Iowa Minority Leadership

Iowa Press | Episode
Jul 3, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard (D - Charles City) discusses the 2020 Iowa legislative session.



Legislators at the Iowa Statehouse have concluded an election year session in mid-June. But after the legislative dust settled and bills become law in the new fiscal year, what is the impact for Iowans? We check in with House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard 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. 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. 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, July 3 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: Rarely does an Iowa legislative session take a nearly three-month hiatus before returning for a brief two-week conclusion in June. But 2020 is not an ordinary year. After the Iowa legislature ended another session full of republican control in the Senate, House and Governor's Office, we're joined by the leader of the Democratic Minority in the Iowa House. Representative Todd Prichard of Charles City has served at the Iowa Statehouse since a special election in 2013 and he joins us today at the Iowa Press table. Leader Prichard, thanks for being with us, we appreciate you doing this.

Prichard: It's always a pleasure to be here.

Yepsen: And just so our viewers know, to accommodate the holiday we are taping this show on Thursday the 2nd. Also joining the conversation across the table is Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson, News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Representative Prichard, this past week the legislative council had a debate that was sort of a reprieve from what happened during the legislative session about the Secretary of State sending absentee ballot request forms to every voter for the June primary. Republicans made the argument that it's duplicative, that other campaigns and that county auditors will be doing this for the general election and this is a way to save money, to have that mailing not go statewide. What is your argument against that?

Prichard: The Secretary of State is the head election official for the state of Iowa and what he did for the June 2nd primary was to do just that, he sent out absentee ballot request forms to every voter in Iowa. And we had a record election, we had a record turnout and that's healthy, that's what we want, particularly with the pandemic we want people to be able to vote safely. Absentee ballots are a safe way to vote, they're a good way to vote, Iowans are used to them and that is a tool that I think the head election officer ought to have. There might be some duplicity but at the same time there can be coordination too and that is what the Secretary of State does with his county auditors and works together. And so I think from my standpoint and from the democratic view is taking that tool away from the Secretary of State isn't helping us have a full participatory election in November and making it easier to vote in a safe way in this pandemic.

Henderson: The other argument republicans made about absentee ballots and they made a law change was that county auditors are to contact a voter if there is an error on the absentee ballot request form to ensure that the right person is getting the ballot. What is your argument against that?

Prichard: Well, there's definitely no argument against the county auditor having the best and accurate information on the request form and on the ballot. The argument for this particular piece of legislation, which passed in a partisan manner on the last day of session, was that it hamstrings the county auditors as to the tools they can use to complete the ballot form and identify the voter. They can't use their I-voter database to really do their job and it makes no sense. The example I used on the floor in floor debate was it's like telling a librarian you can't use your card catalog to find a book. It just makes no sense.

Yepsen: Representative, what about the argument that I read Pat Rynard from Iowa Starting Line made this point in his column, democrats hold the auditors positions in a lot of Iowa's largest counties, so they're going to mail their folks an application. But if republican auditors in rural counties don't, it could give your party an advantage.

Prichard: Well, we don't want any one particular party to have an advantage in participating in the election. And I think that point that you just make and that Pat Rynard makes, it speaks in favor of letting the Secretary of State send out ballots to everyone. We know campaigns and some county auditors are going to try to do that, but I think in a lot of ways there would have been a leveling effect if we had the Secretary of State doing that as well.

Murphy: Representative Prichard, the Governor is considering and constructing an executive order to restore voting rights for convicted felons who complete their sentences. That's something your party has supported and pushed for as well. You have asked the Governor to get that done sooner than later, I think you set the goal of the July 4th holiday weekend, which we're now in, and we haven't seen that yet. Why the rush on that? The election isn't until November, you can't even request an absentee ballot yet. Why the hurry from your perspective?

Prichard: Well, I don't know that there's so much an issue for hurry, but it's a fairness issue, it's a voting right issue. I think as a matter of principle if somebody has paid their debt to society let them vote, let them have a voice and participate in democracy. I don't know why we would wait. I don't really know why this hasn't been done already. Other Governors have done this, this should not be something that we have to wait on. And I think philosophically a big reason why I'm supportive of this is I come at this as a lawyer who has worked on both sides, on prosecution and in defense work, and you want people to be reformed, you want people to recover and integrate back into society and be a functioning, contributing member of society. Well, that voting, that access to the ballot box is buy in for that person. So I think this is something that is overdue and needs to be done, I'd like to see it done by the 4th. I want to see it done.

Murphy: Part of the reason we may be waiting is the Governor has said she is open to including some measure of restitution in this executive order requiring that when people come out they have fines or fees paid. To whatever degree that may look like we don't know yet. People get a little bit nervous about that. What is your feeling on the inclusion of restitution in this executive order?

Prichard: I think the danger with restitution is it can become a poll tax and then people who have served their sentence, they've done their probation, they've done any jail or prison time or something like that, but then they simply can't afford to pay their fines or something like that, well then in my mind that ends up being a poll tax and that's not what this is about. And so I think that when somebody successfully completes their sentence, they do if there's a term of jail or incarceration or something like that, and then they successfully complete probation, let them rejoin society and become a contributing member of society and enjoy the right of voting as a citizen again.

Murphy: Is there a political advantage to this one way or the other when these people who currently have to go through the process now if they are automatically added to the voter registration?

Prichard: I think there may be, if there is I'm not aware of that or what it is. But I think the overriding issue here is just, it's a fundamental right to be able to vote and I think we have a societal interest in bringing people into the voting population and participating in government.

Yepsen: So you think it helps democrats to empower these felons to vote?

Prichard: Honestly I don't know if it would and I really don't think that's the issue. I've heard the argument that it would. But to me that's not the issue, that's not the question.

Yepsen: I understand that. That may explain some of the republican heartburn about this if they're empowering a whole bunch of new democratic voters.

Prichard: That may be, that may very well be the issue.

Henderson: In the closing hours of the 2020 session republicans passed a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. As an attorney, how do you think this court fight is going to turn out?

Prichard: I think there has been some change in the makeup of the Iowa Supreme Court and as you probably know there has been a hold, a stay on that law. I don't think it will stand up to the test of current precedent as to abortion and things like that. I really look at this as a partisan vote but the advocates want to have a test case. To me this is a violation of a woman's right to control and make her own health care decisions for herself. I and members of the State Legislature shouldn't be at the table for that. This is a woman's choice.

Henderson: The makeup of the courts has been a key issue for republican voters. Why has it never been so for democrats?

Prichard: I guess the makeup of who sits on the court?

Henderson: Right.

Prichard: I would say we had this fight a year ago with how we do judicial nominations and speaking as a democrat, this is a separate, independent branch of government. We need people to serve on the courts based on merit, not on necessarily any political ideology or partisanship reasons. So I'm going to fall on I want a judge who is good at their job, that's who I want on the court.

Yepsen: Is this enactment by the republicans of this law a consolation prize? They couldn't get a constitutional amendment passed because they didn't have all the republicans in the House. So do they get this as a consolation prize? Did the pro-life movement get this as a consolation prize from the republicans? The pro-life movement is a big part of the GOP base.

Prichard: My observation was that the votes were simply not there, that they could not get the consensus votes within the caucus and so they obviously did have the votes for this 24-hour ban. I do think politically there wasn't the support in the caucus, the republican caucus, for the constitutional ban.

Murphy: One of the things this session will, figures to long be remembered for is the racial justice legislation, the police reforms that were passed when legislators came back for those last couple of weeks. One of the things I heard from almost everybody even in celebration of that bill was it's just a first step, this is just the start of a bigger process. So from your perspective, what's next now?

Prichard: Well, I think one, I want to give hats off to the Iowa House black caucus, they did an amazing job leading the legislature and working with the Governor and we came through with a package that went through the legislature with 100% support. And then also had the support of law enforcement, police chiefs and I think also the sheriff's association weighed in positively for these sets of reforms. And I think that tells you that we did something that was needed and we did something that will hopefully have long-term benefits, positive benefits for the state. One thing that was on the discussion or on the table for discussion when we crafted this legislation in that last week was looking at profiling and training to help identify profiling that is not right, that is not helpful, that is maybe leading to improper or not helpful police tactics. And I'm glad to see that the Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg is still working with groups in this area to study and deal with racial profiling and those types of things. And so I think we have some work to go in that area and some ideas that we need to try to find consensus on. So hopefully that is the next step because this cannot be the last step in racial justice.

Murphy: Is there anything beyond just, because police reform is just a part of the overall picture here. When you talk to leaders in the black community there are all kinds of structural changes that need to be made whether it's in education or the economy. What else can state legislators do here?

Prichard: Well, there's a lot that we should be doing and there's a lot that we must do in my mind. You look at criminal justice reform, 3% of the population but then the incarceration rates for young black men, it's just, there's something that doesn't add up and there has got to be a hard look at how we are penalizing non-violent crime in this state and make that a priority. And then you look at unemployment rates, one of our biggest pieces of positive policy legislation as democrats is to advance job opportunities for all people. And this I think means job training opportunities and target certain communities that have historically high unemployment rates like the African-American community. We have got to address these issues and I think that what this movement that we're seeing right now is really about, us living up to our values of equality for all Americans and it happens in the schools, it happens in the economy and it needs to happen in the criminal justice area as well.

Henderson: Before the pandemic, republican Governor Kim Reynolds was pushing for increasing the sales tax for a penny and using the money for a variety of projects, notably water quality and mental health--

Prichard: That seems like a lifetime ago.

Henderson: Doesn't it though. Will democrats on the campaign trail in the fall argue for raising the full penny and using that money for water quality and mental health?

Prichard: I think a lot of democrats are kind of all over the board on that. What we were happy to see is we were happy to see that the Governor brought that proposal forward because we know as democrats that we need to fund water quality and environmental issues across the state. And the pandemic kind of just threw that discussion off the table as we adjourned, or suspended the legislature to come by. I think what will be, and what I hope to see, is a discussion that is how we provide funding for the trust fund and what we do or where we take that money from. The Governor proposed some different funding mechanisms and some different pots, if you will, for how that money should be spent. It's a discussion that we are willing to have and we need to figure it out.

Henderson: How in a pandemic do you tell people who may have been laid off that hey, we want to raise your sales tax?

Prichard: Well, that's a tough sell. But I think where we need to be is we need to say listen, we have got a long-term problem here with water quality in this state and we have got to identify funding sources that are stable and that will meet the need for Iowans to have clean water and sustain our agricultural system over the long-term and these aren't easy answers. The Governor was talking about a corresponding income tax decrease with the increase in sales tax. That's something I think many democrats would be open to.

Yepsen: A lot of economists will tell you, as Kay pointed out, raising the sales tax as a regressive move and after you've had an economic downturn it's a bad time to be raising any taxes. So where does that leave funding for mental health? You guys had a big initiative on this, a lot of ballyhoo about it, but they come up with no money and at a time when a lot of Iowans have some serious mental health problems because of the pandemic stresses. What do you do?

Prichard: Well, we have a couple of tools right now that I think are being underutilized. The state of Iowa got about $2.9 billion in CARES Act money for things like mental health and education and election, helping run our elections and things like that. We've only used about $1.5 million that I know of. There hasn't been a whole lot of transparency as to how we are going to use the rest of this money or really what some of it has been used for. But we have an opportunity with help through the CARES Act, through federal money, to improve our mental health system. The mental health system, like water quality, is a long-term problem that is not going to go away. A lot of small rural communities like mine, mental health right now is funded primarily by property tax. Property taxes in large part have gone up and not down for a lot of rural property owners and rural people. We need to find a way that can put money into the property tax system and if it's looking at supplementing through general fund dollars and other things to make some parity so we're not just putting all of this burden on one set of taxpayers in rural Iowa.

Murphy: Representative Prichard, depending on when you start the clock on it we're about three or four months into this coronavirus pandemic that everybody across the country is dealing with. How would you assess Governor Reynolds' performance as chief executive of the state during these past few months handling this virus?

Prichard: In some ways I think the Governor has handled the pandemic well. I think she made the right decision to close schools when she did and then taking those steps through her proclamations to make sure that people are social distancing and crushing the curve, as she would say, or as the program says, to flatten the curve and to make sure that our health care system doesn't get overloaded with patients. I think though we're seeing, especially in recent weeks and days though, we're seeing the trend going in the wrong direction. And what I think my goal and democrats' goal is, is that we want to see the economy safely reopened, that when it's safe without taking unnecessary risks of putting people's lives and health in danger, we want to see things go back to normal. And I think the fastest way to do that is to make sure that we do get ahead and we do try as best we can to contain this virus. And so that means things like encouraging the wearing of masks. I would have liked to have seen a stronger statement about social distancing earlier on in this process.

Murphy: The Governor has encouraged, she just hasn't required. Is that what you would propose instead, requiring the use of face masks and face shields?

Prichard: We need to follow the science and some states say they have followed the science and their department of public health have required, like Kansas for instance has said face masks are mandatory. What we need to do is we need to follow the science and we can't be afraid to make those hard decisions and provide the leadership that says, this is going to save lives, this is going to get us through this in better shape and in my mind faster as opposed to taking half measures, which only prolong the pandemic situation.

Yepsen: Speaking of the Governor, it's never an official Iowa Press show unless we ask our guests about their political ambitions. You actually announced for Governor and then dropped out the last time. What about again? Campaign coming up in 2022?

Prichard: Yeah, this is 2020 and as the caucus leader it's my job to get us into the majority in the Iowa House. And so I am 100% focused on November of this year. I think democrats are positioned very well to take majority in the House and that is where my efforts are.

Yepsen: So you clearly are leaving the door open for 2022.

Prichard: You never say no, but I'm not focused on 2022 at all.

Henderson: You mentioned face masks, there's been some discussion about requiring them in schools. Can you really require a kindergartner to wear a face mask all day?

Prichard: I've talked to folks back home in our school district as far as what they're going to do and there's obviously going to be some difficulties with young children and the face mask and things like that. And the Governor put out guidance that was clearly not recommending a face mask from the Department of Education's guidance that came out last week. And so we've got a critical event coming up when we go back to school and we try to open our schools. And what we need to make sure is that we are putting student and staff and faculty safety as the utmost priority so we're keeping children safe as we return to the school year. And I think we can do that, I think we can find that balance between learning and keeping the children safe.

Henderson: We've got just a couple of minutes left. Why did you vote against the bill that gave liability protection to businesses who are worried about reopening?

Prichard: Yeah, that bill in my mind, as a small town business owner I'm trying to do the right thing, I'm trying to protect my clients, I'm trying to protect my customers and my staff. And that bill simply just did not hold people, those companies, some of which are out of state which could be very bad actors and lead to very bad consequences, did not give any tools to hold those types of actors accountable and to me that was just not the right direction to go.

Murphy: Another issue facing the schools is the possibility of having to continue online learning to whatever degree they may this fall and that brings Internet access into the equation. What is your understanding of the current situation with ensuring that all students are able to use online learning?

Prichard: So in my district we've got some local Internet providers that have provided free Internet access and that is wonderful and that has really facilitated learning in some of these rural districts. I think what we have learned in this pandemic is we've learned in a lot of ways what is important and broadband needs to be expanded to rural areas. I think we also missed an opportunity at the end of this session in the last few weeks of really sitting down and talking and listening to educators as far as what they need to reopen and continue learning in the school districts and it's going to come down to broadband, it's going to come down to some funding.

Yepsen: Representative, we've only got a minute left. One big issue a lot of people are hearing about now, fireworks. Should the legislature put more restrictions on fireworks?

Prichard: I was not a supporter of the bill that allowed the fireworks changes. I think what we need to do, and we tried, this bill that was passed a few years ago tried to strike this balance, is I think local communities need to be able to control the fireworks in their community. You've got a lot of communities where you've got people who just don't want the nuisance and the noise and the safety issues. The reason we outlawed fireworks is because Spencer, Iowa had a catastrophic fire 80 years ago. And I think if we're going to have fireworks the local communities, the cities and the counties need to be able to control them in a way that is appropriate for that community.

Yepsen: Should a local city ban setting fireworks off but be allowed to sell them too? That doesn't make sense.

Prichard: Well, I think that the city should be able to control whether they are even sold in the community. And I think that legislation that we passed didn't give them the opportunity to do that, just said you can't set them off but they couldn't do anything with the sale.

Yepsen: Representative Prichard, we're out of time. Thank you for being with us today.

Prichard: It's always a pleasure.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. 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. 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. 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.