Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls

Iowa Press | Episode
Feb 11, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Sen. Zach Wahls (D-Coralville) discusses the 2022 legislative session and what Democrats in the Senate 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 Clay Masters, Morning Edition host and lead political reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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

RECORDED: 2/10/2022




The Iowa legislature has moved through its first month with bills on everything from education to tax cuts grabbing the headlines. We gather perspective from Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls 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 11th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Votes are coming up in the Iowa Senate on tax cuts and education spending and a host of other issues are being debated in committees. Our guest today can speak to all of those issues. Our guest is Senator Zach Wahls. He is the Minority Leader in the Iowa Senate. He is from Coralville. Welcome back to the program.

Wahls: Thanks, Kay.

Henderson: Also joining us here today to question the Senator are Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Senator Wahls, statehouse republicans are proposing different measures to allow parents who have concerns about books in school that they deem to be obscene or vulgar to have those books removed from libraries or school curriculum. Covered a few meetings on that this week and what we heard from opponents of that bill, including democrats, is that people should trust the process. But parents are saying, we've already tried the process and we were told no. They didn't get the response they were hoping for. So what is the next step for those parents? Or what is your message to those parents?

Wahls: Well, first of all, let me just say congratulations on your new role at the Gazette. It's great to be back on the program. Clay, I'm looking forward to hearing your voice in the afternoon, which is a little bit of a change of pace for me. But, this is a really important issue and I want to speak to it directly. There has been a bipartisan bill that has moved through the Education Committee, a parental bill of rights, that reflects the fact that democrats, republicans and independents can all agree that we want to involve parents in our children's education. We think that is really, really important. I would say the disconnect is that there are some republicans who want to completely exclude teachers and librarians from the process. We don't think that's the right way to go. I know that earlier today there was a subcommittee on Senator Jake Chapman's bill that would actually result in jail time for teachers or librarians and involve stripping them of their licenses. I don't think that is a realistic approach. I don't think it's the right thing for Iowa students. And I think it is actually going to make a lot of the issues that we're seeing with teacher shortages a lot worse. I think that the parental bill of rights is something that is a good compromise bill that democrats and republicans have advanced on a bipartisan basis out of both subcommittee and full committee and if we really want to put this issue to rest I think that is the right way to do it. I don't think the republican idea from Senator Chapman to jail teachers is going to do anything that actually benefits Iowa children.

Murphy: So, part of the disconnect here seems to be a disagreement over what individuals may consider to be obscene or graphic or vulgar. So, again, to circle back to my question, to those parents who have gone through the process that is in place, they have asked their school board, they have asked their teachers and they have been told that those books are deemed to have educational value and for those parents who are still upset about that, what is your message to them?

Wahls: Well look, if parents have concerns about materials they should absolutely express those concerns to the administration and teachers and librarians and most importantly with their own kids. If they've got a concern about something that their child might have read it is obviously every parent's right to be fully involved in their child's education and to talk with their kids about whatever those materials may be. Again, I think the fundamental thing that we want to agree on here is that parents have that right, that opportunity to be involved in the child's education. And frankly, I don't think there's any group of people in the state of Iowa who would like parents to be more involved in their children's education than Iowa teachers. And that is what we think and that is why there has been bipartisan support for a parental bill of rights. But we have grave concerns that threatening teachers with jail time will further exacerbate a crisis that we're currently seeing in our education workforce already.

Murphy: So you mentioned that bill that is a little bit different than the other ones, it goes a little farther.

Wahls: A lot farther I would say.

Murphy: Speaker Grassley has said that he doesn't see that as the right path forward and even Senator Whitver, who is the leader of the Senate republicans, has echoed similar comments. Do you trust what they are saying and that maybe that bill doesn't have a future? Or what are you hearing?

Wahls: Well, Erin, you know that I don't agree with Senator Whitver or Speaker Grassley all that often, but I agree with them on this one. Senator Chapman's position is incredibly extreme. It is dangerous and I don't think it has the right approach for the state.

Masters: We were just talking about the parental bill of rights. I'm curious to kind of look at the flip coin of the rights for teachers. We saw a recent National Education Association poll that showed 55% of teachers are thinking about leaving the field. What needs to be done in Iowa to make sure that teachers want to keep working in this state?

Wahls: Well, it's a great question, Clay. I think the number one thing that we have to do is to stop pouring gasoline on these culture war fights and start getting back to respecting our educators who are in the classroom. The fact that half of our teachers are thinking about leaving the profession is something that should scare frankly every Iowan. We know that public schools are an important part of what makes Iowa great and the fact that we're seeing expanding class sizes because of teacher shortages, kids in Davenport can't get to school because there aren't enough bus drivers, it's a huge challenge for our state and I have real concerns about what is going to happen in August when school comes back into session later this fall.

Masters: So, are there areas of compromise that you can reach with the majority party, with republicans, on education issues? Because right now there seems to be a bit of dissonance aside from the parental bill of rights that you just mentioned.

Wahls: You know, it's a good question. Democrats in both the Senate and the House last week released our joint education plan. We're proposing a $300 million investment in our K-12 schools, Governor Reynolds proposed a $300 million corporate tax giveaway. We think that those dollars should be invested in our kids, not given away to big corporations that have out-of-state shareholders. I do think that there are going to be some things we can do on workforce where I hope there is a bipartisan agreement. I know that the Governor has talked about an apprenticeship program that would help with the pipeline of talent, getting more young people to think about teaching. But I think the number one thing that we have to do to get more young people to think about teaching is to stop accusing them of having a sinister agenda. That is an easy thing that we can all do as long as Senator Chapman is willing to tone down the rhetoric. But unfortunately, based on what I heard today from that subcommittee, that's not the direction he wants to go.

Henderson: Another education related proposal from the Governor has been altered that would provide accounts for parents, state money in those accounts for parents to send their child to a private school. There is also a mechanism to distribute some of that money to rural schools. Is that an accommodation that you could support?

Wahls: Absolutely not. Vouchers, using public money for private schools is an existential threat to Iowa's public education system. Democrats have been very consistent that we think that if there are concerns about our public education system the way to address those concerns is by continuing to improve Iowa's great public schools. We don't think that it's right to use public money for private school. It's that simple.

Murphy: Senator Wahls, you are fond of telling folks that one of the first, if not the first vote that you cast, was for the Natural Resources Trust Fund that was dedicated back in 2010 but never funded since them. Senate republicans as part of their tax proposal included a mechanism that would, to say it simply, shift some funding around, but it would trigger funding for that Natural Resources Fund. I'm assuming you probably won't support that bill as a whole. Are you at least happy to see that piece in there?

Wahls: Look, I wish that there was a way we could do the standalone pieces and look at each of them individually. I understand of course why these different pieces have all been put together and that it is a part of the negotiations that are ongoing. I am of course excited to see the possibility that we'll fund IWILL. I also represent a county, Johnson County, that is one of the only entities in the state that has actually not implemented the local option sales tax. But I also represent Cedar County and Muscatine County, which have communities that have done so. And so there are very real concerns in those communities about what will happen to that lost revenue, local option sales tax revenue, that if we move these things around a little bit of this kind of tax switcharoo here, what is the impact going to be on those communities? In fact, I got an email just today from the city administrator in West Branch over in Cedar County who has expressed that exact concern and is wanting to try to figure out if this goes through what does that mean for West Branch? I think everyone, not everyone, but more than 60% of Iowa voters approved the IWILL funding in 2010. I was one of them, to your point. And I think that people are really excited to see this happen. We've got to balance the ramifications with the municipalities that have implemented the local option sales tax. But I am glad to see that we're having this conversation and I am hopeful that we're going to be able to fund IWILL.

Masters: So if it does move forward, it does get funded, how do you make sure that there is any kind of teeth to know that there is improvement in water quality in the state of Iowa?

Wahls: Well, that's a great question, Clay. I think that we all I hope agree that water quality is an issue that we need to continue to work on. In terms of the metrics, I know that there are a couple of different things that people look at, the number of polluted waterways, what have you and then obviously that all kind of trickles down into the Gulf or what have you. So I would say that we already have metrics in place that we use to evaluate our progress or lack thereof on water quality. And I think the hope is that IWILL wouldn't necessarily bring new metrics to the table but that it would give us the revenue needed to fund projects that would move the needle within the current framework. Of course I would like to see the state continue to do more on water quality. It's an issue that affects urban Iowa, rural Iowa and everything in between. But unfortunately, I don't think we've seen a lot of appetite for that from the current majority. I know that Governor Reynolds recently announced an investment in water quality projects using American Rescue Plan money. Of course, I always like to remind people that Governor Reynolds campaigned against the American Rescue Plan but now she's trying to take credit for it. But it is good that we are getting those dollars into the system.

Murphy: We've heard concerns from some democrats about the formula, the way those dollars would be distributed, this money goes for these kind of projects, X, Y, Z. Are you hearing the same thing? And what level of concern do you have if some of those changes are made?

Wahls: Well, I certainly am hearing the concerns and, Erin, I share them. Voters had a good understanding of what the formula would be when we voted for that constitutional amendment in 2010, it was part of the deal that got all the various stakeholders to the table that got the constitutional amendment passed in the first place. And so changing that deal, even though it has been obviously a pretty significant amount of time, is something that is concerning and I would prefer to see the original formula, not a changed one.

Henderson: The biggest part of the republican tax plan, in case people are just tuning in, is shrinking the income tax rate for personal income taxes to 4%. Democrats, such as yourself, have proposed increasing the earned income tax credit and the child and dependent care tax credit. If republicans don't agree to that, will you support the bill? I'm reminded last year there was a tax plan that democrats criticized and then they wound up voting for it.

Wahls: Well, it was actually, in part it was the other way around. We had a compromised bill in the Senate that we did vote for and then we voted against the final passage. And look, I'll say this again, democrats do support bipartisan common sense tax reform when it makes sense. What we don't think makes sense about this proposal is giving a huge tax cut to millionaires and billionaires and then also the concern that we have is that, again, you're talking about tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to large corporations, many of whom have shareholders who are out-of-state. I know that my republican colleagues like to talk about returning these tax dollars to Iowans. We think one of the best ways to do that is rather than having that $300 million corporate tax giveaway, actually investing that in our public schools, which obviously is a direct investment in Iowans. I don't think that we're going to support a plan that gives millionaires the biggest tax cut of anyone who is being, who would benefit from that plan. That's why our plan is focused, and we talked about the earned income tax credit, the child and dependent tax credit, it's a fancy way of saying we believe that middle class Iowans should be the biggest beneficiaries of any tax changes. That is what our plan does. And that is the biggest difference between Iowa democrats' tax plan and Iowa republicans' tax plan.

Murphy: Senator, I want to ask you about a topic that I know you were the first legislator to bring to me and you would remember better than me how many years ago that has been now, but rent at mobile home parks.

Wahls: Yes, it was April 2019.

Murphy: There you go. That has been an issue that you have worked on and more and more legislators have joined you in that and there has been some discussion but have never been able to get over the hump on it. There is now a bill that is being called a compromise bill across the rotunda from you in the Iowa House that pretty simply adds another month to the notice that renters would receive when their rent is going to be increased. How happy are you to see that? And how much further do you wish it would have gone?

Wahls: Well, let me start first by giving credit to Representative Brian Losey over in Bondurant. Brian and I had some very strong disagreements about this issue initially but we were able to work through those in a bipartisan way and there has been a host of people who have been involved with this conversation. I would say that there are several good things in this piece of legislation that I'm happy to see, there are also a lot of good things that are not in this legislation. Of course, that is the nature of compromise and so while we haven't caucused on it yet and I haven't had the chance to give it quite as close of a look as I would like, I do expect that I will likely wind up voting for it. Again, I have some concerns about what is not in the bill. But I understand that when republicans are in the majority they get to pass the laws.

Masters: A good segway to, what does the party in the minority do? And how do you measure success? Do you do it through compromise or defiantly going against what republicans are saying so that you can campaign on a message of being a defiant democrat running against the republican majority? How do you measure success? And how do people think of the Democratic Party in the Senate as being successful when they support you?

Wahls: It's a great question, Clay. When you're in the minority I think our most important responsibility is to provide a contrast on the issues that are controversial and that get a lot of attention not just from the press but also from the public. I think that when it comes to things like our proposal on education and taxes from last week, contrasting that $300 million investment that we would like to make in public education against the $300 million corporate giveaway from Governor Reynolds, that kind of contrast is I think what helps take what can be very detail, in the weeds conversations and put it into terminology that everyday folks who aren't policy wonks can track and say, yeah, I think that is the direction we should go, or no we should go in this direction. So I think that for the minority, the way that we think about success is are we doing an effective job in illustrating and demonstrating that contrast on those highly controversial issues? And then on the issues that are not controversial, and this is always a surprise to some of my constituents, almost 85% of the bills that we pass are on a bipartisan basis, making sure that we're providing good input on those because a lot of those tweaks that get made along the way aren't a democratic idea or a republican idea, they're just a good idea. And so when I think about success in the minority it is primarily those two things, demonstrating contrast in the areas where we disagree, and there are a lot of areas where we disagree, and then trying to work together on a bipartisan way where we do agree and doing so in a way that's not about a democrat or a republican.

Murphy: So, on those points that you do disagree, you'll take those out later this summer and fall on the campaign trail, you and your colleagues. I wanted to ask you going into this election cycle, and I know you're focused on the legislature right now, but looking down the road a little bit. We saw that at the top of the ticket here in Iowa, especially in the Governor's race, there was not a lot of financial support for the candidates who are running for Governor on the democratic side. That doesn't affect you and your Senate candidates maybe directly. But how much does that concern you as far as the influence from the top of the ticket down? If there is not excitement up here for democratic candidates are you worried that that will, that there's not going to be excitement down here at the Statehouse level either?

Wahls: I'm not worried about that at all because we have incredible candidates across the state of Iowa who are stepping up to run for office. We have an incredible group of service-oriented community leaders both here in the Polk County area but across the state who are stepping up to put their name on the ballot because they're looking around at what republicans are doing in Iowa and they are just saying enough is enough. We don't need this kind of rhetoric, we don't need this kind of extremism in our state. We want our politicians to get focused again on just the blocking and tackling of good government, not pouring gasoline on the culture war. And so we've got a couple of folks who I'm really excited about I'll say up in Ankeny, we've got Todd Brady who created the website Vaccine Hunter because he was unsatisfied with the Governor's slow response in the vaccine rollout here in Iowa, running in the open seat that Senator Whitver left and moved into a more safe rural seat. But even in that seat, Senate District 23, just earlier this week a local educator in Waukee named Matt Pries announced that he is running in that seat. Matt is a cross country coach so he knows a little bit about running and we're really excited to see the energy he brings to the race.

Murphy: I can't forgive that pun. But I just wanted to follow up, so that is well and good. But with all due respect, a lot of people don't come out to vote for Zach Wahls or Matt Pries, they come out to vote for Governor Kim Reynolds or the democrat running against her. So is there any concern about an enthusiasm gap maybe that could affect your races?

Wahls: I think that might be more true in a presidential year. I know in Iowa we're used to getting to meet the presidential candidates. But I do think that for these state Senate races it's going to be about having candidates who can get out, door knock, talk to their neighbors, their community members, make their case about why they're running and make sure that these folks are voting for the person, not the party.

Henderson: Speaking of presidential years, there are members of the Democratic National Committee who are saying enough is enough when it comes to the Caucuses. What is the future of the Iowa Caucuses in your view? Should they go away? Should they be rejiggered?

Wahls: That's probably a better question for Chairman Wilburn. I certainly support the Caucuses and have for a long time. I really enjoyed the Caucus that I got to lead in 2020. It was just a few weeks before everything got shut down with COVID. I knew it was an incredible experience. I did not have the same challenges that I think some folks ran into with the app and what have you, but obviously that was a learning experience. I know that there were some issues and there was a report and what have you with the DNC about the virtual option and all of this stuff. Look, it continues to be the case that the Caucuses have to continue to become more inclusive and I'm sure that there is a way that we can do that in Iowa.

Masters: The 15th, I'm trying to remember what day it is, the 15th of this month is when the Governor's emergency proclamation regarding the pandemic is going to expire. We've seen in other blue states, democratic-led governor states, that they're dropping mask mandates. How do you think this approach is? Is it time to just stop treating it like an emergency? Or how do you move forward with it? And does that have an effect on people running for election?

Wahls: Clay, I think we all want a return to normalcy. The best way to do that continues to be by getting as many Iowans vaccinated as possible. I have been very glad to see case rates are coming down from the peak of the Omicron surge. And so I certainly hope that the worst is behind us and that we're going to be able to move forward back to something that resembles normal. I will tell you that there, and in fact I got a text message shortly after I arrived here today to tape this program from a local superintendent who is worried that when this public health proclamation expires, the proclamation loosened some of the rules for substitute teachers and para-educators. He is concerned about what is going ot happen if that goes away because they're already facing a shortage of educators in the classroom. And so there are going to be some of those things that we have to work through. But I do hope that we're able to do that in a bipartisan way because I think we all do want to return to normal as fast as we can.

Murphy: There are a couple of bills introduced recently on the topic of vaccines by republicans in the House. One would allow school boards to provide exemptions to students who would be required to wear masks under a recent court ruling that was handed down here. Another would just straight out ban requirements of face masks in all businesses and schools, would ban vaccine requirements in businesses and schools. I just wondered if you had any reaction to either of those proposals?

Wahls: I haven't had a chance to look at them closely. But what I will tell you is that unfortunately, and I know that two years in now it's tough, this has obviously become very political rather than a purely public health question. And so I think that is reflected in those ideas.

Murphy: We also wanted to ask you, state parks are seeing more use than ever partly because of the pandemic. And we now have an issue popping up about park rangers and housing for them. Is the Department of Natural Resources in Iowa funded sufficiently for Iowans to enjoy those parks?

Wahls: I certainly don't think so and I know that many other people share that concern. We have seen, I would argue, systematic defunding of state government across a range of different departments whether it's the Department of Natural Resources, there was a recent report about the Department of Corrections that talked about how underfunded and understaffed our prison system was. And so, again, that is a part of that republican philosophy of shrinking the size of state government. But that has a real consequence for people, which is that the services that many Iowans enjoy and count on can't be delivered at the quality that they are expecting. And so there has been some discussion on the Senate floor actually about this exact topic. Senator Bolkcom I think just this morning and I think also yesterday spoke about this. And so he had some good bipartisan conversations after he was done speaking and I'm hopeful that we'll see some good movement on that this year.

Henderson: In the Iowa House, there is a series of proposals aimed at addressing the shortage of mental health services in Iowa. Do you think it is the right move to increase spaces at the Mental Health Institutes in Cherokee and Independence and some of the psychiatric residencies that are at the University of Iowa where you live?

Wahls: Yeah, well look, I think that we need an all of the above solution when it comes to mental health because we are seeing real challenges. I think that when we're talking specifically about our MHI's, I know that there is a consent decree that the Department of Justice and the federal government is working on with the Department of Human Services here in the state of Iowa and so that is going to have to be a part of the equation as well. But I do think that when it comes to mental health, unfortunately it is another illustration of where we are with the Reynolds workforce crisis. There are so many mental health professionals who are retiring, who are leaving the state, it's hard for us to attract and recruit talent to the state to work in this profession. When we saw that it's affecting literally every industry, that includes mental health.

Henderson: I must issue a decree, we are out of time for our conversation today. Thanks for joining us at the Iowa Press table.

Wahls: Thanks, Kay.

Henderson: You can watch Iowa Press episodes anytime at or at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday nights and at noon on Sunday. 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