Iowa Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum
On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque), discusses the 2024 legislative session, Democratic senators’ priorities and other political news.
Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Caleb McCullough, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.
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Democrats hold less than one-third of the seats in the Iowa Senate. So how do they plan to impact key policy decisions? We'll talk with Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum 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, February 9th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Our guest today has been in the Iowa legislature since 1993. She was first elected to the Iowa House. She has been a State Senator since 2009 when democrats were in the majority in the Iowa Senate. She served as Senate President. This past June, her democratic colleagues elected her Senate Minority Leader. Senator Pam Jochum, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Jochum: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back.
Henderson: Caleb McCullough writes for the Quad City Times and the five other Lee Enterprises newspapers in Iowa. And Erin Murphy is with the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.
Murphy: Senator, we reached a deadline this week where the state legislature is supposed to pass school funding levels for the next year. There's also talk, the Governor has proposed increasing starting teacher pay. Do those things need to get done sooner than later here? So, I imagine you're hearing from schools who are trying to make their budgets for next year right now.
Jochum: Absolutely. It needs to happen now. You're right, yesterday was the 30th day and by law we're supposed to have that funding resolved and settled by the 30th day after we're in session. What this really does it put our local school districts in a real bind. They have to, by law, have their budget submitted by March 15th and there's a series of things they have to go through at the local level in order to create that budget for the next school year. Number one, they have to know how much money they're even going to have. And then they need to hold public hearings. And then they need to set the budget. Then they submit it. And once they set that tax levy, depending on how much money the state is going to provide, that is locked in. So, if for some reason the state comes in with a lower amount of funding than they were expecting, their whole system is off and they cannot change that for another year. So, the funding is critically important to get done as soon as possible. I know there is a bill pending to actually change that date. And when I first got elected, and I think Kay you might remember this, we were actually deciding that funding level 18 months out from the school year so that they would actually know a whole year and a half in advance what kind of funding they would be getting to educate children in the schools.
Murphy: And you said that deadline was yesterday. That was Thursday as we sit here and record for the viewers. I mentioned the Governor's proposal on teacher pay. I'm curious what you think about that. It would bump the starting teacher salary and also, I believe it was year 12 as well. Democrats I know have been pushing for higher teacher pay for years. Is this program the way to do it?
Jochum: You know, I agree. We agree full-heartedly. We'd like to work with the republicans on increasing teacher pay. But we also believe that when you do that all ships need to rise. It can't just be beginning teachers or those who have been there 12 years because here's the problem, you could have someone who has been there 12 years and going to be earning $62,000 a year, you could have someone who has been there 15 years any maybe making $64,000. So, what we're trying to say is if you're going to do that then all levels need to rise with that so that teachers are compensated for what they actually are, the value that they provide to our schools and our kids. And right now, I think a lot of teachers are feeling very disrespected and devalued after some of the issues that have come forward in the last few years. We respect our teachers, most people in our communities do, we need to pay them what they're worth.
McCullough: Now that teacher pay position right now is part of the Governor's larger bill dealing with the Area Education Agencies, overhauling the system. The Governor proposed that bill saying that the system needs to be changed because of lower test scores for Iowa students with disabilities compared to the national average. Do you agree with that assessment? And does that need to be improved?
Jochum: You know what, I don't think there's any system that is perfect. So, I'm going to start out by saying that. And I know that the AEA chiefs and others have approached the Governor during the summer and want to sit down and have a conversation with her about what we could do to improve the system. I have been there long enough to know that when we have tried to change an entire system or department or whatever it was, we always brought in all of the stakeholders that were involved in that process. And the one that comes to mind immediately is what the Supreme Court recently did with trying to change the whole conservatorship and guardianship laws in the state. They met with 80 different people for over a year and they came up with recommendations and submitted it to the legislature. That same kind of process needs to be used again to see where we can find more efficiencies, where we need to improve things and if there are some programs that could be eliminated at this point because those AEAs were created back in 1974, schools have changed dramatically over that course of time, as have children, and the level of disabilities and new disabilities that we didn't even hear about or know about back in '74. So, they are willing to do that. But the way this is designed it was done in a vacuum, hired an outside consulting firm called Guidehouse to do it, recommendations come forward with no input from the people who know best what we need to do. As a mom of a child who had an intellectual disability, I know how important and how valuable the AEAs are to the school system, not just for children with disabilities though. The AEAs go far beyond that. They have three different areas where they really provide meaningful services to our schools in education services, in media services and of course in special ed services. And the system, the way it is designed right now under even the new amendment the Governor has put forth, it is basically going to be a fee for service plan and it eliminates media services. I can tell you the districts that are going to be most hurt by these changes will be those small, rural districts because they do not have the funding to hire the OT, the PT, the speech pathologists and all of the other things that media services currently provides at a very reduced cost on what they're going to have to pay if they have to do it on their own.
Henderson: A couple of other education bills introduced, one would allow schools to have either volunteer or paid chaplains on staff to provide mental health counseling to students and another would let some school employees be armed on school grounds. Will any Senate democrats support either of those proposals?
Jochum: We haven't talked about either of those issues at great length yet. But let me start with your first question and that was in terms of the chaplains or whatever that aren’t vetted and coming into the system to provide, into the schools to provide brain health services to kids. If that's the issue, and it is, we do have children that do need brain health services and treatment in our schools, that means the state should be providing the funding the schools need to hire professionals to provide those services and we aren't doing that right now. I get incredibly concerned when you are having people come in with perhaps not the background, the social work background, the mental health background to really provide those services and the fact that we aren't vetting them to know what their background is in general causes great concern for many of us. And then the second part of your question, I'm sorry, was?
Henderson: Was about armed staff members.
Jochum: Oh yes. You know what, we do need to figure out how we're going to reduce gun violence in general, but specifically in the schools. Again, we haven't talked about that but I personally will say I don't think that is the answer.
Murphy: I was in a crowded committee hearing room this week with a bunch of librarians who came to the Capitol to express their opposition to a proposal that would essentially give city councils the ability to have more authority over library boards and how they're constructed and operate. One of the republicans, and this was in the House, not in your chamber, but one of the republicans who ran that bill said he's less worried about the books than he is the ability of library boards to spend and budget taxpayer money without more direct oversight and that’s why he thinks city councils should have more input. Is that fair? What are your thoughts on that?
Jochum: No, it's not fair. Let me start by saying February is national Library Lovers Month and I think that last fall when we had school board elections, I thought Iowans spoke very loud and clear how much they valued our teachers and our libraries. They came out in droves to elect people who really believed in making sure that our libraries were able to choose the books for our children to read in the school system. And, of course, they elected school board members who also valued and believed in that as well and in public education. So, I thought voters spoke very loud and clear in the last election about that issue. Truly there is already a lot of oversight at the local level. This to me is stemming from an issue from last fall and I believe it was in Pella and they attempted to do that and the voters turned it down. And because they failed at that, now they're trying to pass a law to do what they failed to do in Pella. And it's just not the right answer. The culture war needs to stop. This is just one more piece of that culture war that continues to divide us instead of bringing us together. It's another distraction rather than focusing on the real issues that Iowans want us to deal with. And I know what some of those issues are because I've traveled 16,000 miles in the last few months and I've been to little towns and the burbs and you name it and we do soliciting posts and people are very willing to tell us what they believe are some of the problems that they want us to fix and it's none of the stuff that we're talking about right now.
McCullough: There's a bill that passed committee in the Senate strengthening religious freedom protections and democrats, one of their main oppositions to that bill is a concern that it's going to hurt the economy in the state and hurt recruitment for businesses. But the response from republicans has been that this law has been passed in more than 20 other states. We haven't seen that downward economic impact in those states. I guess, why do you think Iowa is going to be different?
Jochum: Well, first of all, it is one more piece of the culture war, it truly is. And we have heard from business leaders and they have said that passing something like this will truly cripple them or hamper them in some way in trying to recruit the talent they need to come into the state of Iowa for the positions that are now open. We also have people on the other side, that are sometimes on opposite sides, and that is people who fight tooth and nail for human rights and they are also lobbying very heavily against this. The only group I have seen that is in support of this is the Family Leader right now and maybe Americans for Prosperity. But other than that, most Iowans are not supportive of this issue.
Murphy: Why aren't the business groups coming up to the Capitol and testifying against these bills?
Jochum: Well, some of them are. And I think yesterday we had a news conference that at least had two small businesspeople at the news conference that did talk about this.
Murphy: But the bigger employers --
Jochum: And Principal and others have registered on and we are encouraging them that this is not the time to stand on the sidelines. You need to -- our democracy requires you to speak up and you need to do that. If you really believe that this is going to hinder your ability to hire the people that you need, then you need to speak up and tell us why.
McCullough: Another piece of that culture war that has been going through the legislature here, Governor Reynolds proposed a bill in the House to define man and woman in state law and allow certain state agencies to use somebody's sex assigned at birth for public accommodations. Governor Reynolds is calling this the women's bill of rights, says it's necessary to protect women in women only spaces. What's your response to that?
McCullough: Any other elaboration?
Jochum: Nonsense. It's ridiculous.
Henderson: Turning to tax policy, people who watch this program may recognize that the last time you were on, you were on for half an hour to talk about taxes. Republicans have proposed I guess investing what's in the taxpayer relief fund and over a long period of years they describe it as a glide path of using the investment income to reduce the state income tax and eliminate it. Is that the responsible way to do it?
Jochum: No. First of all, let me just say -- let's start from the beginning. So, right now you're right, there's $3.5 billion in that taxpayer relief fund. And so, where did the money come from? It came from two different sources from the best I can tell. Number one, this state took in almost $11 billion in federal pandemic dollars over the last few years. About $2.5 billion of that is still not spent. And the second thing is, is that when you look at the funding levels over the last few years, we have been about 82% of funding. So, that means that we have really not kept up with the pace of inflation for our public school system, for public safety, for public health. And so, when you do that all this money flows into a special fund and that is where the money is coming from, number one. What we did in 2022, not we, what the republicans did in 2022 is start to, they put in place a flat tax system and we've always said flat tax isn't a fair tax, that the people who most need a tax break are the working class and the middle class. And they are not the beneficiaries of the 2022 tax cut. Let me give you, illustrate it. Not my numbers, came from the Department of Revenue. I think I may have given you some of the runs at another meeting or another session like this. We have about 3,400 Iowans who earn over a million dollars a year. Those 3,400 Iowans under this current system of tax cuts will see about $1,300 a week in tax cuts, $67,000 a year. I live in a neighborhood where many people don't even have $1,300 to live on for the whole month. That's just their tax break. Now I look at the people who are earning about $40,000 of taxable income and they will see zero, or very little depending on if they have dependents. $60,000 under the current tax scheme, they will see about $5.81 a week change in their tax bill. Truly the people who need it the most aren't getting it. About a half a million Iowans will see very little benefit. The bill that has now been dropped that we will begin work on in about two more weeks actually sets up a process to completely eliminate the individual income tax system and start ratcheting down corporate income. The bill also is very clear on that we are moving, that they want to move more toward using sales and use tax to pay for the services in state government with different triggers they have built into the bill. I believe it is not the right way to go. I don't think you rely on regressive taxes to fund state government and that we had a progressive tax system in place based on the ability to pay and that is the kind of system we need to retain.
Henderson: Your colleagues in the House, House democrats have proposed increasing in increments the state minimum wage to $15 by mid-2026. Is that something that Senate democrats support?
Jochum: Yes, we do. In fact, we have introduced bills to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and we did that a couple of years ago already. So those bills are already pending in the Senate. Yes, we agree. The minimum wage needs to be increased.
Murphy: Senator Jochum, I also covered a meeting this past week that had to do with public worker unions and adding some new requirements that, without getting too technical and into the weeds, the Senate republican who I talked to who ran this said, it's needed because some of the bargaining units are not going through the recertification process because their employer is not submitting lists. He thinks that maybe they're in cahoots with each other and that the bargaining unit is pressuring maybe even the employer to not submit these lists. So now his bill would do that and make it so if that list is not submitted the union, the unit would be decertified. Is that fair -- is it not fair to ask and make sure that these bargaining units are conducting these recertification elections as state law requires? I know you have strong feelings about that.
Jochum: I have very strong feelings on that. Thank you for asking. That bill is a union busting bill, it really is. This really goes back, they are clearly showing what their real intent was in 2017. And I was there, you all were too covering it. It was a 36-hour debate and they basically pretty much gutted a collective bargaining law for public workers. We call it Chapter 20. By the way, that was signed into law in 1972 by then a republican Governor Bob Ray who also believed that workers, public workers had the right to bargain in good faith for their wages, benefits and working conditions. In 2017 they pretty much gutted it and the only thing that was left standing was to negotiate in good faith for your wages. I went back and talked to our superintendent, to our city manager and other administrators of local government because this affects not just state, it's also schools, cities, counties and state employees. And every one of them said, we want a strong union, it's easier for us as administrators to actually negotiate with a team of people representing all workers than to try and do this separately. So, they were very much opposed to what the republicans were doing in 2017. I think what they believed was going to happen was all these different barriers they set up in 2017, it was going to make it more difficult for the unions to actually get certified. And in fact, that's not what happened. The workers came forward and they did recertify year after year and have been. They have clearly said, we want to be in a bargaining unit. The bill that is before the Senate, well eventually it will be, it came out of subcommittee, that bill actually turns the whole thing on its head and gives the employer the right to not submit, do the proper paperwork and if they do not then the union is automatically decertified. It's wrong. It's just wrong. And it's just the final nail to try and end collective bargaining for public workers.
Murphy: We've heard that at least one of the unions talking about rolling strikes as a way of protesting this. I know you have friends in the labor community, the Teamsters, thank you, in the labor community. Would you recommend that if they asked you? Does that maybe hurt their cause in a court of public opinion?
Jochum: I don't think so. I think it is absolutely time for working families and workers, the middle class, we have to start speaking up. Democracy is not a spectator sport, you all know that. It requires us to be informed, to be involved, to be engaged and to make our voice heard. And when we fail to do that, then you continue to see our freedoms and opportunities and government accountability erode and that is exactly what has been happening the last few years. So, I am glad that the unions are calling for a call to action because I'm going to say here too, it's a call to action. If you believe in your right to collectively bargain in good faith for your wages, your benefits and your working conditions, we need you and we need your voice now.
McCullough: And some of Governor Reynolds' proposals this year deal with reorganizing and restructuring big government systems. That includes the AEA bill, the behavioral health bill and a bill dealing with boards and commissions. And there's been a number of those over the last couple of years, the large government restructuring bill is another example. What are your thoughts on watching these last couple of years of Governor Reynolds' agenda of reorganizing state government? What do you think has been the experience of that? And what do you think are going to be the consequences of that?
Jochum: It's been a mess, to put it bluntly. So once again, the Governor hired Guidehouse, an outside consulting firm, to come in and, again, design, redesign, reorganize state government in a vacuum. She hired the same consulting firm to come in and reorganize the AEA system in a vacuum. And here we are. So, I will tell you during the interim, and I'm sure the republicans heard this when they went back home as well, we had many people who are in the trades whether it's in IBEW workers or whatever, people who really their job is to make sure that elevators are safe, that make sure that boilers are safe, all of those kinds of things, they are critically concerned about combining or eliminating boards because it takes, number one, their voice away. Number two, you end up convoluting these boards and many times they don't have the expertise in order to make good decisions on different aspects of what we were doing with the current boards and commissions system. Am I saying that all boards and commissions should never be eliminated? Of course not. But you just don't come in and do it wholesale. You need to do it, again, very thoughtfully, by bringing people to the table and then slowly using a process that you can figure out how to reorganize state government to make it more responsive to the needs of people, more efficient and more accountable to the taxpayer. This is not the way to do it. Doing this with boards and commissions actually takes the voice of many Iowans away who were part of those boards and commissions.
Henderson: Senator, we have a couple of minutes left. You have less than a year left on your term as a State Senator and you have announced you will not be seeking re-election. For democrats who have their names on the ballot underneath that of the nominee of your party, expected to be President Joe Biden, will he be a detriment to democrats given what we've seen this week with the special counsel's report?
Jochum: I don't think so. I think that what we saw in the special counsel's report is that the person that initiated this whole thing to begin with was a Trump appointee and I think the courts have spoken on it. I think that they have cleared Joe Biden on all of this stuff. But more importantly, I think that in general democrats and a lot of no party think that overall, Joe Biden has done a pretty good job. And it's our job as democrats to get out and tell people what he has done and what he has accomplished and we're going to do that.
Henderson: Is his age an issue?
Jochum: Well, if his age is an issue then so should Donald Trump's. They're three years apart in age. And if age is an issue, then I guess it should have been for Chuck Grassley as well who is also 90 years old.
Murphy: We have literally just a minute left. You talked at a recent party event about your plan for Senate elections and the future of Senate democrats, 9 seats by '29 if I remember right. Is it difficult to recruit candidates right now for office and especially when you're having to pitch more of a long-term path to being a majority party?
Jochum: That's just true in general. When I look back at the history of Iowa, there was big switches for democrats in '64 and in '74. Johnson landslide, Watergate. No, it hasn't. We've actually had really good success, incredibly good candidates we have been able to recruit that really fit their districts and I have told everyone from day one if I accept this position, because my colleagues wanted me to, that I would give everything I had for the next year to make sure that we were going to break that republican super majority, retain our current incumbents and start moving the state forward in a new direction.
Henderson: We are out of time for this discussion on this edition of Iowa Press. Thank you, Senator Jochum, for joining us.
Jochum: Thank you so much, Kay, Erin, Caleb.
Henderson: You may watch every episode of Iowa Press online at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.
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