Sen. Jack Whitver

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 13, 2019 | 27 min

The 2020 Iowa legislative session represents the 4th consecutive year with full republican trifecta control of the Iowa House, the Iowa Senate and the governorship. It is also a critical election year. So how will republican leadership balance another year of full control and the desire to get back on the campaign trail? Joining us today is Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver of Ankeny.



A republican trifecta of power still maintains control in state government. But after multiple years of Iowa republican legislation, what's still on the agenda? We sit down with Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver on this edition of Iowa Press.


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. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.


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, December 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: The 2020 Iowa legislative session represents the 4th consecutive year with full republican trifecta control of the Iowa House, the Iowa Senate and the governorship. It is also a critical election year. So how will republican leadership balance another year of full control and the desire to get back on the campaign trail? Joining us today is Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver of Ankeny. Senator, welcome back to the show.

Whitver: Thank you for having me, happy to be here.

Yepsen: Good to have you. Across the table, journalists joining us today are Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Senator, there is discussion of raising the sales tax so that you use part of the proceeds to lower other taxes. How does that work?

Whitver: Well, as long as we're in the majority in the Iowa Senate and as long as I'm leader of the Iowa Senate we're going to work on reducing taxes for Iowans. How that works and what those major reforms look like there's still a lot of details to be worked out. So any discussion about implementing IWILL would have to start with the broad theme of it's going to be a tax reduction on Iowans overall.

Yepsen: IWILL being --

Henderson: Iowa Water and Land Legacy.

Yepsen: Right, some of our viewers might not --

Henderson: And you would be forced to dedicate a part of the penny, the one percent sales tax to water quality and the rest of it you can --

Whitver: Right, so in the 2010 election Iowans voted to put IWILL, the natural resource trust fund, into the constitution. It hasn't been implemented since. But what it says is the first time that we increase taxes, sales taxes in the state of Iowa, the first three-eighths of a cent would go into that trust fund for natural resources. And so we haven't done it since that was put in the Constitution. There's conversation about it. But again, it's really important for me to get across that anything that we do on taxes is going to be a tax reduction overall for Iowans.

Henderson: Do you want to cut property taxes? Do you want to cut income taxes? Do you want to cut corporate taxes?

Whitver: Yes. We're going to continue to look at reducing the tax burdens. Whenever the conversation starts about increasing the sales tax I tell people we have to be very careful because we're in the bottom 15 as far as property taxes in the country. We're in the bottom 15 as far as income tax. And if we raise the sales tax now we're one of the worst on sales tax as well. And we don't, that's a trifecta we don't really want to hit. And so whenever you're going to look at changing the sales tax we have to reduce taxes somewhere else. What our caucus would be focused on is income taxes.

Yepsen: You're on track to get rid of federal deductibility. Are you still going to be able to stay on that track?

Whitver: Yes. The tax bill that we passed in 2018 was a very significant tax reform package. It really set out tax policy over three or four years. Part of that plan is to eliminate federal deductibility. The projections that we made and we assumed when we passed that bill are all on track to hit. The triggers that we put in are on track so far. So we feel very confident that that will happen. That will take a big step down in our tax rates from upper 8's down to about 6.5. That still puts us in the middle of the pack and we want to do better than that.

Sostaric: Going back to looking at raising that sales tax for water quality and conservation, are you looking at a complete restructuring of water quality programs and funding in the state or simply adding to what exists?

Whitver: Well, I think it would be a little bit of both. In order to get that bill passed, if we're going to work on that, we have to take a look at the formula. The formula is what is set out in Iowa code of where that money would go and that was put in place about 10 years ago and a lot has changed in 10 years whether it's the amount of trails that have been developed since then, we passed a water quality nutrient reduction plan since then, REAP, which is a natural resource fund that we have in the state right now is going to expire next year. So a lot of things have changed in the last 10 years since that formula was put into Iowa code and so that would be something that we would definitely look at. 

Sostaric: You mentioned REAP, the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program. Would you allow that program to end in exchange for this other water quality funding?

Whitver: I think a lot of it would overlap. And so REAP by statute is about $20 million. It has been funded in the $12 to $15 million range the last few years. That, like I said, is supposed to sunset. But a lot of the priorities in REAP would overlap with the priorities in an Iowa formula. So those are the kinds of discussions that we have to talk through if we're going to go down this route.

Henderson: This month the Trump administration has taken some steps in regards to the food stamp program and work requirements. It doesn't apply to Iowa because Iowa doesn't currently have a waiver. Republicans in the Senate talked about some changes in that program. What do you envision happening in 2020?

Whitver: Well, one of the greatest challenges we have in the state of Iowa, if not the greatest challenge that we have, is workforce. We have over 50,000 jobs that are open, ready to be filled, and we don't have the workforce to fill those. Either we don't have enough people or we don't have people with the right skills to fill those jobs. Part of what we have done in the past is the Future Ready Iowa plan that Governor Reynolds has championed. That is having a significant impact on that. But we also still need just more bodies in our workforce. And we can sit around and hope that people move from Illinois or from Minnesota or Wisconsin. The reality is over the last 100 years our population hasn't changed. And so if we're going to find enough people to fill those jobs the number one place we want to look in the Iowa Senate is people that are currently on our welfare system that we can move from the welfare system and into the workforce to fill some of those jobs. And if we do that, if someone moves from the welfare program into the workforce it changes their life, it changes their family's life and that is something that is really important to us.

Sostaric: The Senate has passed a Medicaid work requirements bill in the past. That is something that has been struck down by courts in other states and critics say that people are more likely to get kicked off their health care benefits for not reporting their work rather than not working. How do you respond to those concerns?

Whitver: It has been struck down in courts in other parts of the country. The administration in D.C. has been very proactive about asking states to put in the work requirements. They think it's important just like we do to get people out of those programs and into the workforce and it's something that we need to have a conversation about in America, how to get people into the workforce. It's not just Iowa. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But it's the entire country that we need more people in the workforce and that is the best place to look.

Henderson: Governor Reynolds proposed a constitutional amendment to give felon voting rights automatically to people who complete their prison sentences and are released. It didn't advance in the Senate. What sort of vision do republicans in the Senate have for resolving that impasse because it looks as if Iowa will become the only state where felons don't automatically regain their voting rights?

Whitver: Yeah, that is a bill that did pass the House, a priority of the Governor, it passed the House. We did not have the votes to get it through the Senate as it was last year. One thing that I've talked to the Governor about and talked to many people about is really there's two different parts to this. The states that have allowed felons to restore their voting rights, they have also defined which particular crimes get those rights back and some don't. One thing that I want to be really careful of in Iowa is that we don't go the route of Florida where Florida they had a voter referendum to allow felon voting rights, they put in their that violent offenses and sexual offenses are not included, so you don't get your rights back. They didn't define what that meant and so in the middle of an election year they're having court battles over who can vote and who can't. We have a chance, if we're going to pass the felon voting amendment, we have a chance to define that upfront so that we're not stick in the courts in the middle of elections deciding who gets their rights back. But I think it's important, if it's going to get through the Iowa Senate, it's important to list out those particular crimes. There are some heinous crimes out there that maybe they shouldn't get their rights back. If you have killed somebody that person will never get to vote again and maybe you shouldn't either. If you're convicted of rape maybe you don't get your rights back. But that is a conversation that our caucus wants to have before we pass the constitutional amendment.

Henderson: Do you expect to come to fruition in 2020 on that?

Whitver: I don't know. It had a lot of work to do in our caucus, frankly, in the judiciary committee. And so I know we have worked with Governor Reynolds very well on all of her priorities. We're going to continue to work with her on her priorities and I know this will be one of them.

Henderson: The list of felons that is maintained by the Iowa court system and sort of the Secretary of State's office has a bunch of people on it who are not convicted felons. It apparently lists the state of Iowa and the Des Moines Police Department as entities that can't vote. Do you as legislators intend to get involved in making sure that list is accurate?

Whitver: I just had a conversation with Secretary Pate this last week just ad hoc at an event about this issue and it does take money. If we're going to go this route it's going to take some financing to the Secretary of State's office to sort through that list.

Yepsen: Wouldn't you want to try to get this done before the 2020 election?

Whitver: Get what done?

Yepsen: Get the amendment, the specificity, all these things we've been talking about, get that done before voters go in the polls? Or do you want to make it an issue in the 2020 campaign?

Whitver: Well, any constitutional amendment tis going to have to pass in this two year period, the next two year period and then it won't even be up to the voters until probably 2022 at the earliest. And so that is important to us is the bill that is out there right now that just says felons can vote, that is every felon no matter what the crime. That is what that vote is. And so we want to really define that and I know the Governor as far as getting it done this year, if you're going to do a constitutional amendment she would want to get it done before this General Assembly ends so that we can work on it next year.

Yepsen: Senator, are you talking about putting the language in the constitutional amendment or in a separate companion bill?

Whitver: That is to be determined, I think that is to be determined. Conversations with the Governor's office I think they would like to do that in a different bill and just put it in Iowa code. But we haven't had enough conversation with our members to know if that has to be part of the amendment or if that can be separate in Iowa code.

Sostaric: The Iowa Supreme Court will have a new makeup in 2020. Are Senate republicans considering any abortion related legislation that you hope would be upheld by the future court?

Whitver: Oh there's no doubt that our caucus is a pro-life caucus. We have been the last three years and have passed several measures trying to advance the pro-life cause. We don't know at this time if there will be any bills to move that movement forward. The one thing that I want to be careful of is the bills that we have passed the last few years have actually set the movement back in some ways because of court decisions that have struck them down. And so whatever we do I want to be careful that we're actually moving forward and not going backwards.

Sostaric: Do Senate republicans still believe that there is a need to amend the Iowa Constitution in relation to abortion in order to move forward on abortion restrictions?

Whitver: That's an ongoing conversation. There are certainly some and many in our caucus that believe that but we're still having that conversation and for me it goes back to what I just mentioned about setting the movement backwards or are we moving forward and making sure that whatever we do it's going to move the pro-life movement forward.

Henderson: Is it a moot point though when you have the idea that maybe the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve this?

Whitver: Well, there's two different systems. They can strike it down at the state level or the federal level and what happened the last time we passed a pro-life legislation here in Iowa the state court essentially wrote a right to an abortion into the Iowa Constitution and so really it's the state and the federal now that you have to address.

Henderson: There are a few counties in Iowa that are enacting ordinances to restrict where wind turbines may be placed within their county. Do you think the state needs a statewide standard for the distances and where these wind turbines may be placed? Or do you want to leave it up to counties to make sort of a hodgepodge of rules?

Whitver: It's a complicated issue. We had some bills last year that started to address this. You have advocates that are on one side that are very adamant about private property rights and the effect of wind turbines on their property. And then we have an industry, a wind industry in Iowa that is very important to our economy, not only creating tens of thousands of jobs but also getting to the point where Iowa, MidAmerican is 100% renewable here in a couple of years. All of the energy that we use in Iowa in MidAmerican will be renewable. And so it's balancing both of those. Last year we didn't get to a point where the advocates on either side could find common ground. And so we'll continue to work on that. But whatever we do we want to make sure that private property rights are protected but we're not setting an industry back that is important to the state of Iowa.

Henderson: The Governor sent a signal that she just wants to let counties make these decisions. Are you comfortable with that?

Whitver: Well right now that's the way it is and until we act we're going to have to accept that. As more and more states maybe offer moratoriums you'll hear more and more conversation about what the state legislature needs to do. But at this point it's only a couple of counties that have done that.

Sostaric: There has been a lot in the news about the risks of vaping. Senate President Schneider has proposed raising the age for smoking and vaping to 21. Do you support moving that forward in the next session?

Whitver: I do support that and we haven't had a full caucus conversation about it. We wanted to start that conversation publicly last year and so Senator Schneider has done a great job of taking the lead on that issue. We're at a unique period that we've never really been at where almost everybody across the board is in support of raising it to 21, including the tobacco companies. They have never had that position and so we're at a position where I think we have an opportunity to do that. With vaping a lot of it is anecdotal at this time because it is such a new thing. But some of the anecdotes that are coming out are scary and try to move some, eliminate some of the vaping that is occurring in middle school and high school. That's a real issue and a serious issue. And so if we can raise it to 21 we think that might have a shot to eliminate that vaping that is occurring in our schools.

Sostaric: Are you considering allocating specific funding for anti-use vaping public health campaigns as some other states have done?

Whitver: We haven't talked about that yet.

Henderson: If you look at the state of Illinois where they are going to legalize smoking marijuana and Iowa's medical marijuana law, do you think Iowans are just going to go to Illinois to buy products? Do you anticipate legislators in Iowa trying to expand the medical marijuana law that is on the books now?

Whitver: Iowans may decide to go to Illinois and do that. I would caution against that. Once you bring it back to Iowa you're crossing federal lines and that is a federal crime. So I would caution against that. We're going to do what we think is best for Iowa and we're not going to take the lead from Illinois on this or frankly anything else, we're not going to take the lead from Illinois on. But we passed a bill last year as you know, the House and the Senate passed a bill to expand our medical marijuana program. The Governor had some concerns with that, ended up vetoing it. But there has been a lot of conversation with her about where she could be comfortable and trying to get some progress made this year.

Henderson: Do you think the law is too restrictive on the number of conditions and the potency of the product?

Whitver: In the Senate our bill was more expansive as far as the conditions and the potency it's more of once you have a 3% THC cap that we have right now what happens is you abide by that cap but you may have to take 8 or 10 or 12 pills to get the recommended dosage. So what we were trying to do is limit the amount you can get over a three month period but you can take 1 pill instead of 10 pills, which would make sense. Part of the problem with this whole issue is you have a federal government that can't act at all on anything frankly but this is another one on that list. There's no research being done in the United States on this issue. And so to say we should add this condition or that condition we're not experts so we're doing the best we can, but with no studies it's hard to determine that.

Yepsen: Senator, I want to go back to Kay's earlier question. If you say we don't want people going to Illinois, fine. The industry that people are trying to start here in Iowa are saying they'll never get a chance to get started if all the business is going across the state line. So are you willing to give up on starting a marijuana growing industry in Iowa and in turn just to let those people go there?

Whitver: One of the key differences between how we operate in Iowa and how they operate in Illinois, I go to conferences all over the country and talk to leaders from all kinds of states and a lot of states are trying to balance their state budget by passing marijuana legislation and passing more gambling. When we passed our sports gambling bill last year we didn't spend a dime of it, we aren't instituting these new programs to balance our budget. We have a balanced budget. So whatever we do it's not a measure of us trying to bring in more money to balance our budget, it's trying to do what is right for Iowans.

Yepsen: Senator, I want to look at a bigger picture here. As I listen to you talk here today republicans are in control of everything, you've gotten a lot done, you've got a lot of different conservative groups that want to go in different directions on a variety of these issues. So which direction do you take? Do you come into session and you're the party of not a lot of government so you pass a budget and get out of dodge? Or do you hang around here and pass a lot of these things that these republican conservative groups want to have on abortion, on water quality, for example, on the theory that you may in fact lose control of the Iowa House? I mean, what direction do you as a republican leader want to see your caucus go in?

Whitver: Well, one thing I tell every group I talk to about our Senate republican caucus is we have a group of people that ran for office to do something, not be somebody. They're not people that just ran for office because they want a Senator business card in their pocket, they ran because they want to actually implement reforms to move our state forward. And so as long as I'm leader we're always going to be trying to push and continue reforming what we think is the best for the state of Iowa. I believe whether it's the first year of a session, the second year of a session, whether it's an election year, good policy is good politics. And so we want to continue to push what we think is good policy to move us forward. I don't look at it as we may not have a trifecta next year. It's more of are there reforms that still need to be done? And if so, let's do them.

Yepsen: But, Senator, you're in the Senate, you're in the first part of a four year term, you just won re-election. Your colleagues across the rotunda in the House, the republicans, they're worried about losing control. Democrats are making no secret of the fact they're coming after them. So don't they have a point that you need to get these things done now if you're going to do them otherwise you may never get a chance?

Whitver: I'm a believer that you win elections by implementing reforms. And when you stop acting and start saying we're not going to do anything, you don't give people a reason to vote for you. And so we want to continue to highlight the good things we have done, continue to push our state forward, continue to promote what we've done whether it's for education, for the state budget, for the different reforms we have made, that is my goal is to continue to promote that and the election will be what it's going to be. But we came to office to act and we're going to continue to do that.

Sostaric: Turning to education spending, there's always a big debate over how much to spend, how much to increase by. Would you consider changing how that K-12 education money is distributed, especially when you have districts like Davenport and Ankeny saying they're not getting a fair share of the pie?

Whitver: Well, we have already started to do that. And one of the things that we have done in the last couple of years with our education spending is get away from just here's a percent to put in the general fund, we've tried to target that at where do we think there are some problems in that formula and we have identified two problems. The first one is our transportation inequities. There are rural districts that are spending an abundance of money in just getting their kids to the classroom. And what that means is there is less money in the classroom to pay the teachers and to educate the kids. And so two years ago we started the path of evening out that transportation inequity. The second one is what you mentioned with Davenport and Ankeny and others where they're getting less per pupil, sometimes up to $100 plus per pupil, just because of the way the formula was written. We started that two years ago to address that cost per pupil inequity, we have done that for two years now, and we'll add a third. And so instead of just saying here's general fund money, we're trying to start addressing some of those inequities so that it's more fair across the state.

Henderson: Legislators have been discussing tax credits and perhaps getting rid of someone, some of them whereas the Governor has started talking about perhaps a tax credit to businesses that provide childcare on site. Do you think that is likely? And what other steps do you think that the legislature will take to increase availability of childcare, which is really a problem in some parts of Iowa?

Whitver: Well, the tax credit issue is a really interesting one because tax credits are a tax from both the right and the left and it seems like nobody likes them until you look at them all and realize the legislature voted them in and a lot of them are very popular. I am certainly, as we try, tax credits in my opinion are an apology for a bad tax system, that's why they exist. When you don't have the courage or the will over decades to really address the fundamental rate, fundamental issue, which is our rates are too high, that's where you start well let's just give a tax credit here or a tax exemption there. What we'd like to do is just broaden it out and reduce taxes for everyone and then the need for tax credits is reduced. But as you try to eliminate some of those we are definitely looking at ones we can eliminate. If they're not working we should get rid of them. We have a $400 million plus liability with tax credits in the state of Iowa, some of them good, some of them maybe we should get rid of, but that's a conversation that we are having and will continue to have.

Henderson: What about addressing the childcare availability issue?

Whitver: It is an issue we hear about all over. In the rural areas it's more accessibility and in the urban areas it's maybe affordability and it's an issue that we need to continue to work on. When I mentioned earlier that workforce is one of our biggest problems part of that is people having to make a decision, well if I work and I have to pay childcare I'm not really ahead. And so it's something we really need to work on. As you mentioned the only idea I've heard so far is another tax credit, which everyone around me is saying well we're trying to get rid of those. And so it's something that we do need to continue to look at. When I mentioned welfare reforms earlier one of those is the childcare cliff effect. And what that means is when you're getting a subsidy for childcare, if you're making say $13 an hour, you get a full subsidy to pay for your childcare. If you make $14 an hour you get zero. So the result of that is you're doing good at your job, you're making $13 an hour, the boss comes in and says hey, I want to give you a promotion, you're going to be a manager. And you say great. Then you go home and look at the finances of it and you can't do it because you lose that entire subsidy. So what that does it put a ceiling on people's ability to be successful in Iowa. We should not have systems set up that limit your ability to be successful. And so when you're talking about welfare yeah part of it is work requirements, part of it is SNAP, but part of it is fixing the broken systems that are in place and childcare is one of those.

Sostaric: In the past few years there have been attempts to remove or expand the time limit on victims of child sex abuse pursuing legal action against the perpetrators. Is that something that you would support moving forward?

Whitver: I believe the Senate has passed that in an amendment to a bill last year or the year before, I think two years ago. So it has passed the Senate. I voted for it at that time.

Henderson: Iowans are now able to place bets on sporting events using a smartphone. Does that build support for allowing lottery products to be sold on apps?

Whitver: Certainly there will be a push to expand lottery to mobile devices. I think we should be very careful about that. We'll look at and see how the sports wagering is working. Again, a lot of people would say oh well you're losing money from the lottery or you could make a lot more from the lottery. We're not trying to balance budgets based on lottery, gambling, marijuana, those are things that if we're going to do it we should do it for the right reasons, not just to balance the budget. So I think we should take our time and see how the sports gaming bill works before we start having that conversation about the lottery.

Yepsen: Senator, less than 30 seconds to go. Good year? Tough year for republicans? How popular is President Trump?

Whitver: I think in Iowa he is very popular. What he has done has changed the map. There's areas where it's more difficult for republicans but there's a lot of areas where it's way better than it has ever been. And so I think instead of trying to say we want to be better in the suburbs, we just need policy that is good for all Iowans and let it sort out at the election.

Yepsen: Thank you, Senator, we're out of time. I appreciate you being with us. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular airtimes, Friday night at 7:30 and again Sunday at Noon. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.