Iowa Senate President

Iowa Press | Episode
May 26, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Sen. Amy Sinclair (R - Allerton), Iowa Senate president, discusses the 2023 legislative session, what's ahead and other political news.

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

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



Republicans have a super majority in the Iowa Senate and they used it to their advantage during the 2023 legislative session. We'll talk with Senate President Amy Sinclair on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

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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, May 26th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest was first elected to the State Senate in 2012. She has been the Chair of the Senate Education Committee. She has been the Chair of the Senate Oversight Committee. This past November, her peers in the Iowa Senate elected her to be Senate President. Amy Sinclair, republican from Allerton, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Sinclair: Thanks very much, happy to be here.

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

Murphy: Senator Sinclair, very soon Iowans are going to be able to begin filling out applications for the state's new private school financial assistance program. That is going to be operated by a third-party company that was contracted with the state. I'm curious to get your kind of sense of how much oversight you feel the legislature needs to provide as that program gets up and running -- and specifically we learned from the contract with the state that Odyssey will be paid $4.3 million over the first six years for its work and that they will actually operate the marketplace where Iowans will buy things like computers, textbooks, tutoring sessions -- just your thoughts on what role lawmakers have in this process as this program opens up?

Sinclair: Sure, I'd say the legislature, as with any program that is operated by the state, has that role of making sure that we have some fiduciary responsibility, some financial oversight and I think that this won't be any different than any other program. As for having the marketplace and having those purchases be made through a platform, a vendor, that honestly is some built-in checks and balances against potential fraud that might occur in a publicly-run system like this and a scholarship program because all of the vendors have been vetted prior to their usage. We know that the items that are available for purchase whether that is tuition at a non-public school or, as you said, a bit of technology, those vendors have been approved for those purchases and those purchases fall in line with the functions of the program.

Murphy: We've asked other republicans on this show about this, including Speaker Grassley, your colleague across the aisle, across the chamber. There have been reports of tuition increases at many private schools across Iowa since this law was approved and that funding was made available for Iowans. Do you have any concerns about that? Does that tangentially defeat the spirit of this law and your effort to make private school more affordable to Iowans?

Sinclair: So, that really wasn't a part of the bill that we passed. I will say that because of the inflation that we've seen nationwide I'm not surprised that tuition would be going up. I think tuition would have risen regardless of what we did with the scholarship program. Just as we get a higher percent on the SSA this year to our public schools, we know that costs are a little higher and so I'm unsurprised that non-public schools would have those same costs rising and have to recoup those through tuition. Just as an aside, related to that, non-public school teachers on average have made around 75% of what their public-school counterparts have made historically. I think it's important to note that I want teachers paid well. And so, if part of that is increasing tuition, again, that's just all a part of that rising inflation that every family is going to need a little bit more and in doing that, tuition at those non-public schools will have to go up as well. Whether that is related to the scholarship or not, I'm not going to speculate, but I think the bigger driver is indeed inflation.

Henderson: So, 24% at one school. Does that seem reasonable?

Sinclair: I haven't looked at the details so I would hesitate to say whether it's reasonable or unreasonable. I don't know what their tuition was prior or what it has been since. So, I guess I won't be able to comment without looking at that.

Sostaric: The Governor just signed a wide-reaching education bill into law that in part prohibits schools from having books that describe sex acts and it keeps private the identify of people who request to remove books from schools. So, why shouldn't parents know who is demanding to remove certain books from their kids' school?

Sinclair: It's often the parents who are asking for those books to be removed. And I think that it is good to allow parents a little bit of anonymity if they are concerned about something that their child is learning. As far as books being removed, I think it's reasonable to assume that we're not, as taxpayers, providing literature, curriculum that includes sex acts. That's a definition that is already included in Iowa law. I don't know if you've ever read it, but it's pretty explicit in what is not allowed and the fact that we have, as lawmakers, said that our publicly-funded school system should not be providing materials with sex acts in them to a seven or an eight or a ten-year-old. I think that is perfectly reasonable.

Sostaric: The bill also restricts any instruction about LGBTQ topics in kindergarten through 6th grade. What do you say to students who feel that this is erasing their identity or maybe their family structure from their school?

Sinclair: I would suggest that I don't want teachers talking with a child about sexuality of any kind in elementary school and I think that is what most parents want as well. It is not unreasonable to protect our children from discussions of sexuality before they are mentally and emotionally prepared to meet those topics.

Henderson: On this program a couple of weeks ago, Governor Reynolds said, next year she wants to raise public teacher salaries. Do you have an idea in that regard?

Sinclair: So, I haven't heard the Governor's proposal, I haven't spoken with her about it. I would suggest that the work we did this year related to categorial funding and opening up those funds to flexibility specific to teacher salaries was an initial volley by the Governor and by the legislature to do exactly that, to help teacher salaries be increased, again, as a response to the inflation that is happening nationwide.

Henderson: So, do you foresee something like that passing in the legislature in 2024?

Sinclair: It wouldn't surprise me if a bill passed. Again, without having details of that from the Governor or from the Education Chair I would hesitate to say yeah, we're going to pass that, just not knowing what a bill is. But, having those ideas out there, again, the Governor and the legislature began that process this year when we allowed for those categorial funds to be funneled directly towards teacher salaries.

Henderson: In the past there has been some effort to scale it to areas like science and math where there are vacancies and you can't -- so do you foresee something like that? Or would you prefer something that is across-the-board for all teachers?

Sinclair: So, several years ago we gave local school districts a whole lot of discretion to meet their own needs. Where one school district might have a shortage, another school district might not. I have spoken with several of my rural districts and they have shortages in a variety of areas. And so, in my opinion, to say as a legislature that we should only target math teachers or only target ag teachers I think undermines the spirit of what a local school board is about, allowing them to make those decisions on how they would utilize that or how they would move forward with that I think is the better option.

Murphy: Most of majority Statehouse republicans' top issues that they worked on this year got through the legislature and down to the Governor's desk. One that did not have to do with gun regulations and that one stalled in the Senate. And without diving into too great of details, what it did most broadly is talked about, basically said that schools and other similar places could not prohibit guns in cars in their parking lots as long as they were stored safely and out of sight. What was the ultimate hang-up with that bill in the Senate? Why did that not get through your chamber?

Sinclair: So, I didn't have any discussions on where that bill stalled out. I know that there were a couple of areas that did cause some concern, largely related to the insurance question surrounding having firearms at facilities. And so, if I were going to speculate I would say that it related to that and just trying to resolve the issues surrounding liability insurance and the ability to insure your facilities if that's the case.

Murphy: Do you expect to hear more discussion on that next session?

Sinclair: Honestly, let's be clear, Iowans are responsible gun owners. We have historically just wanted the freedom to own our guns and be responsible with them. Many of the accidents related to firearms occur when you're handing a firearm and so taking your firearm out and storing it or removing it does increase the potential for an accident. So, to say that we would consider this legislation I would say absolutely. I think for those folks who are responsible gun owners, who have purchased a gun legally, had their background checks, are legal carriers of that firearm, it makes sense that we wouldn't add undue burdens to that process. I think the bigger hang-up, as I said, was dealing with the details of the insurance and the administration of those changes.

Sostaric: The legislature passed new eligibility requirements for public assistance programs this year after the Senate had tried for many years unsuccessfully. What made this year different? And do you feel that work is done? Or do you want to come back and do even more on that?

Sinclair: So, the bill that passed this year was largely what the Senate has been working on for several years. It had asset verification and it had some real-time using technology monitors that allow us to make sure that the people who are receiving those benefits are the proper people to be receiving those benefits. I think every Iowan would agree we shouldn't have fraud, waste or abuse in a system that is designed to help neediest among us. We have seniors on fixed incomes. We ought to help them and make sure and verify them and get them on the road to being stable in their homes. We want to make sure kids are fed. But we also want to make sure that we aren't using the limited assets we have as a state for folks who don't necessarily need them. And so, having a real-time asset verification process that uses technology I think makes absolute sense. I think making sure that we have an asset level that is set at such, that we are targeting the neediest among us, I think all of those things make sense. I'm not sure what other potential additions or changes might be made next year, but this is the bill that the Senate has been working on for several years. It was our goal. And so, we were happy to see that move through to the end.

Murphy: If I could just -- I'm sorry to jump in -- you mentioned the limited assets of the state, but those programs are federally funded, are they not?

Sinclair: They are but there are assets -- we're talking specifically SNAP I assume -- in my mind we're also talking about those child care credits that we also added some changes too and all of those, those are state assets when we're talking some of those child care credits and there are some dollars from the state that go into the administration of SNAP funds as well.

Sostaric: There's anti-hunger advocates who say food banks are seeing record need. Why pass a bill like this at a time when it seems like people are struggling to afford food maybe more than they have in several years?

Sinclair: That's exactly why. We want to make sure that there aren't people accessing those programs that don't need them. We should not have fraud in our systems. We know the federal government has told us that we have overspent on the SNAP program alone by over $40 million over the past several years, $40 million that should be going to needier Iowans, needier Americans. We should not be overspending benefits for people who don't qualify for them. And having an asset verification system that allows us to get those dollars into the hands of the folks who need them the most is what Iowans ought to be doing. The bulk of Iowans would agree with us on this. We shouldn't be making our welfare benefit system look like something that is simply an economic development tool by letting anyone who fills out a piece of paper have access to that. We need to be supporting the Iowans who need it, not the Iowans who don't. And we need to make sure that we're not being fined by the federal government because we've overpaid.

Henderson: You mentioned the child care bill that passed the legislature and the Governor signed into law, which increases the number of Iowans who are eligible by raising the income eligibility level. It also gives child care centers some state resources as well. Are you done? You live in rural Iowa where it's really hard for people to find child care.

Sinclair: It's not just hard in rural Iowa, it's hard everywhere, but definitely it's difficult to find high quality child care in rural Iowa. I'm a little past that stage I'm happy to report. But, you know, Iowans struggle. We have great unemployment numbers right now, right, 2.7% unemployment. But that means we have a lot of Iowans working who have small kids. Are we done? My guess is no. Do we need to make sure we're doing things that are most reasonable and serve the Iowans who need it the most? Yes. So, we need to take the programs, the changes to the programs that we're doing and evaluate how that goes and see where we need to move. I'm excited by the changes that we made this year. I'm excited that we're expanding those opportunities to families who are working and really trying to embrace the value and just the integrity of a hard day's work. But at the same time, we need to make sure their kids are well cared for, that they're safe, and that they don't have that worry on top of all of the other worries that come along with parenting.

Murphy: When the Governor signed that bill into law, she signed it at a daycare facility in Fort Dodge and the owner of that facility told us that her favorite part of that bill was the boost in the reimbursement rate because that meant more funding coming into her facility that she could then put into whether it be salaries or infrastructure, whatever. Is there more stepping up that could be done on that reimbursement rate?

Sinclair: So, again, I think we need to see where the bills that we've passed, I think we need to see where those take us and to see what kind of impact that they're having on those facilities and the children and families that they're serving. I think we're always open to changes that make sense for Iowans and that help us to keep our workforce strong and our families stronger.

Murphy: Another bill that republicans passed this year would create some definitions of duties of the Auditor's Office and in some cases kind of place some restrictions on what kind of data the auditor has access to and address the way that the auditor could challenge any agencies that can test some of that information. The debate that I know you heard well during the session, especially from your democratic colleagues, was that this was a politically motivated bill. So, let me ask you if we take Auditor Sand at his word that this is constricting his office and if in four years in 2026 a republican wins the office and comes to the legislature and says, yeah, this really does put some unfair clamps on the office, would the legislature consider rolling back what was done in this bill?

Sinclair: Let me just be up front and say this was not a politically motivated bill. So, I'm not going to take Auditor Sand at his word that this was politically motivated and that we were acting to restrict only him. That is not accurate. The fact of the matter is there were two consecutive years with two Supreme Court rulings related to the office of the State Auditor and in actual testimony given within that first Supreme Court ruling, Auditor Sand said that he had virtually no restrictions on what he could access, when he could conduct an audit, how he could conduct an audit. He could get whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it, regardless of whether the content was relevant to the audit or not. And, from the standpoint of the legislature, that is concerning. Iowans have privacy concerns. The following year, just this year a subsequent Supreme Court ruling said indeed Auditor Sand did overstep his bounds on the information he was requesting on the conducting of his audits. So, we have two consecutive Supreme Court rulings dealing with this issue. It's incumbent on the legislature to come back and clarify what that means. And in doing so, we clarified that people's personal, private information ought to be kept personal and private in the conducting of an audit of a state or local government agency, that the information about my health care ought not be available to an audit that has nothing to do with whether or not I accessed health care. So, to say that we're keeping individuals' information private is political, it simply isn't. People should have the right, the implied understanding that their personal information, their personal data would be kept personal and private. The bill itself actually continues to allow that data to be accessed if indeed it is relevant to the audit. So, it doesn't tie his hands.

Murphy: So, let me ask about the other aspect that we haven't touched on yet which is that if an agency challenges some of the information that the Auditor's Office is asking for, it would go to a three-member panel, which is currently the case as well, but what the bill changes is that is now the final step. If the Auditor's Office disagrees with that panel's decision he can no longer take that decision and challenge in the courts. So, the argument is that you'll have the Auditor's Office, the state agency involved in this panel, and then the Governor's Office would be the third and possibly likely in many cases the deciding -- so isn't that allowing politics to come into it a little bit? And why wasn't it okay for the auditor to be able to challenge those decisions in court?

Sinclair: I think Iowans are getting tired of government wasting their money on frivolous lawsuits. And as the Supreme Court ruling rolled around, Auditor Sand did exceed his authority as the Auditor in some of the information he was requesting. It is frivolous for us to be wasting and frankly, it's undermining the justice of the folks that are being pushed out of the way when those lawsuits are going through. It is frivolous and wasteful for one state agency to be suing another state agency when all we're asking for is information. I used to be a county supervisor. The state Auditor's Office audited my county every single year. If they asked for something, we provided it, largely because we wanted to make sure that our books were clean, we wanted to make sure that the folks in Wayne County felt comfortable with the work we were doing. We provided the information because we felt that was what was in the best interest of the taxpayers of Wayne County. If information had been asked for that was personally identifiable and private to the citizens of my county, I would have denied access to that information if it wasn't already public information.

Murphy: And before we move on, real quick I want to make sure we're clear, so you mentioned a couple of times the Supreme Court decision with the Auditor's Office. That was a ruling in which the Supreme Court determined that the auditor didn't have the right to ask for information from a group because they determined it wasn't a government body, right? I just wanted to clarify that for viewers.

Sinclair: Yes, but again, information that the auditor had no right to ask for, exceeded the bounds of his authority as described in the legislature.

Sostaric: Two years ago, the legislature approved language for a constitutional amendment that would say there is no right to abortion in the Iowa Constitution. That would have to be approved again next year to go on the 2024 ballot. Do you plan to put that through? Or are you afraid that it would be rejected like it was rejected in Kansas?

Sinclair: So, honestly a lot of the conversations regarding the defense of life have been put on hold awaiting the results of the Supreme Court ruling that is going on right now. So, I can't say whether that will be a part of the conversation that goes forward. As far as being afraid of what happened in Kansas, what happened in Kansas was completely different from what happened in Iowa. In fact, if we roll back to 2018 when the Iowa legislature passed and the Governor subsequently signed some of the most protective life bills that the nation had seen up to that point, the Iowa legislature, the Iowa Senate in 2017 was the only republican legislative body that actually saw an increase in our majority in that year, in that midterm election cycle. So, we passed a bill that protected life and six months later we were rewarded with more members of our caucus. Am I afraid that Iowans don't support protecting life? No.

Sostaric: That bill also never took effect, so Iowans never saw what the potential ramifications of it would be. So, do you think that could be different if an abortion bill actually could take effect, a stricter ban?

Sinclair: I think that the Senate passed a bill that protected life and we were rewarded with additional seats in the Iowa Senate. Again, I'm not afraid that whatever we do in defense of life, I'm not afraid of what that means for the state of Iowa or for our caucus. I think the Iowa Senate has a pretty clear record on where we stand in protecting and defending life whether that is unborn life or whether that is maternal and child health. We added some dollars there in a program this year. One of my favorite bills was the breast density notification. That's a bill about protecting and preserving life. We have a long history of actively supporting quality of life and the lives of Iowans. Our rural health care programs that we passed this year, the Rural Emergency Hospital bill, all of those are bills about protecting and preserving life. We have a long and I think pretty staunch history in passing bills that protect and defend the lives of Iowans. I'm not afraid that Iowans would reject an idea that there is a constitutional right to not protect life.

Henderson: The child labor bill that cleared the legislature this year included a call for a study about how long teenagers should be able to be on the road before they get a real driver's license. Do you have concerns about kids driving maybe 50, 60 miles to and from work at night?

Sinclair: I have concerns about kids driving period, I say as a mom of a 16-year-old. Sure, I have concerns, that's why a study rather than just passing it outright. There's some merit in looking at what those numbers are. I think there's some merit in determining how safe kids are, how responsible they are. So, I guess I'll wait for that study to come back before I make a decision on whether or not this is a good idea. We've had school permits for a very long time. I've had three boys with school permits and every one of them would drive home from school after a Friday night football game or a Tuesday night basketball game, they would drive home late after they got home from their games. And so, yeah, there was always a concern about are they going to hit a deer on their way here? Are they going to be too tired to drive? Sure, we have, there would be concerns. And again, that's why you ask for a study, that is why you ask to look at the data rather than just dive into something that we don't have evidence for.

Murphy: One of the bills that also passed that deal with the Iowa Caucuses and requiring in-person participation, another part of that got taken out though and I'm curious to get your input on this, your perspective, because it would have required Iowa caucus goers to register with the state party, I believe the number was 70 days before the caucuses. That was ultimately removed. Now as I understand it, the State Republican Party on its own is determining whether to implement it just on that side. But one of the arguments that people made for why that should be removed, there was a sort of maybe you could call it a conspiracy theory, I don't know, an allegation that that was inserted by the manager of the bill in the House who was a supporter of Donald Trump's candidacy and that provision would have helped Donald Trump in the republican primary. As someone who has expressed her support for another candidate in the field, Governor Ron DeSantis, did you share that concern in the bill?

Sinclair: I am not a conspiracy theorist so that never occurred to me that it might be a conspiracy theory in an effort to help former President Trump to win the caucus nomination. The bill is important, I think we all know that the Iowa Caucuses benefit us all. I think the Iowa Caucuses give Iowans an outsized voice in selecting the next ruler of the free world. I grew up in Missouri. There's no such thing as a caucus. My first Iowa Caucus is what got me engaged in politics to begin with. It's such a fascinating way to be so participatory in the process of self-governance and I love the Iowa Caucuses.

Henderson: Senator, we have to end it there. We are out of time. But thanks for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press.

Sinclair: My pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press online at 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.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite's 1,600 employees are our company's greatest asset. A family-run business, Elite supports volunteerism, encourages promotions from within and shares profits with our employees.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at