Iowa Senate Minority Leader

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 2, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Sen. Zach Wahls (D - Coralville), Iowa Senate minority leader, discusses the 2023 legislative session, what’s ahead and other political news.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table is Dave Price, political director for WHO-TV in Des Moines.

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



Many bills democratic legislators strongly opposed have now been signed into law by the Governor. What's next? We'll talk with the Senate Minority Leader, democrat Zach Wahls, on this edition of Iowa Press.


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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, June 2nd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest today was first elected to the Iowa Senate in 2018. In November of 2020, he became the leader of democrats in the Iowa Senate. There are 16 of them right now. Zach Wahls is one of them from Coralville. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Wahls: Good to be back, Kay.

Henderson: Joining the conversation, Caleb McCullough, he is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises, the newspapers in the Quad Cities, Muscatine, Mason City, Sioux City and Council Bluffs. And Dave Price, WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines Political Director.

Price: Senator, welcome. Let's start off with this awful situation in Davenport where you've had part of an apartment complex collapse. You had people who were still in there, rescue efforts, recovery efforts, just an awful situation that has actually made national headlines. As you look at it from the state side of things, do you think that city codes are strong enough? Is there a role for you in the legislature to step in there? And also, do they have the resources, do they have the requirements to inspect as much as they should?

Wahls: Well, let's take a quick step back and talk about the 2023 legislative session, which I think is going to be remembered as one of the most divisive and cruel legislative sessions in Iowa history. We saw Governor Reynolds lead the attack on Iowa's public education system with her private school voucher scheme --

Henderson: Which we'll talk about.

Wahls: I'm sure. It was obviously a very difficult session, attacks on the LGBTQ community and leaving behind so many Iowans. And I think, Dave, that it illustrates the wrong priorities that republicans have in Des Moines. There are communities like Davenport that are obviously hurting. We've seen, unfortunately, in the last year more than one preventable tragedy like this. We all are familiar with the incident in Marengo with C60. And so, I think that certainly we're still in the fact-finding phase, but I understand that there's some more reporting that is suggested. This was a preventable tragedy. And so, I think it will be incumbent on all of us to do a very thorough analysis about how the state can work better to support cities, to prevent things like this from happening in the future. And that is what the legislature should be focused on, not on these kinds of cultural issues that dominated this year's session.

McCullough: On that education savings account program, the Governor's program opened this week. We learned the state will pay Odyssey, the company administering the program, $4.3 million over six years to administer and supplies will need to be purchased from a website, a marketplace run by the company. What are you and democrats watching as this program unfolds? And won't that system that I just described kind of help prevent the fraud that you all were concerned about?

Wahls: Well, Caleb, I think that the news that we have seen this week between the company and now the 7,500 students announced yesterday that have signed up so far, it's raising more questions than it's answering. The Department of Education could be telling us how many of these students were previously receiving tuition assistance, how many of them were previously enrolled in a private school and we're not seeing that information and that is a big concern that we have. We know that this is ultimately going to be a bad deal for Iowa taxpayers. You're talking about projections currently nearly a billion dollars over the next four years diverted away from the public education system to support this private school voucher program. And what we're seeing is that private schools are already increasing tuition and that there are even situations where schools are saying, even if you weren't paying tuition, make sure to apply for one of these vouchers so that they can have those funds be paid to the school. I think the situation with the company, Odyssey, again, why couldn't the Department of Education perform this oversight? Why do they need that third-party vendor from an out-of-state company? Isn't there a company in Iowa that could have done that? Again, I think just a bad deal for Iowans.

Price: One of the things that perhaps really wasn't very mentioned very much in floor debate is that it looks like an after effect of this could be that private teacher pay could go up as these schools are bringing in a sizeable chunk of additional money here. The Governor on this show last month talked about the one of her priorities for next session will be raising public teacher pay. In the end, isn't raising private teacher pay a good thing?

Wahls: Well, Dave, I think that we know that Iowa educators have been underpaid and the frustrating thing to me about that proposal from the Governor is that if she had concerns about Iowa's public schools, rather than diverting hundreds of millions of dollars away from our public schools, we should have been investing those dollars to increase public school teacher pay. Now, I don't have a problem with private school teachers having their wages increased. What I do have a problem with is taking public taxpayer money to fund those programs and ultimately resulting in that increase. I think that what we need to stay focused on is Iowa has a long tradition of a strong public education system that educates every Iowa kid. That was a huge part of what has made Iowa, Iowa. And this private school voucher scheme is a radical departure from that. And so, I would certainly support increasing teacher pay for Iowa's public school teachers. I don't support using those public taxpayer dollars to go put that money into the private schools.

Price: But now it's a thing. So, is your goal to try to recapture the majority and then take it away?

Wahls: Look, our goal is to make sure that every Iowa kid can get the best world class education that they deserve and that they need in order to be successful later in life. Unfortunately, I think the private school program is going to take us in the wrong direction. And one of the biggest concerns that I know many of us had was around the fact that you weren't going to see any income limits, any income thresholds for folks who are already very wealthy -- correct -- you weren't going to see any restrictions like we've seen with these tuition increases going up to capture more of that voucher. And just, like I mentioned, having these schools that even if you're not paying tuition currently make sure to apply for the voucher so we can increase our bottom line.

Price: So, get rid of it or not?

Wahls: Look, I think when we get back to the majority we would have real concerns, it will depend on how the majority is and if it's a democratic House and Senate, democratic Governor. But everything is going to be on the table to make sure that we support Iowa's public education system. That's got to be number one.

Henderson: Dave mentioned that the Governor on this program said she hopes to increase teacher pay, she doesn't have a proposal yet. Do you have a proposal? Do you want it to be for all school teachers? Raise the beginning teacher salary? What would you propose?

Wahls: So, when it comes to teacher compensation we know that Iowa is falling behind some of our neighbors, we know that it's harder and harder to retain teachers in our state. Compensation is absolutely a big part of that. Another big part of it is just respect for teachers in the classroom and trusting them to make the right decisions with their students, with their students' parents about what is right for those kids. What we've seen republicans do, not just in the 2023 session, but going back several sessions now, is interject state government into the classroom to put state government between teachers and their kids, between teachers and parents. We don't think that's right. We think that, in addition to the compensation issue, that basic respect for teachers -- whenever I listen to teachers and they talk about the issues that they're facing, that basic respect is a big part of it as well. So, again, democrats over the last several years have introduced proposals to increase funding for our schools. We know that teacher compensation is a big part of it. I think that Iowa public school teachers should be the best paid in the Midwest, period.

Price: One of the things that Statehouse republicans did was to put some new restrictions for those who are receiving food assistance, it used to be called food stamps, and now apparently this will also be part of the ultimate debt ceiling compromise deal on the federal level here too. What will the impacts of both of this maybe in totality be as republicans are saying, this is a way to make sure the folks who really need this assistance are the ones getting it and also perhaps a push for people to get to work to sustain themselves without this?

Wahls: Well, to be very clear, democrats certainly support a strong social safety net for people who need help, who have fallen on hard times. We think that people who can be working, should be working, and should have the support of state government to make ends meet if they need it. I think the concern that we have is with this republican proposal it's actually going to result in more red tape, it's going to make it harder for Iowans to access the benefits that they need at the most important time they need it, which is often that first immediate time when they've fallen on hard times. And so that is our primary concern when it comes to this proposal. There are just so many things that you could say about how republicans ignored Iowa workers this year. But I would just say that between them continuing to pour gasoline on the flames of the culture war, we know that there are Iowans who are leaving our state because they're sick of that kind of vitriolic language. And we know that there are people who are still struggling to make ends meet who are going to be hurt by legislation like this. It's clear that working class and middle-class Iowans are being left behind.

McCullough: Minnesota recently became the latest border state to Iowa to legalize recreational marijuana and we saw House democrats making this a big policy position in the last legislative session. But Senate democrats weren't as united, I guess, behind this. Why is that not the case? And is that something that you're going to advocate for in the future?

Wahls: Well, to be very clear, personally I support regulating and taxing cannabis like alcohol. But in terms of the priorities, the top priorities for our state, I think that we've been very focused on going back to the conversation we just had about our public education system being number one, stopping the divisive kind of culture war attacks that we've seen on the LGBTQ community, trying to support a strong social safety net to help people get back on their feet and get back to work. I certainly don't have a problem with that proposal, it's just not a top priority at the moment.

McCullough: And do you think there becomes less pressure on Iowa and the state to legalize recreational marijuana now that, hypothetically, Iowans can travel to Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, etcetera?

Wahls: I don't think it has much of an effect.

Henderson: Over the past several years republicans at the Statehouse have passed a series of tax cuts and they have been increasing their majorities. Democrats have argued that tax cuts should be targeted. How do you change your argument to actually gain you votes because obviously the tax policies they are pursuing are helping them win bigger majorities?

Wahls: Well, Kay, this year obviously we saw bipartisan compromise on a property tax relief bill that will especially benefit seniors, veterans and Iowans who are on fixed incomes. As you've just pointed out, we've seen republicans give large tax cuts to big corporations and the wealthiest Iowans over the last several years. We felt that it was time to try and put middle class families first and we know that property taxes can be a regressive form of taxation, especially, like I said, to those folks who are on a fixed income. Going forward, I think part of what we've seen is that those, especially the most aggressive income tax cuts, have not been fully phased in yet. When you start looking at fiscal year '25, fiscal year '26 projections, especially those biggest tax cuts for the wealthiest and biggest corporations are fully phased       in, I've got pretty grave concerns about what that is going to do to our budget. So, for democrats we're going to stay focused on having a tax code that is fair, that is focused on the middle class. That is our bottom line. But I think that the republicans who have been on this program even admitted that they had some concerns about cutting taxes fully because we currently have a tax code that overwhelmingly benefits some of the wealthiest corporations in our state, the richest Iowans. And so, they want to have a conversation about how we have a fairer tax code, I think it has to be less about giving even more tax handouts to big corporations and the wealthiest Iowans and more focused on middle class Iowans.

Henderson: The budget that was approved and signed into law by Governor Reynolds this year for the prospective fiscal year spends about 88% of expected state tax revenue. It looks like the state will have a $2 billion surplus. There will be $3.5 billion in the Taxpayer Relief Fund. How would democrats spend that money?

Wahls: So, we've seen republicans continue to underinvest in key public safety things, the Department of Corrections, we've seen them underinvest in our public education system where again we've seen just year after year after year not keeping up with the rising cost of living. And so, we think that there are core essential state services that are not being fully funded by the republican majority. And keep in mind, Kay, that a lot of these dollars are federal dollars that have come down from the federal government, it's not a continuous stream of revenue. And so, we need to make sure that, from my perspective, we're investing sustainably in the key priorities, public education, public safety, making sure that we're continuing to work to support our infrastructure so that we can avoid incidents like what happened in Davenport and Marengo. Those are the things that the state government should be focused on and it's clear that republicans are more focused on hoarding those dollars and giving them away to the large corporations and the ultra-wealthy.

Henderson: K-12 public school funding from the state in a general level was increased 3% for the next academic year. What would democrats have done?

Wahls: We introduced amendments that would have looked at the money that is being handed out to our private schools, being handed out to corporations and said, look, we need to go in a different direction, those are dollars that rather than going, again, to wealthy corporations or to private schools, those should be focused on our public school kids. I believe that our amendment would have almost doubled the investment that republicans had that went into public schools this year. And, Kay, that has been a consistent message for us is that we know that our public school system is facing real challenges whether it's teacher salaries that aren't keeping up, whether it's safety, whether it's mental health challenges that kids are dealing with and they don't have the resources that they need to have support. We know that there are real challenges in the classroom. But republicans have put their head in the sand and said, not our problem.

Price: You are doing this listening tour across the state. Your counterpart on the House side, Jennifer Konfrst, is doing that as well. As you get out to these areas, we've heard the talk about you've got to show up, you've got to get to all these places, but it's also important to connect with folks when you're there. So, how are you connecting with people there differently to try to build support and the secondarily, of course, to find some potential candidates there?

Wahls: Sure, so I'll give you a great example. Our first stop was over in Council Bluffs, we had a really great couple of days out there where we got to tour some local businesses, had breakfast at a local diner, just chatted with people as they were coming in, wanted to hear what was on their mind, spoke with a Council Bluffs police officer who happened to stop by. Then we had a great town hall meeting, 45, 50 people coming out on a Saturday morning to share kind of what they were concerned about. It was a lot of the issues that we've already talked about, public schools, taxes. But then another one that came up in that conversation was concerns about republican attempts to restrict abortion. I know that we're expecting a Supreme Court ruling that might mark a seismic shift in that policy in this state later this month. And so that is another issue that I know is out there and is on a lot of people's minds.

Price: I ran into you in Cedar Rapids where Secretary Pete Buttigieg was there and one of things that I was talking about with him was something that Secretary Tom Vilsack has talked about, the failure of democrats to adequately explain the value of government in people's lives. Now, while we were in Cedar Rapids, Secretary Buttigieg was talking about the federal funding that allowed the Cedar Rapids airport to expand by capitalizing on some other pots of money to help with that. How do you talk to folks, particularly on these listening tours, about the value of funding government services at a time where republicans are out campaigning about freedom and lowering taxes and big government is bad, all those kinds of things? How do you counter that?

Wahls: Well, I would just say briefly, especially going back to the issue that I just mentioned about abortion, democrats are really focused on talking about the freedom of Iowa women to make the best decisions that are right for them and their families. That is a key thing that we believe when it comes to the LGBTQ community, the freedom to live their lives without government stepping in to tell parents how to support their transgender teenager. That is absolutely freedom and democrats are not going to ever hesitate to talk about the importance of freedom in our state. Our state motto, right, our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain. That is something that runs in the course of our veins too and we believe that strongly. When it comes to making government work for people, it's really a question about who is government working for? We think that we need a government that is working for middle class Iowans across our state. We don't want a government that is working for special interest groups that are funding these primaries against republican incumbents and resulting in ever more radical policy coming out of the Statehouse. That is what we're concerned about. When we're listening to people talk, it's about trying to feel like they actually have a voice in their government. And that is why we feel it's so important to show up in these communities and actually listen, to hear their voices and make sure that they know that there are people in the Statehouse who are listening to them.

McCullough: Just yesterday Governor Reynolds signed a bill requiring in-person participation at a caucus if the purpose of that caucus is to nominate a presidential candidate. What's next in the life of that bill? Are democrats going to sue?

Wahls: That's a great question for Chairwoman Rita Hart over at IDP. Look, I think that we're going to look at all of our options. We know that the calendar is long and it's still in flux. But at the end of the day, Iowa democrats have to do what is right for Iowa democrats. I know that obviously this is a new proposal having more mail-oriented process, m-a-i-l oriented process. But we think that's going to be a good way to include more voices in the caucuses, which frankly would benefit from that. We know that the caucuses have not been accessible to every person who wants to participate due to sometimes having obligations on work or not being able to afford child care. And so, we think that getting more people to participate in the process is important. I think it's extraordinarily disappointing that republicans have unilaterally decided to end decades of cooperation to protect the Iowa Caucuses from outside interference. That was really frustrating to see.

Price: The easiest way to make it accessible is just to do a primary isn't it?

Wahls: The process overall? Look, I think that what we need is a process that is going to work for Iowa democrats. We are still going to have caucuses, no doubt about it, that's an important part of party building and getting people engaged locally. Allowing people to express their preference through that caucus with a vote-by-mail preference card I think is kind of the best of both worlds.

McCullough: Now, republicans are going to have a caucus this year, or next year, and democrats regardless of what happens it won't be a competitive caucus and so this is going to be a really big organizing opportunity for republicans. We're already seeing candidates coming and campaigning in the state, drive voter registration. Is that going to put democrats at a disadvantage going into the 2024 election?

Wahls: I think it's a great opportunity for democrats as well. We won't be distracted by as much of the circus that comes to the state every so often. We will be able to focus on our own organizing, strengthening our local county parties. That has been a big priority for Chairwoman Hart. She came in wanting to really get back to focusing on our county party structure. The caucuses are a great way to do that. Now, on the republican side we're already seeing this childish in-fighting between former President Trump and other candidates who are running. The insults obviously haven't stopped. So, I think it will be really interesting to see what shape the Republican Party is in after the caucuses have completed for the republican side too.

Price: But doesn't the circus, as you call it, that boosts attention and brings crowds. There's a benefit to that, though, isn't it that you have to counter without?

Wahls: Look, I think that you're going to see a race to the farthest right extreme on the republican side. You're going to see republican politicians try to out-Trump Trump. They're just going to get more and more extreme, which we're obviously already seeing. And I don't think that that's a good thing for that party. I think that on the democratic side there's going to obviously be a lot of attention -- we're all watching what's happening with a lot of shock and horror. And I think that that's going to be some fuel for the fire for democrats. Even though we don't have a competitive primary on our side, a competitive presidential primary, the people are going to be engaged and want to do more.

Henderson: Let's talk about you. Do you ever have an interest in running for Congress?

Wahls: I will not be running for the U.S. House in 2024. I'm really enjoying my work in the Senate and I'm going to stay focused there.

Henderson: Caleb?

McCullough: So, we've got a Johnson County question for you. Gary Barta, Athletic Director at the University of Iowa recently retired from that post. Do you think there was any internal pressure on him to resign? And, in your opinion, was it time for him to leave?

Wahls: Look, I don't have any visibility into how that decision was made. At the end of the day, it's certainly time for I think a full national search for a successor for Director Barta. I know that his last day will be coming up here in August I believe. My hope is that they're going to do a full national search and not just kind of anoint somebody internally. I think obviously Barta had his share of controversies, but there's also no doubt that over the term of his tenure the Iowa athletics program grew very exponentially. And finding someone who can potentially avoid some of those controversies while continuing the success of growing the program, especially when we have such a star in Caitlin Clark and so much excitement around women's basketball. It's a tall order but I'm confident that the university is up to it.

Henderson: So, what's wrong with the athletic director who is the interim now, the woman?

Wahls: Well, I don't have a problem with Beth at all and I hope that she's taking it into consideration. I don't know if she's going to apply for the job. But I just think that overall this is going to be an important role for us to fill and I think a national search makes sense.

Henderson: One of the things legislators did this past session was freeze diversity, equity and inclusion programs at all three state universities. Other states are closing down those programs all together. What is the argument for keeping it?

Wahls: Well, diversity, equity and inclusion is how we grow our university. I know that republicans have tried to make this a boogeyman. But diversity, equity and inclusion includes first generation college students, it includes veterans, it includes people who are disabled. It is so important that we make sure that we continue to extend higher education opportunities to every Iowan who thinks that is the right thing for them. And so, for republicans to abandon their commitment to those folks is really shameful. Iowa for so long has been a state that has been tolerant, it's about respecting other people's different views or identities or beliefs. And republicans, unfortunately, are moving away from that very long tradition.

Henderson: Senator Wahls, we thank you for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press.

Wahls: Thanks, Kay.

Henderson: You can watch every edition of Iowa Press online at or at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday night and Sunday at noon. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.



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

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