Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Sen. Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny) discusses the special legislative session and the ongoing redistricting process, as well as the pandemic and various policy issues.

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.

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A special legislative session rejects the first set of maps from the Legislative Services Agency. We sit down with 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. 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, October 8th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: On Tuesday, all 32 republicans in the Iowa Senate rejected plan 1 for redistricting. On Wednesday, the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency announced it would deliver plan 2, a set of maps redrawing the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, on October 21st. That means it is possible the legislature could reconvene for a second special session on October 28th to vote on plan 2. As you likely know, every 10 years after the census shows the population shifts within the state, the boundaries for all 150 legislative districts and the 4 congressional districts are redrawn to account for those population changes. The Iowa Supreme Court has given the legislature until December 1st to get this thing done. Over the past couple of weeks you have heard from two House leaders. Our guest this week is a leader in the Iowa Senate. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, a republican from Ankeny has been the floor leader for Senate republicans since March of 2018. Whitver, an attorney and small business owner, was first elected to the Iowa Senate in a special election in early 2011. Senator Whitver, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Whitver: Thank you for having me and congrats on the new role.

Henderson: Oh, thanks very much. Also here at the table we have Stephen Gruber-Miller of The Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Lee Enterprises newspapers.

Murphy: Senator Whitver, those first maps met the statutory requirements set forth in Iowa law and the Constitution. Why did your group, why did Senate republicans not approve of them?

Whitver: We have a very unique process here in Iowa where the non-partisan agency will draw the maps and it has been that way since 1980. And after every map the legislature has to take an up or down vote. And so we look at very specific things when considering that. And in this map particularly there were some areas that we thought could be more compact. There are some population deviations, especially in the legislative districts, that we thought could be improved in map 2. And so, like has been done before, we voted down map 1 and look forward to map 2.

Henderson: Maybe for the benefit of not having this be a stat class, when you say population deviations you mean the difference between district A and district B, the population difference shouldn’t be that great.

Whitver: Right, so when we're drawing new maps we want every district to be exactly the same size. That's very difficult to do under the requirements of keeping cities together and so forth. And so in the congressional districts, for example, it was about 60 people off per district. But there's legislative districts, including one here in Polk County, that is almost 500 people off, 8 times the variation in the much bigger congressional districts. So we think that with a new map hopefully we can improve some of that population difference.

Murphy: Are you asking too much of LSA if you, for example, if you improve the compactness of some districts that might upset these population deviations?

Whitver: And that's why in the resolution that we sent to them explaining why we voted down, we said we would just like a better job balancing the compactness with population. You could have a map that is zero population deviation but it spreads throughout the whole state. And so the Constitution requires compactness, contiguous and population. We want a better balance to those three things.

Gruber-Miller: When Senate republicans explained their objections to these maps you only described objections to legislative districts and you didn't say anything about the state's 4 congressional districts. Did you have objections to those? And do you expect a second map to return different congressional --

Whitver: Well, I don't think that's necessarily true. Senator Smith, who is our state government committee chair that ran the bill on the floor, he did describe some issues. He said one looks like a pyramid, one looks like a triangle on those congressional districts. So I think more than anything we just want to restart and let LSA, the non-partisan agency that draws them, start over and just bring a new plan.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, so democrats have this concern here. As you said, a non-partisan agency draws these maps. They drew the first map, they'll be drawing a second, and if you reject a second they'll draw a third. But on the third you would be allowed to offer your own amendments. And republicans have full control of state government. So democrats are worried that you would offer amendments and they have asked you to commit to accepting one of the plans as written. Why not do that?

Whitver: Well, I don't think we should accept any plan that we've never seen. And so we're just going to take this one step at a time. And I'm not going to say we're going to accept or reject plan 2 until we see it, which is the fair way to do it. And so there's concerns that they say we're going to gerrymander the whole state. Iowa law is very specific about how districts need to be drawn. It has to be within a certain compactness, a certain population deviation, you have to keep cities together as much as possible. So what they're doing in Illinois or Oregon or a lot of liberal states that truly are gerrymandering is not something that is allowed under Iowa law.

Henderson: So, what I hear you, Attorney Jack Whitver saying, is the constraints would apply to any amendments to a third map?

Whitver: That's state law. Chapter 42 specifically says what our maps need to look like and the criteria that the court will look at in approving any map or not. And so we're not going to change Chapter 42. Those criteria have to stay on any map that is drawn.

Henderson: Okay, so you as a Senator voted to legalize sports betting. Let's say Vegas has a line on plan 2. What's the odds?

Whitver: I got out of the prediction business a long time ago and I'm not very good at sports betting. We don't know. I would hope for the sake of the process that it's a plan that we get to caucus, everyone likes it and we just approve it because that's a lot easier and then we can move on with the election cycle that is approaching very quickly.

Murphy: Speaking of that process and getting done, the Supreme Court, as Kay mentioned, has set a December 1st deadline. Do you consider that a hard deadline? Or is there a chance that if this is still going, you're into a third map, that the Supreme Court might grant you another extension?

Whitver: I haven't talked to the court about that or anything frankly. And when they put out a December 1st deadline I Take that at its word that that is when they expect the map done. They have a Constitutional deadline on the court that a lot of people don't talk about, December 31st. So, if for some reason we can't agree, we can't come up with a map and it is turned over to the court they have until December 31st constitutionally. So I think that is probably what they're worried about is having enough time that if it got to that point they would have time to fix the map or change the map. I don't expect it to get to that point. I hope that we can agree on map 2 and move forward.

Murphy: I was going to ask, do you still want this on your plate at Christmastime?

Whitver: I don't, no. No, and usually by this time we have candidates that are off and running, they have been door knocking for months, the campaign cycle is usually already underway. And right now it's not, everything is frozen, both at the congressional level and at the legislative level, because we don't know what the maps look like, we don't know where we have openings or incumbents.

Murphy: Does that make candidate recruitment tough right now?

Whitver: Yeah, of course because in this map there were probably three, four or five seats that there's just no incumbent senator and so if that was the map we took you'd have to go find someone to run very quickly. And right now you just can't predict where those open seats might be so you can't go out and search for candidates anywhere.

Gruber-Miller: Senator, when you were back for special session this week you had a group of protestors who are concerned about vaccine mandates from the federal government. You met with some of them in your office. What did you tell them about why the legislature didn't act this week?

Whitver: There are a lot of Iowans right now that are concerned about the vaccine mandates that are coming down from the federal government and I share that concern because I think this is a gross overreach of federal government, putting the federal tentacles in everywhere they can whether it's in businesses over 100, whether it's on CMS rules, whether it's on colleges and universities and I share the concerns. A lot of people want us in Iowa to react and do something. But at this point, this is an issue that has to be settled in the courts. If people think it is an overreach, the right process is to go to federal court and try to overturn it there. That is why no state has been able to do this, no state has been able to put on a blanket ban for employee mandates because it needs to be done at the federal level.

Gruber-Miller: So is this, I'm hearing you say this is not something that the legislature will necessary take up at its next special session or in January?

Whitver: We had a caucus on Tuesday morning and we talked about maps for about two minutes, literally, and then we talked about issues like this for the other 58 minutes that we were in there for the hour. And so there a tremendous amount of people concerned. And I told them, if you have solutions bring them to me. They have to work, they can't just be barstool talk, like this is wrong let's fix it. It has to be a legitimate solution. And so we have members out there searching for that, we have advocates and concerned Iowans looking for those solutions. But as I said, America was founded on a 50 state, the laboratory of experiment where the different states can try to find different solutions and usually we copy each other. On this one, not a single state has been able to find a bill that would crack this nut.

Murphy: Speaking of the mandates and issues that have wound up in the court system, you live in Ankeny where the school mask issue became very heightened and turned into a state law that is now in the courts. The state law that you and your republican colleagues passed last year prohibited schools from banning masks. That has been challenged and temporarily suspended in the courts. So obviously that is an outcome that we're waiting for. But in the meantime is there somewhere else in that issue that you’re planning to address legislatively next session whether it's tweaking that law or coming up with something entirely different?

Whitver: Yeah, we haven't had that conversation yet. I think everyone is just waiting for it to play out through the court system. I think it was the wrong ruling by Judge Pratt to put that, to stay that law. And I think it will be overturned in the appeals process. But it's something right now that we're just waiting for the courts to sort it out.

Murphy: If it's not overturned, if that ruling is upheld and that law is struck down, is that something republicans would try to address --

Whitver: We haven't had that conversation yet and depending on how they strike it down and why I'm not sure what the solution is on that right now.

Gruber-Miller: I want to turn to abortion. In Texas, the legislature passed a law that bans most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected and it is enforced through lawsuits from private citizens. A couple of weeks ago we asked House Speaker Pat Grassley if the legislature would consider doing something like that. I'm wondering if the Senate has thoughts about replicating that approach?

Whitver: Well, there is no doubt over the last 5 years it has been a very pro-life legislature and we have passed several bills to promote life and most of those have been struck down by our Iowa Supreme Court or a federal court. Right now we're in a little bit different situation than Texas in that our Iowa Supreme Court took a law that we passed a couple of years ago on a 72-hour wait period before you obtain an abortion and they created a constitutional right under the Iowa Constitution for abortion. And so we're in a little bit different situation where you're not just dealing with federal law, now you're dealing with an Iowa Constitution that the court has said includes a constitutional right for an abortion and that is why there has been conversation in the Capitol about making it clear that in Iowa there is no constitutional right to an abortion, the Constitution is silent on that issue. And so we're in a little bit different situation than Texas in that we have to address the constitutional issue in Iowa before you can even more to the federal issue.

Gruber-Miller: So the issue about, the mechanism for enforcement of private lawsuits, is that not something that you necessarily might be able to replicate until you have this constitutional amendment?

Whitver: I don't know that, I haven't looked into it and we haven’t had a lot of members bring that to me. And so it's an issue that right now most of our issues that we're focused on would be redistricting, number one, and then the vaccine mandate was clearly number two as you saw at the Capitol and we haven't had any further conversations about what might happen with the pro-life legislation.

Henderson: It seemed as if issue number one for the Senate republicans this spring, tax policy. The Governor signed the bill that cleared the legislature in June and as she was signing it she said, we're going to cut taxes again and we're going to focus on income taxes. So, will Senate republicans wait for her to make a proposal? Or do you have one of your own?

Whitver: Well, first of all, I fully support continuing to work on taxes. Clearly what we have done over the last five years is working. Our economy is doing well, we just had the 8th fastest GDP growth in Q2 this year of any state in the country. And what is interesting about that is the 7 states that were ahead of us were all states that were locked down last year that are now open, so you would expect a huge jump in GDP. We were as open as any state and we had some of the best growth. So, the policies that we're putting in place are working, the pro-growth tax policy. And there was a lot of fear mongering when we passed those bills. And you guys might remember on the Senate floor, this is a bobsled to bankruptcy is what they kept saying. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The fiscal year just ended. We had a $1.2 billion surplus, much higher than we expected, and most of that went into what we call the taxpayer trust fund. Any money that we bring in more than expected goes into a taxpayer trust fund. And so we have about $1.1 billion in our taxpayer trust fund right now and we want to continue those same pro-growth policies. So, to answer your question about whether we're going to work with the Governor, absolutely we're going to work with the Governor. We have a lot of ideas. She has ideas. And we're going to work together because that is what has worked in the past.

Henderson: The guest on this program last week was the leader of democrats in the Iowa House suggesting that the tax relief should be targeted to working Iowans rather than an across-the-board cut that would benefit wealthy Iowans as well. What do you plan?

Whitver: Wealthy Iowans work too. We want it to apply to every Iowan and that is what we have done over the last five years is cut taxes for everybody. And we have worked -- frankly, we had a tax code that was a mess after 20 years of politicians that didn't have the courage or the ability, I don't know which one it was, to truly make a good pro-growth tax code. We have to fix that and we have taken step by step by step over the last few years. And so we want broad-based tax reform. Right now there's about 8 states in the country that do not have an income tax. There's another 8 states that have said, we want to get on the path to no income tax and I would like Iowa to be included in one of those states that say, ultimately the goal is to get to nothing. How you do that is difficult, it takes time, but that should be the goal is to get rid of our income tax. And so that means we're reducing taxes on everybody.

Henderson: So, what is the timeline? And then do you have to raise the sales tax to make up for the -- to make it be equal?

Whitver: Yeah, both of those things are up in the air. You could do it really fast if you take really hard, tough political votes. You could spread it out over 10 or 15 years. It's very difficult. I think only one state has ever had an income tax and then got rid of it. The rest of them just never had it. And so it takes time, usually you can't do this in one or two years. But what I would say is since we took the majority we have went from the 49th highest income tax at 8.9%, now we're down at 6.5%. But our surrounding states, Illinois of all places, is at 4.5%. We need to do better and we need to get down at least to where Illinois is.

Henderson: One final question on this topic, when republicans took control of the Iowa House a decade ago, they proposed a flat tax, fill it out on a postcard. Why has that thing never flown?

Whitver: I don't know why it didn't fly back then but it certainly is a good idea. That's what a lot of states have and maybe this is a two-prong process where at first you get to a flat tax and then you start phasing it out. But it's a good idea, it's fair, people understand it. We just have had, like I said, we have a tax code that is a mess with credits and exemptions all over the place. We've had to straighten that out before we can really take that next step.

Murphy: With all the talk about the surplus and what legislators might do with it, republicans obviously have focused on tax cuts, I know you would maybe hear from some state agencies who have said over the past 10 years we've been tightening out belt because we've been asked to. Is there any room in there for spending on some state services?

Whitver: As I said, last year when we were in a similar position, not nearly as big a surplus, but we had a surplus last year as well and I said at that time that we were going to make investments where we thought investments needed to be made and we were going to cut taxes with the additional money. And last year we did. You saw it in the prisons, we gave a tremendous amount of money. We changed our mental health to put state dollars into mental health. So we're trying to prioritize issues that we think are important, invest where we can make those investments that will make a difference, but also reduce taxes on Iowans. We know that when Iowans have more money in their pocket, our economy is going to be stronger, and that is proven over the last few years and we want to continue to do that.

Murphy: So you've talked about some pretty big ideas, specifically putting yourselves on a path to, pardon me, eliminating the income tax and partially because of all the extra money in the state budget right now, the surpluses you mentioned. Is that responsible given maybe there is a question of how the state budget actually is right now? Is it artificially inflated because of all the federal assistance that we have received from pandemic relief? Is the state budget as healthy as it actually looks right now?

Whitver: Well, first of all, the state did receive a ton of federal money. We did not supplant hardly any money of state spending with that federal money, that went to different programs and to address pandemic issues. We didn't just say, oh we're going to use this federal money, put it in the state budget and then keep the state money. We didn't really do that hardly anywhere in the budget. And so there is a tremendous amount of federal money that came to Iowans who spent that money. But I think we'll know a little bit more next week, next I think Friday the REC, the Revenue Estimating Commission will meet. They are the ones that take all those factors into account and give us an estimate of what we think our budget will look like next year. And so next Friday will be a very important day towards starting preparation for our agenda next year because we'll have a little bit better idea of what we think the budget will be.

Murphy: And speaking of that federal stimulus money, there is also the question of how that is spent and not just at the state level but at local levels too, counties and cities will have all kinds of money and are already putting that into certain kinds of projects. Are you comfortable with the level of oversight that currently exists? Or does there need to be more in some way to ensure that these funds are being used in the proper way?

Whitver: Well, we have processes in place to watch for that. The federal government does come back often a couple of years later and say, you used that wrong, pay us back. But ultimately it's going to come down to the local school boards and the cities and the state to make sure we're spending that money appropriately. The thing that I would be concerned about is cities, states, schools, counties that receive money and it's a one-time money, we're not going to get that every single year, but you start plugging that in on an ongoing expense, that creates problems down the road with your budget. And so that is the biggest concern probably is people using one-time money for an ongoing expense and then a year from now saying, we need more money. So it's up to them to spend that appropriately.

Murphy: How about there was an Associated Press story this week that talked about some of those monies being used towards athletic facilities in school districts. As a former athlete that may sound great to you. I wonder how that sounds as a state legislator?

Whitver: I fully support sports, but I don't support wasting federal money on something that is not supposed to be used on. And so I don't know the specific rules on whatever money that they may be spending on those stadiums, but I would be very cautious in spending federal stimulus dollars or pandemic money on sports. That doesn't seem to be an appropriate use.

Gruber-Miller: Senator, I want to ask about COVID testing a little bit. In recent weeks we have been hearing from people who have had trouble finding a test in a short amount of time. Governor Reynolds had stressed the importance of getting back to normal, getting people's lives back on track. I guess I'm wondering if it's possible to do that when people can't find a test quickly and if you think that the legislature needs to be more involved?

Whitver: Well, I haven't heard a lot of those complaints and maybe I'm talking to the wrong people, but I haven't had a single constituent call me and say hey, I need a COVID test and I can't get it. What we do know is numbers are going down in Iowa. They went up as we started the school year, which is to be expected when you have everyone coming back from summer, and then the fall is normally a time where a lot of illness goes anyway, but those numbers are coming back down. The vaccination rate is going up.

Henderson: There currently is one person who is serving as Director of the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Iowa Department of Human Services and this past week the Governor named the Director of the Iowa Department of Revenue to be the interim Director also of the Department of Management. There are a couple of other agencies in state government that now have the same leader. Is there government reorganization happening? And do you expect the legislature to weigh in and sort of put this into law?

Whitver: Certainly we take a look at all of those and especially when it comes down to the confirmation of those people running those agencies. Usually a government reorg, if you’re doing a total reorg it's more of an agenda item led by the Governor. But right now we take a look at those in the Senate specifically with confirmations and Kelly Garcia, who is the one you mentioned that runs DHS and Public Health, she has been confirmed. But as republicans we generally support more efficient government. And so if there's ways to save money and have one person in charge we certainly would consider that.

Murphy: A while back on this show we asked you about the possibility for legislation related to name, image and likeness, which is allowing college athletes to benefit financially from the use of their image or their likeness in advertising. And at the time you said, for now we're going to wait and let the courts handle this. The Supreme Court was scheduled to issue a ruling. They ultimately did that paved the way for it and we're seeing that happen now across college sports with football going in particular, we have college athletes doing commercials and ads and selling merchandise. Are you satisfied with how this has played out both with the court ruling and now that it's up and running? Or do you see a need for legislation?

Whitver: I think we can do several shows just on college sports and the changes that are happening. I would be happy to do that. But specifically on name, image and likeness, we did want to wait and see what the Supreme Court would say. And I think, I didn't know it would be the right decision at the time, but I think in hindsight it was the right decision to wait because what we see is states that did pass legislation, they put restrictions here or there or different rules that are actually more restrictive than what we have in Iowa right now because what the Supreme Court generally said is this is allowed and the NCAA said, well it's up to the universities, if there is a state law follow it, if not it's up to the universities. And so here in the state of Iowa it's up to Iowa, Iowa State, UNI, Drake to come up with those rules and they're not restricted by what we as politicians think. Whether that is good long-term for college sports is to be determined. But there's a lot of changes going on whether it's conference realignment, there's transfer rules, there's super conferences being formed, name, image and likeness, paying players. There's a lot of issues there. But on name, image and likeness I think we got it right when we just decided to wait and give our universities full authority.

Henderson: You mentioned conference realignment. I am reminded that when six-player girls’ basketball was sort of fading away, legislators wanted to get involved and make it remain. Will the Iowa legislature require the University of Iowa and Iowa State University to play UNI because it's in a different conference and once this Big Ten becomes this behemoth it may not be possible for the Hawkeyes to schedule a game with UNI?

Whitver: It could be -- I'm more of a small government guy that tries to stay out of issues that we really shouldn't get in. To this point I know Iowa State loves to play UNI, it's a really tough game, they beat us every once in a while and it's stressful for fans, but it's good for our state and it's good for Iowa State because we sell that game out and there is a lot of attention and it's good. I hope that continues to just where both athletic directors want it. But certainly as the Big Ten specifically is starting these conference alignments that might be phased out and at some point the legislature could talk about it but I generally like to keep our focus on things that I think we should be focused on.

Henderson: Could UNI football, we have about 20 seconds left, could UNI football remain viable if it doesn't have the revenue from those games?

Whitver: Well, that revenue helps and whether it's Iowa or Iowa State, that's probably their best options. But there's other, there would be other opportunities. They can go play Oklahoma State or they can go play Missouri or Kansas or someone else. But certainly keeping that in-state is a good thing for the state of Iowa.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, thank you for being with us today. We're out of time.

Whitver: Thank you.

Henderson: We hope that you join us next week at our regular times, 7:30 on Friday night and Noon on Sunday or anytime on iowapbs.org. For everyone 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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