in the census what does that tell you about rural Iowa?

Grassley: I think that, like I said earlier, I think you're seeing shifts in population. I think that's something that the legislature has to continue to address. Broadband, perfect example, record level of investment, $100 million into broadband. With COVID there have been some things that have opened eyes to employers and employees that they can maybe live in other parts of the state and still have that job. I have some very close friends of mine that have already moved back to our school district, they brought six kids back into the school district because of the ability to work remotely. But we have a lot of places in the state in which you can't do that because you don't have that level of high speed Internet. So I think as a legislature we're trying to address some of those things, child care is another issue that we're trying to address. People want to live in rural Iowa, it's just if you don't have the option for a job, child care and some of those things, it makes it very hard to do. So we're working on some of those issues to make sure that Iowans, we know that they're staying in the state, we would just like to especially for those in rural Iowa see them either move back or stay in the rural parts.

Henderson: Mr. Speaker, we are out of time for this conversation. Thanks for joining us today.

Grassley: Thank you. Thank you guys.

Henderson: Join us again next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at Noon or anytime on iowapbs.org. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.

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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. 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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