Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst

Iowa Press | Episode
Feb 4, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa House Minority Leader Rep. Jennifer Konfrst (D-Windsor Heights) discusses the 2022 legislative session and what Democrats in the minority are doing. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, and Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


Democrats in the Iowa Legislature are on the outside looking in as majority republicans negotiate over tax bills and other policy measures. We gather perspective from Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst 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. 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


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, February 4th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: In January, republican Governor Kim Reynolds and then House republicans and Senate republicans unveiled tax cutting plans. This past week democrats in the House and the Senate offered a counter proposal. Our guest today is here to talk about that and other issues before the legislature. Representative Jennifer Konfrst, a democrat from Windsor Heights is the House Minority Leader. Welcome to Iowa Press.

Konfrst: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

Henderson: Also joining in the conversation are Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Representative Konfrst, Governor Reynolds and those legislative republicans proposed reducing income taxes by gradually shifting them down to a constant rate of either 4% or 3.6%. Democrats have proposed instead focusing on the tax credit for low income workers, expanding that. Tell me why.

Konfrst: We think it's important that this tax cut, that any tax cut this year be targeted at middle class families and that we make sure that the people who have been sitting on the sidelines during previous tax cuts finally get a chance to benefit from a tax cut. So we've worked hard to make sure that our plan will ensure that families who are struggling to pay child care will get about $600 extra a year to help with those expenses and that working families who are working one, two, three jobs will get some tax benefits of about $500 a month, which can go toward rent or food, things that will really have an impact on their lives and will go back into Iowa's economy.

Murphy: So will that include, will you also address some of those rates -- we talked about the tax credits -- will you change some of those rates for those middle class workers?

Konfrst: Yep, and that's what we're working on now. As you might imagine, that's a little in the weeds. And so our Senate and House colleagues are working together on the Ways and Means Committee and they are working on amendments that they can propose in committee next week to address some of those issues. Last I heard they had 31. We're trying to pare that down a little bit. But we've got a lot of plans. We've got a lot of things we want to do to target middle class families.

Sostaric: To get into some of the specifics of your tax plan, what is the earned income tax credit? And what exactly are you proposing to change it?

Konfrst: You know, and I'm going to get into the weeds a little bit here. The earned income tax credit is something that helps to address the income of Iowans and we're focusing on doubling that for Iowans. And we're focused primarily on looking at what middle class families need to get by each and every day. We know the median income for a family in Iowa is $60,000. You've asked me before, what is the middle class? It looks different in every part of the state. But we know right now that if the median income is $60,000 for Iowans then we want to make sure that those folks are seeing some of the benefit, which means more money back in their pockets.

Sostaric: And will they see a benefit if you changed the earned income tax credit at that level?

Konfrst: They will, absolutely.

Sostaric: You've also said you want to expand the child and dependent care tax credit. Can you explain that and how much you want to expand that credit by?

Konfrst: We want to expand the credit so that at the end of the day it gets to be $600 per year per family, which I know, doesn't really fix the child care cost. But it does help and puts some money back in their pockets to help with child care. We know that child care is a huge crisis for Iowans. We know that access and affordability are key to getting people back to work. And if we can make it a little more affordable for folks that is what we're trying to do.

Henderson: One thing that is in both the House and Senate republican plans and the Governor's plan is an elimination of the state tax on retirement income. Is that something that democrats support or oppose?

Konfrst: Yeah, we absolutely think that in theory it's a great idea. And we want to learn some more details and we're working on those. But we think it's great to look at ways that seniors who have fixed income might not want to have the unexpected burden of taxes. We're looking into how that can be. So we're not flat out opposed to it. We're not always opposed to everything that comes forward. But we want to know what the impact on the budget will be and who exactly will benefit from that. Is it just folks who have really big retirement plans and have a lot of investments? Or is it everyday Iowans who have pensions, 401Ks, that kind of stuff?

Henderson: So you're looking at a means test essentially?

Konfrst: I think we want to see what our options are.

Murphy: What is your opposition to the republican plan? What is wrong with having everybody pay the same low rate? They say that is flat and fair. What's wrong with that?

Konfrst: Well, because it just isn't. It just isn't flat and fair because you're looking at a percentage of everybody's income and when you've got families who 4% means, 4% or 6% or 8% means the difference between being able to pay rent or not versus somebody who when you're giving them a 4% tax increase, or tax cut, you're looking at saving them an extra $25,000 in disposable income, it's simply not the same impact on families and folks at the top benefit more. I read an article not too long ago when the bill first came out, when the Governor's plan first came out, that said that if the wealthy wanted to create a tax that was perfect for them, they'd create a flat tax. So, I don't think that's fair.

Murphy: One of the other mechanisms on the Senate plan would shift some current taxes around and what it would essentially do is trigger funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Water Quality fund that was approved by voters 12 years ago now but never funded. How do you feel about that? Not just the piece itself, which I know democrats are talking about supporting funding that fun, but the way this bill does it? Can you support that?

Konfrst: Yeah, well I have a lot of concerns. I can't support the Senate republican plan which includes that and it is disappointing because we have wanted to support the Water and Land Legacy Trust for a long time, since it was first passed in 2010. 63% of Iowans voted for it, we think it's great. Our problem is it is going to take sales tax money away from cities and communities. I'm hearing from my three communities that that would be devastating for them. And we're hearing rumors that it might even change the formula a little bit and that some of that money might come out of public education and that’s not going to work. So, what is frustrating for me is taking a priority that so many Iowans agree on and the putting it in a tax package that is pretty divisive.

Murphy: So when you talk about the formula, for viewers what you're talking about there is it's in state law that if that is funded this money goes for these kinds of programs, this money goes for this, X, Y, Z. Could you expand on that? What you're hearing is there may be plans to change the way those dollars are allocated.

Konfrst: Well, if I've learned anything it's that what I'm hearing doesn't always mean what is going to happen. But we just know that there are a couple different thoughts out there that we're hearing about that could change that formula for how much actually goes to water quality and how much goes to other priorities. And so the amendment strategy, we've got a lot of tax plans out there, as you know, we don't know which one is going to be the one that we're all talking about or agreeing to. But that particular one, we have some real concerns about what they're going to do to the Trust.

Sostaric: The Governor says that Iowa is an outlier in terms of corporate tax rates and that they are too high and they are discouraging business investment in Iowa. Is that an issue that you think lawmakers should address? 

Konfrst: I think that the issue that lawmakers need to address first and forecast is workforce. We've got businesses in Iowa who want to expand and the reason they tell us they can't is because they can't find workers. So we want to look at the issue holistically and make sure that instead of giving corporations another tax cut we're giving them workers. That means making sure that child care is available, affordable housing, making sure that we've got folks who want to live in this state and build a life here. Addressing the workforce crisis is key. And $300 million for another corporate tax giveaway is a non-starter for us.

Henderson: I want to circle back on the sales tax proposal that republicans in the Senate have advanced. The way in which they explained it to us was that that money would go back to the local governments. In your view it is not written that way?

Konfrst: Well, when I hear from my cities they have extreme concerns about what the impact would be. They have had some broken promises in the past, right? They were promised that when there were some tax cuts a few years ago there was going to be a backfill that came back to cities to help sort of fund the difference in a tax plan. That backfill went away last year. So they are very leery of hearing promises right now about what will happen and seeing the final bill. So they are very concerned because we don't have a final package yet.

Henderson: Moving on to other issues this next week it appears that both the House and the Senate are going to be debating the general level of state support for Iowa's public K-12 schools. Democrats have proposed one level, the republicans in the House 2.5%, the republicans in the Senate 2.25%.

Konfrst: It's not enough. Democrats have proposed 5%. We think that a $300 million investment in K-12 education in this state is a perfectly reasonable approach, especially when the Governor is proposing $300 million in corporate tax cuts. We think that it is a better use of that $300 million to put it back into our schools. 5% is not going to get our schools back to whole where they need to be, they have been underfunded for a decade. But we feel that 5% is a reasonable and sustainable look or sustainable investment in our K-12 public schools. 2.25% and 2.5% are simply not enough for schools to keep class sizes smaller, to address teacher shortages, to address books in the classroom, to address all the needs that schools have. 2.5% does not get us close.

Murphy: Republicans and the Governor are also proposing taxpayer funding to go towards tuition assistance for private schools and this is typically a fairly cleanly divided political discussion at the Capitol with democrats being in opposition. I wanted to ask you, so to frame it around your tax plan which is focused on lower income Iowans, what is wrong with also providing taxpayer assistance for lower income families in Iowa who want to send their children a private school?

Konfrst: I think Iowans would be surprised to know we already spend $73 million of tax dollars on private education in this state through things that we're already doing to help people get to private school. So $73 is a lot of money. We're already doing that. I don't think we need to be doing more because what happens is you take public school money, you put it toward private schools. What happens to those kids who are left behind? Not every kid gets accepted to private school for whatever reason, private schools aren't held to the same standards of accountability, they aren't held to the same standards of accepting students. So that means that the students who can't get into private school because they might have a developmental disability or they might have another reason that the school doesn't accept them, they are left behind in an underfunded public school while other kids get to go in. Every kid in this state deserves a quality education and the only way to ensure that is to invest in public schools.

Sostaric: Senate democrats are supporting a republican-led parent bill of rights. In part, it would require prior consent from a parent before books that might be considered obscene would be shared in a classroom or checked out from a school library. Do House democrats support that idea?

Konfrst: Let's talk some common sense here. So a parent bill of rights, absolutely, sure. I mean, if we need to put in code what is already happening in schools we're looking at that. We have some concerns about that particular provision so I'm not sure we're ready to blanketly support it. It's in the Senate, it's their deal right now. We'll see how it comes when it gets to us. But a parent bill of rights is also the contract that parents and teachers have when they drop their kid off at kindergarten. You can go talk to your teacher any time you want. When my kids were in elementary school we were getting emails begging us to come help organize the school library, help over the lunch hour, help in the classroom. My favorite times were the times that I got to go hang out in my kids' classroom in an afternoon off of work. And so when I would sit down for a parent-teacher conference or when I would go into the classroom and I would say, tell me more about this, they were happy to tell me. This is already happening. Parents can already access their teachers, teachers want this, parents and teachers are not enemies. They should be working together for their kids' education. I don't think we need to put that in code, that is what is already happening.

Henderson: There are a couple of proposals to address the workforce shortage in Iowa schools. The Governor is advancing an idea of an apprenticeship. House republicans have proposed speeding up the process of getting a teaching license if you already have some sort of degree in biology or some science or upper level class that you could help teach in high school. Are those things that democrats are embracing?

Konfrst: Yeah, we know from an NEA study that 55% of teachers are looking to leave the classroom. And so any effort to get more teachers in the classroom is really important and effective. So we're looking at ways to balance getting new teachers in the classroom while also ensuring quality and standards are met. So, we'll look at those. But let's talk about other things that are happening up at the Capitol that are making it pretty hard for teachers to stay in the classroom. The republicans in the House, the Senate and the Governor are villainizing teachers. They are saying that teachers, they are giving the impression that teachers need to be watched all the time, that teachers can't be trusted, that teachers are enemies with the legislation that is coming forward and that simply is not the case. It couldn't be less true. Teachers are Mrs. Koth and Mrs. Moore and amazing teachers that everyone has in classrooms all across the state who are doing all they can in the middle of a pandemic. So instead of criticizing teachers and saying that they have a sinister agenda and then introducing legislation that shows you really think that, let's thank teachers. They have been working their tails off the last two years and they're burned out. We want to keep them in the classroom, treat them like the professionals they are.

Murphy: Moving on, the Governor this week announced that she is going to end the state's emergency health proclamation regarding COVID-19. Part of that proclamation, the rescinding of that proclamation means that they will scale back the reporting of COVID data, cases, hospitalizations, deaths and it will only be updated weekly instead of multiple times per week as it is now and used to be daily. Is now the time to be doing that in your view? Are we in a place where it's okay to start scaling back some of these things?

Konfrst: Two years ago next month, right, this all started. And democrats and republicans and the Governor were all together in getting behind and getting Iowans out of this pandemic. And things have fallen apart since then. It has become a partisan issue, it has become divisive. The Governor chose to embrace divisive appeals to her base versus actually addressing the problem. And so to me this seems to be an interesting time, I'm not quite sure I understand why today versus yesterday. We have hundreds of people in the hospital right now. I want the pandemic to be over, we all want the pandemic to be over. But shouldn’t we have access to tools that help us keep our families safe? And so my frustration isn't necessarily with the ending of the pandemic emergency proclamation, it is with what goes away, it is with access to vaccine information, it makes it harder for us to know where outbreaks are. I'm not sure what is different today than yesterday, but those people are still in the hospitals. So why now? And I think we need to do a better job of actually focusing on the information that we need to keep our communities safe, to get vaccinated and to get out of this the way scientists say we can.

Murphy: Are we not at a point though where people have had that information for two years now, they have been aware of the vaccine for more than a year now, is that stuff even, is it still useful to have front facing on a nice, neat website every day or three times a week?

Konfrst: I think that Iowans absolutely have a right to know how many people are dying from a disease that is ravaging our state. Iowans absolutely have the right to know where outbreaks are so they can make good decisions to keep themselves safe. And I frankly think that the only place that can really do that is a statewide effort that allows Iowans to have data they can trust. And so yes, we've been in this for a while, but we still have thousands of cases, we still have people getting sick. So I think the important thing here is to remember that more information, accurate information is the most important thing we need.

Sostaric: Going back to some bills in the legislature. House republicans are advancing the Governor's proposal to limit the maximum unemployment benefits from about six months to four months with some other changes in there as well. Will that help fix the workforce shortage?

Konfrst: You know, it didn't last summer. So last summer the Governor ended federal unemployment benefits early and she said the reason for that was because Iowans needed to get back to work. What we found was Iowans didn't get back to work because that's not why they're home. Iowans aren't staying home because they're collecting unemployment, they're staying home because they can't find child care, because they don't have transportation, because they're scared of getting sick at work, for myriad reasons that don't include extra unemployment assistance. So people who were in a hard time, we're punishing them and we're kicking the legs out from under them when really what they need is time to find child care, time to find a way to get to work and time to get our state to a healthier spot where they can stay healthy at work.

Sostaric: Republican leaders will say that the unemployment changes are just one part of a bigger plan to address child care and other issues like that. So why shouldn't unemployment benefits be a part of that equation?

Konfrst: I think because it is short-sided. I think because it is looking at one problem, child care, and saying that is the only reason, that and benefits are the only reason people aren't getting back to work. We know that's not true. This is my problem with so much of what is being proposed this session is that it is one-time solutions to big holistic problems. Cutting off benefits isn't going to fix the workforce crisis. Fixing child care even won't fix the workforce crisis. We need a holistic approach to this issue. We need to look at it broadly and boldly and we need to take bold steps. And I think this is just a distraction and it's just, frankly I think it's a little mean.

Henderson: You have talked about child care here in the past few minutes. A couple of weeks ago viewers of this program saw three experts from the child care industry discuss the issue. In your view, among all of the proposals that are floating around the Statehouse, what would be the one that would make the most impact?

Konfrst: I think that if we can address that cliff effect which the House passed and the Senate is waiting too which cuts off benefits for people as they get a promotion or they get more money, they get a raise, people who are getting child care assistance get a raise of $1, right now they have trouble getting benefits anymore, making that a little smoother. But also addressing the child care costs, making sure that we partner with businesses. Democrats have proposed grants for businesses in small communities to open new child care centers because what people are hearing is it is expense but it's also access. Where are the -- is it a crib shortage? I never know if it's a bed shortage or a crib shortage in child care. But where can people take their kids and what are the hours and how can they do that? Increasing access and affordability, I think there are a lot of proposals out there, but I really like ours which is extending the child and dependent tax credit.

Murphy: We have a few carbon pipelines that are being proposed in the state of Iowa and one of them is moving through the process with the state utilities board right now. Do you see, is there a place for legislators to get involved in this and maybe as its regard to eminent domain, which is the legal process by which these companies take these pipelines through landowners land, is there a role that the legislature should play this year to speak to that process?

Konfrst: I think so because I think the definition of public good, which is what people use as the excuse for using eminent domain to take over land, I think we need to define how this fits into the public good definition. We need to have that discussion and I need some more answers before we know this is something that it should be used for. A lot of people have concerns. If we have small farmers versus renters whose owners are out-of-state making decisions for them, that could be a concern. How is this going to actually impact communities? Where is it going to go through? But on the other hand, it builds jobs, it helps with the environment. So this is not an easy open and shut case. But I do think we as a legislature have a role in understanding the definition of public good and defining that and making sure this fits that.

Henderson: From a 30,000 foot level, is a carbon pipeline a good idea?

Konfrst: Yeah, I don't know. If I'm being honest with you I think that I can see a lot of pros and cons with this and that is why I need to understand the details. 30,000 foot I could make a yes and a no argument from 30,000 feet. But as we know, the devil is in the details. And so a good idea might not be one that is implemented in a way that is good for Iowa. Or a bad idea might actually have merit if you look at what it can do for jobs and the environment and our communities. So sorry, I don't have a yes or no. I think it depends.

Sostaric: The legislature has taken steps in the past few years trying to improve access to mental health services in the state. This year House republicans have brought some proposals focused on mental health workforce and increasing the number of beds at state institutions. If you had a magic wand and could make anything happen in regards to mental health, how would you fix the problems that Iowans are seeing not getting access to care?

Konfrst: The biggest thing I would do is bring more providers to the state. So whatever it takes whether it is incentives to get people to small communities to serve, people need access to mental health professionals and that is why mental health telehealth was a great thing that we did last year to provide a little more access. But there are still only so many hours in the day. If I could do anything I would get more practitioners here in the state so that more people could be seen and get the help that they need.

Henderson: And you mentioned mental health, telehealth, for those who aren't familiar with that what is that?

Konfrst: That is so that, we made it last year so that it would be possible for if you are seeing a mental health professional via telehealth, so via your computer, that it is required to be reimbursed at the same rate as if you went into the office. And that is mainly to provide access for folks in rural Iowa whose provider might be 30 minutes away and they can actually get back to work sooner if they can do it via telehealth. So we really felt like that was a great bipartisan effort that we did.

Murphy: Before we wrap up here I wanted to go back to we had a very in-depth discussion about taxes and the different ways that should be approached. One thing we didn't talk about that is the impact on state revenues, on state government, the ability for the state to fund services in the future. Republicans say that their proposals are paid for, that they have looked at the numbers in future years and that if they stay at a certain level of spending versus a certain level of growth that no services will have to be cut. Do you share that confidence?

Konfrst: Wow, that's pretty, that's a bold statement to say that everything is going to stay the same so we'll be fine. If we just keep things going the way they are we'll be able to pay for all of this. If we have learned anything in the last three years it is that the unpredictable can happen and so we need to make sure that we have a sustainable plan that actually considers what might happen down the road.

Henderson: You are a member of the Democratic Party. The Democratic National Committee is considering changes that would perhaps dislodge the Iowa Caucuses from being first-in-the-nation. What is your view?

Konfrst: As someone who first caucused in 1988 as a junior delegate for Jesse Jackson at Hoover High School, I certainly absolutely love the caucus process and believe that Iowa has done a really great job of weeding out the field and holding candidates to account when it is time to ask voters for their support. So I think that the caucuses are a great thing and I think they should stay in Iowa. I think we should continue to find ways to make them more accessible and I know the party is doing that. But I think we can do that and continue to have our first-in-the-nation tradition.

Henderson: Well, that was the last question of this episode of Iowa Press. Jennifer Konfrst, thanks for joining us today.

Konfrst: Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch Iowa Press anytime at or on our regular broadcast times, Friday nights at 7:30 and Sundays at noon. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at