Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 2, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls (D-Coralville) discusses recent legislative actions at the Iowa statehouse. 

Joining this week’s moderator Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, at the Iowa Press table are 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.


(music) This is the fifth straight year republicans have been in majority control of the Iowa House and Senate with a republican in the Governor's Office. Senator Minority Leader Zach Wahls is here to offer democrats' perspective on this edition of Iowa Press. (music) 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 (music)              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 2 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. (music) Henderson: After the 2020 election, the 18 democrats who remained in the Iowa Senate held a meeting and they selected a new leader. It's Senator Zach Wahls of Coralville. He is now the Senate Minority Leader for I think the past four months, correct? Wahls: That's correct. Henderson: Thanks for joining us here today to have a discussion. Wahls: It's good to be with you. Henderson: Joining us at the table are Iowa Public Radio's Katarina Sostaric and Erin Murphy of the Lee Enterprises Newspapers in Iowa. Murphy: Senator Wahls, you are, as Kay mentioned, the leader of the Senate democrats who are the minority party in the chamber right now. Why did you want that job? Wahls: Well, it was an unexpected opportunity. Senator Janet Petersen told us that she would not be running for another term as our leader. I had supported her in the past and was looking forward to voting for her again. When she announced that she would not be seeking re-election as the leader it was an interesting opportunity and it wasn't one that I had been seeking out. I wasn't trying to take the job or anything. But I knew it would be a difficult job and it would require some leadership. I had experience as a leader with some previous work that I had done in LGBT advocacy here in Iowa and I thought that it was something that would be really exciting, a lot of work, and that has certainly been the case here over the last four and a half months. But it has been a lot of fun even though it has been obviously very challenging with this legislative session especially with everything going on with the pandemic. And it's always hard when you're in the minority. But we've certainly I think started to make some really good progress and I'm excited about the 2022 cycle. Murphy: One of the things you said you wanted to make progress on after your election was clearly defining what it means to be an Iowa democrat. Have you been able to do that yet? What does it mean to be an Iowa democrat? Wahls: Sure. Well, we're certainly going to be going through I think a lot of work on some of that branding perspective here probably more over the summer. We've been really focused on the legislative session and as I know has been reported there is some ongoing work with the Hughes Project to try and get a better understanding of where we are with our state party infrastructure. Henderson: What is the Hughes Project? Wahls: Why don't we come back to that in a little bit? In terms of being an Iowa democrat, I want to answer the question. For me, being a democrat is about two key things. First, it's about standing for worker's rights. That is what our party has done since the New Deal. And for Civil Rights, that has been an important part of our legacy for a long time and especially I think really since the 60's and it's certainly part of my own story. Testifying before the legislature back in 2011 about growing up with lesbian parents here in our state and both of those issues continue to be an important part I think of our party history and our party future. Murphy: So, tell us a little bit more about that Hughes Project. Wahls: Sure. So, after the election, as there were certainly a lot of folks looking around wondering what was going on and where we were headed as a party, there were people who wanted to create some interparty conversation around what had not worked in the 2020 cycle and what could work better going into the future. And so that has been underway for a few months now and I know that there was a Des Moines Register story about this a week or two ago. And so I have been mostly focused on the session, there's a lot going on at the Statehouse, but I'm really excited to see the recommendations that they make to our state party and to see where we can go and where we can improve. I think that's really important. One of the first things I did after I was elected was a debrief trying to talk with all of our candidates who had been on the ballot in 2020, talk with our staff and then also talk with our consulting team and figure out okay, what worked in 2020 and what didn't work in 2020 and what are our opportunities to improve in 2022. Henderson: We have some questions about 2022 but we want to talk about 2021 and the legislative session. Sostaric: On that note, why did Senate democrats vote in support of getting rid of the inheritance tax and speeding up income tax cuts after initially opposing those income tax cuts when they were passed in 2018? Wahls: That's a great question, Katarina. So, that tax package was multifaceted, there were several pieces in it. You mentioned the inheritance tax piece. There were also the triggers which were a part of the 2018 tax reform project that republicans passed, democrats did not support, and there was a whole large package. But triggers were one part of it. And then the third piece was getting rid of federal deductibility. Now, on the federal deductibility, democrats have supported removing that from the tax code for a long time so we thought that was a good win for us. On the triggers, after the American Rescue Plan was passed, as we have looked at the state's revenue forecasts and where we see things going here over the next year or two, we feel very confident that the triggers are going to be met regardless. So we felt comfortable that even though the REC had a slightly different view on that, that those triggers will be met, and so that removing them from code was not necessarily important. Henderson: And to help the viewers who don't know what the triggers are, those are statutory guidelines whereby you hope or I guess you want state tax revenue to grow by at least 4% each year before the next level of tax increases take effect -- Wahls: Tax cuts. Henderson: Tax cuts, yes. Wahls: Correct. So we feel the triggers are going to be met. So the size of the state budget, a certain amount of tax revenue, and we felt that with the passage of the American Rescue Plan, because of the size of that package, that it was going to happen regardless of how we voted. And so that left the inheritance tax. There were some mixed views on the inheritance tax in our caucus. Many of us have voted against it in the past. And so even though there were a lot of us who felt uncomfortable with that specific portion, as we looked at the legislation overall we felt comfortable like it was a step in the right direction. Now, unfortunately, I think the House republicans have said pretty clearly that they are not going to move that forward and there is going to be a separate tax proposal that we haven't seen yet that will likely be the final deal. But that is going to be in the future. So that was why we came together on that bill. Sostaric: One of the reasons House republicans have said they are reluctant on that tax plan is because of the American Rescue Plan has some language in it that could restrict state level tax cuts based on revenue that is coming directly or indirectly from that federal relief. Are you comfortable having voted for that plan when there still seems to be some confusion about whether that would even be allowed? Wahls: No, I don't have any concern about it at all. The American Rescue Plan is a terrific piece of legislation and I am very grateful to President Biden and Representative Axne for their work on it. I think the American Rescue Plan is going to be a critical part of getting our state back on strong fiscal footing. And so no, I didn't have any qualms voting for that legislation. It seems like it's not going to become law, and that happens all the time at the Iowa Statehouse where you're talking votes on bills that have an unknown future. But we felt like that was the right step for us and we'll see what happens as these tax conversations continue. Henderson: As I recall you were a member of the subcommittee that held the first hearing in the Senate on the Governor's broadband proposal. She has asked for $150 million in each of the next 3 years. Setting aside the discussion about the money, which legislators have done heretofore, what is your view of the proposal as it is advancing? Does it provide enough speed for people who live in the most remote areas of Iowa? Wahls: The broadband bill is one area where I do think we are going to see some bipartisan cooperation and, again, I think that when it comes to paying for the program the American Rescue Plan is going to be an important part of making those dollar numbers work. In terms of the policy in the bill, I think it's a step in the right direction. There is a standard saying that the vast majority of the projects are going to be that 100 megabytes download and then 100 megabytes upload and I think that is a strong standard and we should protect it. There is a small carve out in the tier 1, which is the most remote areas, for some of the other technologies that are not quite as fast. Given that your -- it's going to be much more expensive to run fiber to that person out on the dirt road. I think that makes a certain amount of sense. It may not be a perfect long-term solution but at least for now I think it does make sense. I will say from the policy perspective, the one other thing that democrats are very interested is in making sure that we have adequate oversight for how these dollars are being spent. The Governor's original proposal, I think unintentionally, actually removed some of the oversight provisions that were in the original Empower Rural Iowa Broadband grant program. We would like to see some of those provisions put back into the proposal and we would also like to see I think a little bit more intention around how the dollars are being spent. The current proposal says that basically any broadband provider could come apply for dollars from the state without fitting into a bigger picture perspective of where we want this to go. The Department of Transportation has a commission that they use to chart the course for all of our roads and bridge projects. I think something similar would make sense for broadband. And so we're working on I hope a bipartisan, friendly amendment that would accomplish some of those objectives. Henderson; You mentioned the money, but the state will be getting money from the federal government, which can be used for this purpose. Do you think the state should use $150 million of general tax dollars to supplement that? Wahls: Well, I think the conversation about how this is going to be paid for is ongoing. And we're hearing I think from the House republicans a number closer to $100 million rather than $150 million. Henderson: Speaker Grassley said that on the program last week. Wahls: There you go. So whether it's $100 million from Iowa tax revenues or we're using money from the American Rescue Plan I think everybody agrees this investment has to happen, I think everybody agrees now that this investment should have happened sooner. It's something that democrats have been calling for, for a long time. So we're glad to see this -- better late than never. But I think the pandemic certainly underscored how important these connections are and not just for our urban areas but for small towns across our state as well. Murphy: Senator Wahls, we're still in the throes of March Madness, or at least those of us who follow college basketball are. The University of Iowa men's basketball player Jordan Bohannon made some news this week when he advocated for legislation that would allow college athletes to profit from any advertising use of an athlete's, a college athlete's name, image or likeness. We understand your republican colleague, leader Senator Whitver, said that bill isn't going to pass this year because of pending Supreme Court hearings. But we're just curious, do you support that legislation in general? Do you think there is a future for that discussion, that debate? Wahls: I'm certainly open to it. I haven't had the opportunity to review the proposal in detail. Look, college athletes are working their tails off both in the classroom and on the court or on the field and so if there are opportunities for them to be compensated for some of that I think that makes sense, especially given what you've seen in terms of the amount of money that some of our coaches are making and the NCAA obviously there's a lot of ad revenue there. I was really disappointed to see both the men and the women bow out. I was really excited to see Caitlin Clark out there. She's absolutely terrific and I'm looking forward to watching several more years of her on the women's team. Sostaric: Senator Wahls, there was a big bipartisan vote on a police accountability bill last June in response to the George Floyd protests. The Governor then said it was her priority to ban racial profiling this session but that hasn't advanced. Why do you think that is? Wahls: Clearly because legislative republicans don't see it as a priority. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was incredibly disappointing to see this become a partisan issue after last summer's work when legislative republicans and the Governor pledged it was the beginning of some bipartisan cooperation. I think the legislation that we passed last summer, which was brought forward by the legislative black caucus, the plan for a more perfect union was a terrific step in the right direction, a good first step. I thought the Governor's proposal was a compromise that could have gotten some bipartisan support. But when republicans in the legislature stripped out the parts that made it a compromise obviously that became very difficult for many members in our caucus to support. And I think the fact that they used an arcane procedural move to try and prevent a vote on racial profiling when Senator Liz Mathis from Linn County brought that forward, I was really disappointed in that because I think that most Iowans agree that we want police that are on the beat who are not engaged in racial profiling and who are accountable to the people of our state. That's the whole point. And so it's really disappointing to me to see republicans in the legislature abandon that part of the compromise that Governor Reynolds brought forward. Sostaric: Some Senate democrats did vote for one of the bills that came out of Governor Reynolds' proposal and that would have defunded communities that reduce their police budgets. Did democrats get shell-shocked by the success of these republican campaign lines against defunding the police? Wahls: I don't know if shell-shocked is the right word. Look, there was certainly some frustration in our caucus that we felt republicans were playing political games with public safety. Not a single lawmaker that I'm aware of in the state of Iowa supports defunding the police. And so for them to try and put that language into a piece of legislation to address a problem that is not happening anywhere in Iowa, it was clearly about trying to score political points. Nobody thinks that this is a real problem in Iowa. And so it was really disappointing. And the one thing I would also mention, Katarina, not a single law enforcement group registered in support of that bill. As you know, there are bipartisan bills that are before the legislature that have the support of law enforcement and that would actually help them do their jobs and make it easier to be out on the beat. Those are not the bills that republicans have brought forward. Murphy: Senator Wahls, one issue that I know you feel is a very real issue is companies that have bought mobile home parks and increased rent on the people living there. You have been working on that issue for a couple of years. There seems to be more dialogue about that this year, but the legislation still doesn't seem to be moving. What is the latest? And why is that stagnating? Why can't legislators agree on a way to address that issue? Wahls: Well, I think the good news is that a bill got out of committee this year for the first time. It was a shell bill. There's going to be more work done on it. Representative Brian Lohse has really been doing I think the lion's share of the work over in the House. I believe I actually just saw an amendment filed earlier this week. I haven't had the chance to read it in detail and it's not clear to me at this point if it still has a future in terms of getting through here before the end of session. I think, look, there are Iowans in our state who depend on manufactured or mobile homes as their shelter, it's their home, it's their house, and to have such a weak law that out-of-state landlords can snap up these parks, invest in them, raise the rents by hundreds of dollars from one month to the next, it's shocking. And I think that folks who are free market through and through can see that this is predatory behavior, which is why we've had some progress in years past in terms of getting, we had the bill in the Senate and there has been some progress in the House. We haven't gotten anything over the finish line yet and I hope that changes this year. Sostaric: Since the beginning of this session democratic leaders have been focused on talking about COVID relief, proposing bills on COVID relief, but republican leaders have rejected those as the federal government has poured a lot of relief money into the states. Is the federal response sufficient at this point? Wahls: Well, I certainly think that the American Rescue Plan was an enormous step in the right direction. Not only did it provide important tax relief to Iowans who had received unemployment insurance benefits, they got stimulus checks out the door and they have accelerated vaccine deployment. The Senate democrats and House democrats have introduced more than two dozen pieces of legislation including legislation from the very jump that would have been able, I think, to prevent Iowa from falling behind in the vaccine distribution which is what happened when we were in the very beginning of this process. One of the other important things that we have to do is to really create accountability. One of our proposals is to create a blue ribbon COVID commission of bipartisan experts, people who are able to go out and investigate what were both the successes and the failures of state government and the private sector whether instances of price gouging or oversight or negligence of worker safety. We have obviously all heard about what happened in Waterloo at the Tyson plant up there. Were there other instances of that happening in our state? We need to have accountability because if we don't have accountability we won't learn the lessons of this once in a century pandemic and we won't be ready when, not if, the next pandemic strikes. Murphy: One of the priorities of republican majority legislators and the Governor has been a package of so-called school choice bills. One of the biggest pieces of that is a scholarship fund, using taxpayer money to help Iowans put that towards private school tuition. It did not survive the funnel, but as those of us who follow or are involved in the legislature often say, nothing is truly dead until the last day of session. Do you expect to still have to have that debate a second time over those private school scholarships? Wahls: It's a good question. I know that the House has sent over a bill that is more on the charter school side of things, it's coming over to the Senate. I haven't had the chance to review that just yet because it hasn't gotten to the floor. I expect that will happen relatively soon. In terms of the vouchers and using public dollars for private schools, democrats have stridently opposed that from the very beginning and we will continue to oppose the use of public dollars for private school. Our belief is that if you think that there are challenges in our public education system, then the solution should be to fix the public education system. I don't think that's a radical idea. I think that is what Iowans expect us to do. And it has been really disappointing to see republicans abandon public school at the moment that we need them most. Murphy: Do you expect to have that come back up in front of legislators yet again this session? Wahls: Hard to say for sure, Erin. Murphy: Another thing kind of in the arena of school-related legislation, there were some proposals related to LGBTQ individuals. Advocates are concerned about whether banning transgender individuals from competing in sports or using bathrooms assigned to their gender of birth. There was also a bill earlier in the session that eliminated the so-called gay panic defense. So kind of a mixed bag as far as LGBTQ advocates see it. In your perspective, big picture, is the Iowa legislature a friend of that community? Wahls: No, absolutely not. And I would say that this is a big part of the republican mantra of the session which is putting up a sign that says closed for business in the state of Iowa. They have launched this I think radical and frankly very divisive social agenda. The President of the Senate spent more time talking about abortion in his opening day speech than he did about the coronavirus. They have brought forward a slew of anti-LGBTQ bills aimed at marginalizing people who are in that community and I think making it much more difficult to recruit and attract high end talent to our state where you have employers who know that those protections are really important. We have also seen them go after large employers that have invested tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in our state with their so-called big tech bill. And then finally the other thing that I would say is they have been I think just frankly pretty mean and I think that this agenda is really saying to Iowans and to businesses this is not a state that is going to be attractive. And I think you see that in things like their attacks on colleges and universities, trying to go after tenure, that's not right. Henderson: I thought democrats were sort of universally against censorship. So why should Facebook and Twitter be able to censor people? Wahls: Well, I don't think that there is a single person on Facebook or Twitter who has been censored because they have conservative beliefs, Kay. If you look at the best performing posts on Facebook on a daily basis you will see eight or nine, sometimes all ten of them are conservative sources, Ben Shapiro, FoxNews, Daily Caller, whatever the case may be. This idea that republicans are being, or conservatives are being censored on social media is a joke. The sponsor of this bill, Senator Jake Chapman, tweeted himself an article from the Des Moines Register about the bill @DonaldJTrumpJr. Now, I know that Senator Chapman would describe himself as a conservative, I know that Donald Trump Jr. is a conservative. So if conservatives are being censored on Twitter because they're a conservative, then why on Earth is he able to tweet that out? The reason people are being removed from these platforms is because they're doing things like inciting insurrection against the United States of America. Democrats brought forward an amendment on that bill that said very clearly if republicans are really focused on political censorship then they wouldn't have a problem with this amendment. Our amendment said very simply, these platforms will be able to remove speech that is inciting insurrection or treasonous or any of these things. Republicans voted that down on a party line vote. Henderson: We have not much time left. Just very quickly, we're taping this discussion on Wednesday. Do you have any doubt that the Governor will sign the bill on gun permits? Wahls: Governor Reynolds has to veto this legislation. In the past she has described Iowa's current system as working very well. She said that it's reliable, that it's safe. The Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa who is a constituent of mine, Jeff Kaufmann, when he was a legislator said that if we got rid of our current system it would result in people who shouldn't have firearms having firearms. Jeff Kaufmann and I don't agree very often but we agree on this one. Our current system works, the current system has I believe prevented almost 15,000 sales since it was put in place in 1998. And Governor Reynolds absolutely should veto this bill. It's radical and it's moving Iowa in the wrong direction. Sostaric: Senator, we're seeing new reports of other states trying to get the first-in-the-nation democratic primary. How concerned are you that Iowa won't be first? Wahls: I can't believe I'm doing this again but I actually agree with Jeff Kaufmann. Iowa should keep its first-in-the-nation status. Henderson: Why? Wahls: We've had a long history, it works really well here. It has obviously had some technology challenges in 2020 but nothing that I think we can't fix in the future. Henderson: There is a bill emerging in the House that would provide some "fixes", bipartisan fixes to the election bill that passed and became law. What in your view are the bipartisan fixes that have universal agreement among democrats and republicans? Wahls: I haven't seen that proposal so I can't comment. But there certainly were a lot of concerns that we had with shortening the voting window in the bill that was passed. And the thing that I simply want to, there were things said about other states have shorter voting windows or what have you. Whenever you're changing election law, there are some of us who follow these changes very, very closely, but a lot of folks don't follow all the minutia quite as closely. So I really worry that with the changes that were passed earlier this year Iowans are going to find it harder to vote in 2022. Murphy: We've got just a little bit under a minute. The census data continues to be an issue for looking ahead to the next election and the drawing of political boundaries. Does that make it a challenge for you to recruit candidates to run for office? Wahls: Well, we need fair maps. And if we get fair maps we won't have any trouble recruiting folks. And were going to get fair maps if we have a fair process. I appreciate that my republican colleagues have said that they aren't going to change the process. I would like to hear them say that we will have no gerrymandering in Iowa. That would help me sleep a little bit easier at night. But I do think that we will get fair maps and as a result I'm not worried about recruiting. Henderson: When you took this job you said you would not run for Congress. Have you changed your mind? Wahls: I have not. Henderson: Will you fun for future office besides the Iowa Senate? Or are you going to be a lifer of the Iowa Senate? Wahls: Well, I'm planning to run for re-election in 2022. Henderson: Okay. Thank you for your time, Senator, appreciate it. Wahls: Happy to be here. Henderson; Thanks for watching. Join us again next weekend at our regular times, 7:30 on Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching. (music) 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. 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