Republican Legislative Leaders

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 5, 2020 | 27 min

After nearly three months away from the Statehouse, the Iowa legislature is back in session amidst protests, budget concerns and a global pandemic. We sit down with republican majority leadership House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver on this edition of Iowa Press.


After nearly three months away from the Statehouse, the Iowa legislature is back in session amidst protests, budget concerns and a global pandemic. We sit down with republican majority leadership House Speaker Pat Grassley and 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. 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, June 5 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: When Iowa officials paused the legislative session in March, a global pandemic was just beginning to impact the daily lives of Iowans. Nearly three months later legislators have returned to finish the session amidst a new backdrop of massive nationwide protests and civil unrest regarding race in America. We'll cover many of these issues in the African-American community on next week's Iowa Press and it's one of the many issues confronting leadership at the Statehouse in Des Moines. Joining us today is Iowa Speaker of the House Pat Grassley and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver. Gentlemen, welcome back to the show. It's good to have you with us. Thank you for taking time away to be here.

Good to be back.

Glad to be here.

Yepsen: Also joining the conversation across the table is Kay Henderson, News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, on Thursday evening there was a group of protestors who walked by the State Capitol, there was a discussion earlier in the day among some democratic lawmakers about some steps that could be taken now in regards to the issues that are being raised in these protests. What do you anticipate legislators doing this month?

Whitver: What I can say is those voices are being heard and we've had conversations with the Speaker and with the Governor about taking a very positive step forward. And so we are very interested in having the conversation with those community leaders and hopefully we can get something passed this session.

Henderson: They mentioned banning chokeholds, banning the hiring of a police officer who has a record of serious misconduct and then thirdly giving the Attorney General and County Attorneys the ability to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Are those things that you might do as a bill or are you going to attach them to something else?

Whitver: I think we should look at an individual bill and we haven't had that conversation yet with the House on what it looks like as far as one bill or separate bills. But I think it would be a very good step forward if we could craft a bill that incorporates these ideas, maybe others, but we want to make sure that we're listening and these are good ideas that they're bringing forward and we want to see if we can get it done.

Henderson: Speaker Grassley, what are your thoughts on this subject?

Grassley: Senator Whitver and I have discussed the concept of the proposals that were brought out yesterday by the democrats and I think we can take some positive action on that. When I came back on Wednesday right away I sat down with Representative Abdul-Samad and Minority Leader Prichard and we had a conversation. With the timeline that we're working with within the legislature what are some things that we can do to have impact immediately on the situation before us and I'm hopeful that some of these things are in response to us having those conversations. And I think that we can have a productive piece of legislation come from that.

Yepsen: Even this session?

Grassley: So yesterday to the things that Kay laid out earlier, yeah, I think that those can definitely be part of a conversation. Obviously we want, there may be other things, but I think that we should look at those and work with the democrats to see where we can find some common ground on that.

Yepsen: It seems to me that's going to be kind of a heavy lift for the legislature in a short special session, Mr. Speaker, to deal with chokeholds, banning hiring police officers with a record of misconduct and giving the Attorney General more authority to investigate police misconduct. Those are -- those aren't simple bills.

Grassley: Again, as you list those off the concept of those I think will be part of legislation, I think as we sit here those conversations will happen with the democrats and see a path forward and that is why I think this conversation that we're having right now is very productive because it's the issue that is at hand, there could be a broader conversation as we move forward to the next legislation.

Yepsen: Senator Whitver, what is the status of felon voting in the legislature right now?

Whitver: So we have said for the last two years one thing that is really important for us in the Senate is to kind of define that a little bit more. We want to prevent people that are convicted of murder, rapists, from getting those voting rights back. We also think restitution, specifically victim restitution, not court fees, we took those and set those aside, we're talking victim restitution, that is important for us to be paid back before those rights are restored. And we have been working with the House to get a bill crafted with those ideas in it, they passed it off the floor Wednesday and so on Friday morning the Judiciary Committee will meet and I hope they move that forward. I'm not sure yet. They're still working on gathering the votes. But I hope to see it move forward.

Yepsen: But if it does move forward then does that clear the way for the passage of the amendment, the constitutional amendment?

Whitver: I'm sorry, yeah, that's what I mean. The House has passed a statutory bill, the Governor has signed that to draw in the requirements. So the constitutional amendment right now is in Judiciary and that is what they'll have the conversation on Friday.

Yepsen: I just want to make clear for our viewers what is happening here. The Senate was unwilling to accept just carte blanche a constitutional amendment. So in order to get the votes to pass the constitutional amendment you folks had to have a statutory guarantee in law for under what conditions repayment of victims. Now that you have that, that you think will clear the way for passage of the constitutional amendment.

Whitver: I think it will. Again, the Judiciary Committee is going to meet this morning to talk about that, but that has been my conversation with them.

Yepsen: And our viewers should know we are taping this program on Friday morning.

Henderson: Speaker Grassley, there is also a bill that has been discussed in the House that would provide some liability in relation to COVID-19 to businesses and some organizations. Why is that necessary?

Grassley: I would say since March 15th when we took the pause on session that is one of the biggest issues that we've heard from Iowans. So in the last several weeks as that is becoming more and more of an issue that is being brought to the attention of the legislature, Representative Carlson has worked with not just businesses across the state, and that's what I think we have to be very clear about in this conversation, this is also your frontline workers, this is your county fairs, your churches. This is to provide some protection for those Iowans that are willing to try to reopen and give us a sense of normalcy. Our businesses have been very good in following the guidelines that the Governor has laid out and I think from the legislature's perspective hearing from them, asking can we just have some protection as we're following these guidelines to reopen, I really think that is our responsibility to provide that and it doesn't do anything for the bad actors. If you're negligent in your behavior and you're not following the guidelines that the Governor has been laying out this does not protect you. This is for the businesses, the health care workers, the fairs and churches across the state that want to reopen in a responsible manner.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, he just mentioned bad actors. As House members were discussing this democrats were arguing that this offers protection to businesses that may not have been as conscientious and puts workers at risk. How do you answer that question?

Whitver: This has been a very unprecedented time in American history and there has been a lot of unknowns with this specific pandemic and the target has moved from the standards on March 17th to March 25th to today. The standards are a moving target. And so we believe as long as these entities have used a good faith effort to keep up with their recommendations, the requirements of the government, that it's important for us to get our economy back open. When we shut down on March 17th we had the best economy this state has ever had, one of the lowest unemployment rates we've ever had, we need to try to get back to that as soon as possible and what we're hearing from Iowans is in order to do that they need some sort of assurance that if they're following the rules they're not going to be hit with lawsuit after lawsuit.

Yepsen: Senator, you mentioned that we're in, you are, the state is in uncharted waters here. One of the things that has been exercised by the Governor are various restrictions on business and activities and things we can do. Is the legislature satisfied with that? Is there any thought of giving a look at what has been done, should a Governor have that kind of authority or should there be more authority? What do you think about that?

Whitver: Well, we had this conversation right before we paused on emergency powers and if we were going to be out of session would the Governor have the authority to do certain things that she would need to do. When we left on March 17th the additional powers we gave her were all fiscal related, to move some money around to manage the budget, to use a little bit of economic emergency funds. We did not dive into the emergency chapters at all on that date. There was conversation about it but we didn't. Going forward there may be a time and a place to review that. I think right now in a very short end of session here in the middle of the pandemic is not the time and the place to do that and so that would have to be a conversation at a later time.

Grassley: I was going to jump in on that and I think the one thing that I think has been key has been the transparency of our Governor, doing the press conferences on a daily basis, being in contact with the legislature, not just republicans, but democrats as well. And I think the Governor has really handled that well. Like Jack said, if that's a conversation that happens that is something that needs to be looked at moving forward. But I think the level of transparency this Governor has had with the entities that have been at the table has been very good.

Yepsen: But you know you've got some of your libertarian members that are concerned about the heavy hand of government in this, shutting down businesses in rural areas where they don't have a COVID problem and when the problem may be in Iowa City or Waterloo. Is that the kind of thing that the legislature could look at?

Grassley: I think that could be part of a conversation as we move forward. I agree with Senator Whitver, this is not the time to have that conversation. Again, the Governor has been extremely transparent. I would say if that wasn't handled the way it would have been there would probably be more interest in the legislature but I think that was a positive and we had conversations with the Governor before we took a pause on session. We had a very productive conversation that we needed to all be in this together because obviously the Governor is the leader of the state but as the legislature we have to be able to tell our constituents what the impacts of these decisions are. So I think it has been handled very well.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, you're an attorney. What about the juxtaposition of the Governor saying I alone have the authority to issue stay-at-home orders in counties and Johnson County, Linn County who early on wanted to do that, you can't do that, yet Polk County, Scott County, the city of Council Bluffs in recent days have issued curfews and essentially mandatory stay-at-home orders. That seems incongruous.

Whitver: Yeah, that's something that at some point we may have to look at and try to sort through the state laws on that. These are situations, not just with curfews, all kinds of issues. As a conservative republican we believe in local control but we also believe in statewide standards that are easy to follow and people understand. But that might be something we'll have a conversation about at a future point.

Henderson: About a week ago there was a conversation among three experts and they told legislators, such as yourself Senator, I mean Speaker Grassley, that you would have about $360 million less to spend in the following fiscal year which starts on July 1st. How deeply are you going to cut? Are you going to just tell everybody you have every department in state government you have a 10% cut? How are you going to do this?

Grassley: Well, I would say I don't think, obviously regardless of what the revenue is I don't see a situation, I was in the legislature when there were across-the-board cuts and we saw the impacts of those. So whatever the legislature decides to do as the Senate and the House are working through the budget process and I think the key to that though is, Kay, the way we have budgeted, House republicans for example almost being in the majority for the last ten years and then now working with the Senate we have budgeted in a manner to leave ourselves the room that if something unforeseen, which this never even was on our radar as far as unforeseen, usually it's just a blip in the revenue estimate, but this has been something that has been extremely unforeseen, but we have budgeted in a way where your cash reserves are full, your rainy day funds are full, we've had an ending balance, a significant ending balance and we've done that for uncertainty. Now we, again, didn't realize it would be this, but it is. And we're leaving ourselves in the situation that unlike a lot of other states that are going to be pushed to the brink, yes, this will be difficult to get through, but we can manage it. So, again, I look at the news, we're still having some growth in the economy so the news isn't all completely negative. I'm trying to find the positive within it right now.

Henderson: Senator Whitver, do you anticipate it will be a status quo for agencies? How is this going to play out?

Whitver: We've still having those negotiations. But we feel it's important to continue to the same practice that put us in a strong position, which is very conservative budgeting. A lot of states are having massive cuts because they weren't conservative up front and we were and so we're in a very strong position. But we don't want to put ourselves in a position where we have to come back in January because we overspent and start slashing budgets mid-year. If you're going to make cuts the time to do it is before the year starts, not halfway through when contracts are signed, employees have contracts in place. So we want to make those tough decisions now.

Henderson: Speaking of contracts, you've got schools who have signed contracts with teachers and coaches and you promised them an amount of money that starts for the next fiscal year. Are you going to follow through on that promise?

Whitver: One thing that we have really been strong about the last four years is when we make a commitment to our schools we funded it. That wasn't always the case. Often the legislature would say we'll give you $120 million and then when it came time to actually pay that bill they'd give them 80. And that leaves our schools in a really tough position. The last four years we've given hundreds of millions of dollars to the schools and every time we promised it we actually followed through and we hope to do that same thing this year.

Yepsen: Just so we're clear here and so the viewers are clear, the legislature is completing fiscal year 2020 at the end of this month and then begin what you're talking about in the budget is looking forward to fiscal year 2021, that is a new fiscal year that starts on July 1st. Now, your answer to Kay's question is you're not anticipating cuts to school aid in that budget for 2021?

Whitver: Yeah, so we've already made a commitment for about $99 to $100 million of new money for K-12 schools for next year. At this time we don't anticipate having to cut that back for next year's budget.

Yepsen: And do you anticipate having to dip into the cash reserves next year, the 2021?

Whitver: No, whatever budget we set the goal and the plan is to set a budget that we don't have to dip into the cash reserves. We want to leave enough surplus that even if revenues go down we have wiggle room within that ongoing revenue. Worst case, absolutely worst case scenario go to the cash reserves. But we want to make sure the budget still has wiggle room even before getting to the reserves.

Henderson: At the beginning of this year the Governor unveiled an Invest in Iowa proposal which would raise the state sales tax and provide money to build out the state's mental health system and to deal with water quality issues. She said in the middle of a pandemic that is tabled, she'll come back to it next year. How do you find money in the budget then to build out the mental health system as you promised and find more money for water quality projects?

Grassley: We're, again to Senator Whitver's point, we're still having those conversations not only between the House and the Senate but also actively having those conversations with the Governor. I think she put out some issues that obviously are important to Iowans. We have made investments in water quality, for example, obviously mental health was a key piece of the Governor's proposal earlier in the session, so we're still having those conversations and trying to find, again, how we can do some of the priorities that we may see within the budget while also working within the revenue estimate that we were given.

Yepsen: Hasn't this pandemic exacerbated and increased the need for mental health services?

Grassley: Well, I think you could look at it both ways whether it would be an extra -- well now to the mental health services yes, but also the conversation would get back to Kay's question on how you would fund them. And so there may be that increased need and that is part of those conversations that we're having. But also I think to Kay's point to raise the sales tax at this point in time with the uncertainty not only for the economy but just on Iowans in general I think is not the right time. But we do need to continue the conversation about mental health, water quality and the other issues in there.

Yepsen: Senator, what do you think?

Whitver: I think this situation has increased the need for mental health. One of the reasons we've waited two months to come back to session besides the safety aspect is there's a lot to sort through on the budget including over a billion dollars of federal money that was passed in the CARES Act that the Governor has the authority to spend. She has worked very closely with us on how to spend that money. But one of the areas that she is taking a look at is these additional costs for mental health can potentially be paid for with that CARES Act money. And so sorting through the federal money, sorting through revenue projections and then crafting our budget takes a lot of time and that is why we've had to have this two month pause.

Henderson: Speaker Grassley, Secretary of State Paul Pate sent an absentee ballot request form to every Iowan for the primary out of concerns about the pandemic and Iowans responded, more than half a million people voted this past Tuesday in that primary election. Do you think it's a good idea to do that again for the general election?

Grassley: I think what you're going to see from the legislature, there's a lot of these issues that have come up that should the legislature be weighing in on or if so when is the proper time, we're having those conversations, our committee chairs are having those conversations, what role the legislature should play in decisions like that and I think that you'll see some legislation as we work through the process that will provide some clarity on what the next election may look like and what the absentee ballot situation will look like.

Yepsen: Yet this session?

Grassley: I think that is the expectation --

Yepsen: And you’re nodding your head.

Henderson: So what are you looking at?

Whitver: Well, the most important thing in this situation is having certainty for campaigns on both sides of the aisle to know what the rules are. We can't go into an election with unknowns as far as will absentees be mailed out or will they not? Will date changes change from 29 days to 49? The most important thing for all of us on both sides of the aisle is to know exactly what the rules are. And so I understand why he would have made some changes in the middle of this pandemic, but now that we're back in session we want to just make sure that whatever the rules are come November we know them when we leave and so campaigns can prepare for that.

Grassley: And I just want to throw in one thing. I think that the key is as we've been, it's a shortened session but there has been work going on not only like Senator Whitver touched on with the budget, there has been work on some of these things going on not just since we have returned to Des Moines and that is why we wanted to make sure we came back prepared not just on the budget but also policy pieces like this. So those discussions have been going on before we returned on Wednesday.

Yepsen: Mr. Speaker, if you start restraining the use of absentee ballots you're going to get democrats mad.

Grassley: The expectation is not putting any restraints on anything. I think it's the legislature weighing in and making sure that decision is made, providing that clarity for campaigns moving into November.

Yepsen: Senator Whitver, I want to go back to the budget quickly. The state is in the process of eliminating the ability of Iowans to deduct their federal income taxes before they calculate their state tax bill. You put triggers in the law that you had to have cash on hand to handle that. Do you expect the repeal, the elimination of federal deductibility to continue?

Whitver: Well, before this crisis happened we were on pace to not just hit the trigger, but hit it well ahead of time, almost a year ahead of time. And so as we see what the new economy looks like, see what revenues are in the future, we'll know more. But right now at some point we'll hit that trigger but we don't know if it will hit when we projected it or not at this point.

Yepsen: And in terms of spending money as a result of the pandemic do either of you see, Speaker Grassley do you see a need to in some places where you're going to have to spend more money as a result of this pandemic? For instance, the state of Iowa spends a lot of money in counties piling up sand and salt for winter emergencies. How about piling up PPE and face masks? Is there any talk --

Grassley: The state has already stepped up in response when we were in the middle of, when we were really in the heat of going through this, the state stepped up immediately spending almost $100 million just in PPE all across the state. Now, that being said, we've had conversations about what that federal money will look like. I think you're going to see a lot of those pieces whether it's for local government, whether it's for our health care facilities, you're seeing the Governor put that into places in response to those kind of concerns that we're hearing across the state.

Henderson: You both are in charge of the team, the republican team of legislators running for election in November. In the past sometimes GOP leaders in Iowa have offered sort of a contract with Iowa akin to the Newt Gingrich plan. Do you intend, Senator Whitver, to offer some sort of contract with Iowa in the fall? And what will be on it?

Whitver: Well, we haven't started a conversation about that. But largely the campaign is going to be about the things we have accomplished over the last few years. And if you look across the country at the situation states are in, many of them are slashing budgets left and right because they have not prepared for tough times. The steady leadership that has been shown from our legislature and our Governor over the last few years has paid off in this pandemic. And so we believe we have a very compelling message to tell. We had the best economy we've ever had in the state of Iowa and we believe we're the ones to get it rebuilt back to where it was as quick as possible.

Yepsen: Mr. Speaker, you had a spirited primary in your party out in Western Iowa in the race for Congress. Steve King was defeated for renomination by Randy Feenstra. What is your reaction to that? What is the message?

Grassley: Well, I think the message coming away from that should be unity within the party and making sure that this continues to be a strong republican seat. I actually live right on the edge within that district and I think that has been the message that would come from the primary. Whoever would win a heated primary I think the goal would be to maintain that to be a solid republican seat and I think hopefully that is the goal of the district.

Yepsen: Senator Whitver, President Trump has been slipping in the national polls. What is your sense of what kind of shape he's in here in Iowa?

Whitver: I still think he is in a strong position here in Iowa. I haven't done any polling to know that, but my gut is he's still in a strong position. But I think all these elections are going to be local and I think we will be rewarded for the leadership that we've shown here on the local level and we have a story about what we've done in Iowa that we can tell as well.

Henderson: The President is resuming public events. Do you anticipate that you as a Republican Party and your candidates will start campaigning in public rather than on Zoom?

Grassley: Well, I think at this point in time, back to Senator Whitver's point, our conversations some days have just focused about safety and returning to the Capitol. So we're really focused right now on making sure that we can wrap up this legislative session, continue to get the things done that we had planned on doing before we took a break on session and I think very shortly once we wrap that up we'll be transitioning into that mentality.

Yepsen: Mr. Speaker, we've got 30 seconds left, how worried are you about keeping control of the House? Democrats have got a bullseye painted on you.

Grassley: Obviously there is a target on the House but I would also say there are almost 10 districts within the state that the Governor, that President Trump, that Senator Ernst won that are currently controlled by democrats within the House. So I actually look at it there's several opportunities out there for us to not only keep the majority but grow it.

Yepsen: Very quickly, Senator, are you going to hold control of the Senate?

Whitver: We feel very strong about our chances. We're at 32-18 right now, we have great candidates. We feel very good about it.

Yepsen: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you for taking time to be with us. We're out of time. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press as we dive into issues within the African-American community amidst protests nationwide and here in Iowa. That's 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.