Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst

Iowa Press | Episode
May 3, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa House Minority Leader Rep. Jennifer Konfrst (D-Windsor Heights) discusses the 2024 legislative session.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Stephen Gruber-Miller, statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register.

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



Democrats push back against republican legislative priorities this year, but lack the votes to advance their own agenda. We'll discuss the 2024 session with House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst 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, May 3rd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: It has been two weeks since the Iowa House of Representatives concluded the 2024 legislative session at 4:23 a.m. on a Saturday. Our guest today is the leader of democrats in the House. House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst is from Windsor Heights. Welcome back to the program.

Konfrst: Thanks for having me.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation are Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Representative Konfrst, this week Governor Reynolds talked about the new immigration law in the state and she described it as the humanitarian thing to do to enforce immigration law and accused the federal administration of not taking sufficient action on that. I know you and your fellow democrats disagree on that, but this is also clearly an issue that a lot of Iowans feel strongly about. How will democrats be talking to those Iowans in the coming weeks and months as we look ahead to an election this fall?

Konfrst: I think the biggest thing about immigration is that immigration is not just an Iowa problem, it's a federal problem, and there was a bipartisan agreement in Washington that would have been the Biden administration and Congress coming together to come up with a really good immigration bill. And republicans were ready to vote for it and the Donald Trump said don't. So, I think if people really want to address immigration in the state, they should be speaking with Randy Feenstra and Ashley Hinson and the rest of the congressional delegation because they are the ones who actually have the opportunity to make true impact and true immigration reform and they decided not to.

Murphy: And I assume you disagree with republicans who say that because the federal government is not taking sufficient action, that is why this state law was needed?

Konfrst: I disagree that the state law was needed, particularly because of the way the state law was written, and the constitutional questions involved in that law. I do believe we need to do something about immigration. I just don't think that this law, which was clearly done for political reasons, not for real policy reasons since there are constitutional questions involved, was the way to go.

Murphy: Is there any role for the state to play at all? Or is it of complete deference to the federal government?

Konfrst: Absolutely, I definitely think there's a role for the state to play and I think there are things that are being done right now. But this law was incredibly far reaching, incredibly out of touch with what the rest of the country is trying to do, and I understand the political talking point here. But when it comes down to enforcement, there are so many questions and so many problems that I think weren't really considered because the bill wasn't written for policy, the bill was written for politics.

Gruber-Miler: We've seen protests on college campuses around the country in the last few days over Israel's war against Hamas. There's some scheduled for the University of Iowa over this weekend. You're a journalism professor on a college campus and you're an elected state leader. I'm curious what you think of these protests that we've seen? And then we've also seen across the country more than 2,000 arrests, what you think of the response?

Konfrst: I'm a big believer in the 1st Amendment and I'm a big believer in the right of people to protest peacefully and do the work they need to do. I'm proud of the students across the country who are speaking out and making their voices heard. When there is a line crossed, of course, and we start damaging property, things like that, I think that's a conversation we need to have about what is the way to peacefully protest, get your point across without going into something that is going to cause the cops to get involved. I also think that sometimes when the cops get involved, they're there a little too soon and they're not always considering what the students are trying to do and say. So, let's just make sure that the protests are peaceful. These students have every right, and almost a responsibility, to call out their government when they disagree. And as long as they're doing that peacefully, I think that college campuses need to let them do that.

Henderson: Just for the benefit of our viewers, we're having this conversation before scheduled protests at the University of Iowa. Moving on to some other issues that were tackled at the legislature this year. Funding was continued for education savings accounts that help parents send their child to a private school. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are about a comparison I'm going to make. Kim Reynolds or a republican will be Governor of Iowa until early 2027. Will ESA policy in Iowa be like Obamacare policy at the federal government? It's going to have been in place for several years by then. Will it be impossible, as democrats argue, to repeal it?

Konfrst: It's a great question. I think that frankly school vouchers are unsustainable, so we will have no choice but to address how much money is going to school vouchers. Right now, it's an unlimited appropriation and it comes off the top. So, before we fund public education and increase funding, we're funding school vouchers. So, this year we know $180 million went to private schools and 60% of those families were already in private school, we're just funding rich kids to go to private school with our tax dollars. And with an unlimited appropriation, we haven't even gotten to the point where every Iowan is even eligible yet. That's next year. So, once we start seeing that, if the dollars start going up so much, we're going to have to roll back those costs because it's simply not sustainable from a budget standpoint.

Henderson: Several years ago, when a former state legislator named Walt Rogers initially proposed that, the estimate was that it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million. Is that the current estimate?

Konfrst: $300 million has been the first two years of this program. And, again, we're not even to the point where the income limits have been taken off. So, we are, we're going to see hundreds of millions of dollars spent on this, a billion dollars over five years is not unreasonable. And in a state like Iowa, that is simply not sustainable, especially when we remember that that money is coming, that money could be going to public schools to make it better for everyone. 54% of the vouchers so far have gone to 10 counties. So, how is this helping rural Iowa? But the budget for public education has been reduced statewide. So, it's simply not a fair system. Iowans know that. That's why they don't like it. And it's not sustainable.

Murphy: The Area Education Agency legislation that was passed this year and signed into law is already having an impact on staffing at these AEAs. We've heard about staff leaving over uncertainty or assuming their positions will be cut. Governor Reynolds this week said that she hopes a lot of those people stay in education and find jobs maybe in public education. I'm wondering if you believe that will happen? And would that maybe be good for public schools, if obviously not idea for the AEAs, that they -- that was one of the arguments made at the outset of this legislation that maybe AEAs are poaching potential employees from public schools. What are your thoughts on that?

Konfrst: The AEAs, the employees at AEAs are providing critical special needs, special education services to kids across the state. And especially in rural Iowa where maybe there aren't jobs open for teachers in some of those schools or some of the schools are closing down. That's what just happened in Johnson County with Hills Elementary. So, I think that the people who are in the AEAs are professionals, are experts in these fields, and we're losing out on great expertise because the Governor chose to play politics with AEAs. And what's frustrating about that is not where the employees go, of course we worry about that and wonder, the Governor can hope all she wants that these folks will stay in Iowa, but what she has done is she has created a system in which these amazing professionals who are working hard every day to take care of these kids across the state have no choice but to leave, and these kids are the ones who suffer. It's the families who are wondering what happens in July? Where is my person? Where is my speech pathologist? Where is my occupational therapist? How is my kid going to get the care she needs? The Governor was so focused on playing political games with the AEAs that kids are getting left behind. And as employees leave, I don't blame them. But I do hope they'll of course continue to do this work. But with all this uncertainty, these folks, they have every right to think about their careers and look forward. And they are heartbroken over it. They don't want to leave. They don't want to stop providing these services. They're just wondering where the heck this whole thing came from because they thought they were doing a pretty good job and the families said so too.

Murphy: You mentioned that uncertainty. What is your thoughts on how long does this transition take? When will the new normal be do you think?

Konfrst: That is my concern, my biggest concern. This is going to take place in July in the middle of the school year and so families don't know what's happening, there's a lot of different communication coming from the Department of Education, from the AEAs, every AEA and district is handling it differently. And the reason everything is so confusing is because we don't know what problem the Governor was trying to solve. If it was clear, here's the problem, here's the fix, then I think AEAs and school districts could come together and say all right, let's do it. But we don't even know what was trying to happen and they have now cut $70 million from the AEAs, the party that told us there would be not cuts, $70 million fewer dollars going to the AEAs. So, I think that the chaos and confusion is going to go on for a while because we don't know what they're looking for. We don't know what it is that they were trying to solve. So how do we know what normal is because we haven't taken the time to look at the AEAs and see what can be better? We're just jumping right in.

Gruber-Miller: Staying with education, republicans in the legislature passed a law this year allowing school staff to get a professional permit to carry weapons on school grounds. Whether or not this happens at individually school districts will be up to that local school board. Democrats opposed the law. And I guess I'm curious what the argument is for those schools that wish to do this at the local level?

Konfrst: Sure, we're big believers in allowing local school districts to make their own decisions. We were thrilled to see that republicans finally decided to do that just this one time this year, and of course it's on guns. But what I'll tell you is that my biggest concern is parents have no opportunity to know once a district decides to arm the teachers, parents have no opportunity to know which teacher has a gun. Who has a gun in the school? And for the party of parent choice, they were pretty silent on the idea that parents will have no option of whether or not to send their kid to a school to a teacher with a gun or without a gun, where the guns are in the school. The bottom line is the solution to gun violence in schools is not to add more guns. As State Representative Molly Buck, a teacher said on the floor, you've been training me for years to barricade my kids if there is a school shooter, and now you're telling me I also have to consider having a firearm and attacking the school shooter? Which am I supposed to do? Teachers don't want to be firearms experts, they want to be teachers. So, the idea that more guns will make schools safer is simply short-sided and not a creative or thoughtful way to approach this problem.

Gruber-Miller: The issue of confidentiality, is there a risk also in letting people know which staff member may be carrying a firearm?

Konfrst: I think that the risks certainly outweigh, or the benefits outweigh the risk in that circumstance. If I am nervous about my kindergartner going to school with a teacher who has a gun, I think I have a right to know which teacher has a gun and which one doesn't, because there are things like does the gun go off accidentally? Does someone take it from a holster? Guns fall out of holsters sometimes when they're not perfectly holstered. That's not safe. Access to guns in the classroom is something I think parents have a right to know about.

Henderson: Moving on, folks who watch this program religiously realize that you were on earlier in the year and we discussed the DCI investigation of athletes at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. And at that time, you said there was a prospect for some legislative action. Nothing happened. Was there some agreement among legislators that nothing happens because the legal process is still playing out? What was the discussion among legislators?

Konfrst: Well, the discussion among, between parties did not happen. So, I did not hear from any republican leadership about do you want to work together on a bill to do this? It never came up, wasn't an issue. Often times, as you know, issues that we bring forward don't get any traction because we're in the minority. But I do know that as an ongoing legal matter that is something that we're waiting to kind of see what happens. But that was not part of the, that was not a decision that was consciously made. I think AEAs took up a lot of oxygen this session and a lot of things got, that maybe we should have dealt with weren't dealt with because republicans were spending so much time behind the scenes trying to twist arms to gut AEAs.

Henderson: Well, if you had the magic wand, what would you have done in regards to the DCI using geofencing around facilities where only athletes had access?

Konfrst: I think one of the biggest things we need to look at there, and I will tell you I'm not an expert on the issue, but what I'll tell you is that we've got to be careful that we're following procedure, that we're setting out clear procedure and expectations of privacy, and also looking for illegal activity in the places that DCI has the role and responsibility to do so. I get a little nervous about maybe overstepping with the DCI and I've seen some of the conversations, emails and things like that, that give me some concern about how the investigation was played out. So, I would want to look at responsibilities, I'd want to look at policies with DCI, to make sure that when we're doing this, we're finding that balance and enforcing the law and also respecting privacy.

Murphy: One of your colleagues, fellow House democrat Sami Scheetz of Cedar Rapids, recently proposed as part of democrats' policy on taxes a reduction in the sales tax in Iowa. I'm curious to hear you square that with, for a long-time statehouse democrats have been calling for an increase in the state tax in order specifically to trigger funding for the natural resources water quality fund. So, now we're going in the other direction. How can we make, how do you square those?

Konfrst: Square the circle, yep. So, we talk about this a lot. Right now, is not the time to raise the sales tax in this state. We know as we look around the state at the economy and Iowans who are really needing to lower costs, we didn't feel now was a good time to raise the sales tax. In fact, we feel that if you're going to spend a lot of money on tax cuts, then we should do it where everyone can benefit, and so that is why we proposed this idea. Look, the Water and Land Legacy Trust Fund is something that was voted on by the voters in 2010. Clean water is a key issue in this state. There has been no movement on the issue for about 14 years. So, we need to look broadly and how we're going to address clean water and maybe this is an idea that isn't going to get traction for a while, so let's see what else we can do for clean water. We shouldn't just sit around and wait.

Murphy: Well, perfect segway, another way to address clean water, some people would argue, is by reducing the focus on ethanol production on the state. And the argument is that incentivizing ethanol, incentivizes overgrowing of corn, which can lead to poor water quality outcomes. Are democrats willing to say here's a red line on ethanol, maybe we're pushing this too hard, and it's sacrificing water quality?

Konfrst: Look, I think Iowa's water quality problems are bigger than just corn production. We have been ignoring water quality in the state for a long time. I think that a lot of democrats understand that ethanol is a transitional fuel, as we look to be more environmentally friendly down the road is an important step. And so, we are not, as a group, pro or anti-ethanol here. We understand there are production problems or production challenges. But we also see the great benefits of ethanol production in the state. And with sustainable aviation fuel it's a new option coming up, this is a remarkable opportunity for Iowa farms. And so, we don't want to be cutting off our nose despite our face in this. So, we want to look at water quality more holistically. Certainly, overproduction of corn is something we look at, but there are much bigger issues that we can do with regard to being a little more, what's the word I'm looking for, a little more stringent on enforcing some of the policies in the state that do put clean water at risk.

Murphy: For example?

Konfrst: Buffer strips, looking at ways to manage your crops, ways to not plant quite so close to the water, making sure when you're applying fertilizer it's not as easy to get into the water, things like that.

Gruber-Miller: Some of your House colleagues towards the end of the session voted on a bill that would raise pay for state lawmakers who currently make $25,000 a year. You voted against it. But talk to us about, in your role as Minority Leader, how this affects candidate recruitment and people being willing to run for office.

Konfrst: Yeah, this is an idea that actually is one I think deserves a good discussion. It came up late in the session and we weren't able to have that good discussion on the floor, we weren't able to really talk about this issue, inform the public about it. Here's the deal, I think it might be good policy, but it's bad politics. And when I'm out there trying to recruit people, $25,000 a year for a job that is part-time but not, is really hard. And if we want to diversify our legislature, if we want to get younger people involved, if we want to get working moms involved, if we want to get more people involved in the process and make the legislature more representative of the state, we need to look at every aspect of the work of a legislator including legislator pay. I do think that Iowans might think that legislators make a little more than $25,000 a year, they are often surprised when they hear that. But look, the politics of it weren't going to work, it was at the end of session, it just wasn't something that we were able to really have a robust conversation on. But we can't stop talking about it because it is something that is going to affect recruiting on both sides.

Gruber-Miller: Are there candidates who have told you, I just can't afford to run?

Konfrst: Absolutely. There are candidates who have told me they can't afford to run, especially from out of the central Iowa area who need to also factor in, like for me I can go do some Drake work at night while I'm here in Central Iowa, but others can't. So, yeah, we've heard that. We heard representatives on the floor say it during their retirement speeches that they have to leave because they can't afford to do this job anymore. If we want to incentivize public service, let's make sure that -- and no one is looking to get rich off of this job, many of us lose money in our service -- but we need to make sure that we're providing at least a little more incentive for those folks to do this work because it's really important.

Henderson: I don't want to get into the details of the pipeline bills that cleared the Iowa House this year and were never taken up in the Senate. I want to talk about the property rights debate that is happening primarily in rural Iowa. How are democrats engaged or not engaged in that discussion? And will it cost seats?

Konfrst: We've been talking to Iowans about land rights, landowner rights. They are fed up. They are sick and tired of corporations coming in and using eminent domain to take their land and I think what we're seeing right now is sort of an uprising of a long brewing frustration with corporate interests taking over farmland in this state. And so, there are a lot of concerns with that. Democrats continue to talk with Iowans about it. We support, a lot of us, most of us supported the pipeline bills in the House. But look, we want to make sure that we're having a conversation that is one that respects the landowner rights, that's why we had that conversation with Iowans, and we also believe that we want responsible corporate citizens in this state. If they can't get the landowners that they need, then we need to see, what are they doing wrong? How can we define public need? Those kinds of things. We just weren't able, we were so focused on the pipeline, we weren't able to really have a good, broad, robust debate about eminent domain use at all. And it has become such a lightning rod I think that sort of stops some of the conversation. Will it lose us seats? Will it lose them seats? I don't know. Iowans are really sick and tired of politics and I think they have seen some, especially in rural Iowa, they have seen some of their state representatives on the other side play a lot of politics with this issue.

Murphy: In the few minutes that we have left we want to talk a little bit about the election that is coming up this fall. Here in Iowa the presidential election is the only statewide race on the ballot. Obviously former President Trump is popular here and current democratic President Biden is not. How much concern do you have about that campaign impacting your races? And how do you make races involving democratic statehouse candidates about the local issues that you want voters to be thinking about and not about the issues that they'll be hearing about constantly from the presidential campaign?

Konfrst: Sure, and let's not forget that republicans really like to try to nationalize the election. That's why they're talking about immigration. That's why they're talking about protests on campuses across the country when we haven't seen violence here in Iowa.

Murphy: I'm guessing you're going to say abortion, which is also a fairly national issue, is it not?

Konfrst: For sure, but abortion is a pretty salient Iowa issue because Iowa women's rights are currently hanging in the balance at the Supreme Court. Abortion is still legal in the state right now, but if they come down with a decision that says that the law that the republicans passed is law, then Iowa women are going to lose the right to make their own health care decisions, including things like whether or not to use in vitro fertilization to have babies. So, abortion is going to be a key issue this year. But we're going to be talking about it with regard to how those rights are being taken away by Iowa republicans. Republicans have repeatedly voted to take away the rights for women on abortion. But our biggest concern is there are a lot of things happening in this state that Iowans are sick of, Iowans are really tired of politics. We're going to be listening to Iowans. We're going to talk with them not just about what we voted against, but about what we voted for, and we often see that the results on the state legislative level of the ballot differ from the top of the ticket and I think this year you're going to see that a lot.

Gruber-Miller: So, House democrats currently hold 36 seats of 100 in the Iowa House. It's kind of a steep climb back to the majority this year. What is the realistic target? What is the message that you're sending out that is saying we can get to this level this year?

Konfrst: Well, we're always shooting for 51, but as you say it is a heavy lift. I think that we could see a world in which we're at 40 to 43 seats after this next election. That would be a great night for us. But I also know that we've got some amazing candidates. We've got candidates running specifically because of reproductive freedom and we've got candidates running specifically because of AEAs, AEA moms who are just fed up. So, I think they're going to have a good night.

Murphy: Is that a pull the lever issue? Will voters vote based on AEAs?

Konfrst: We're hearing that all the time. It's public education. They love public education --

Murphy: Well, democratic voters for sure will. Swing voters I guess -

Konfrst: So, I've heard from 9,000, 10,000 Iowans about AEAs in my inbox and those folks were often people who had never written their legislator before and there were a lot of republicans and no-party voters who are now fired up who weren't before. Many of them said, I've never -- I didn't vote last time and I've never written my legislator, but I'm fired up now. I think this was a complete and colossal overplay and republicans are going to pay for it at the ballot box.

Henderson: You were involved in making the case before the Democratic National Committee that Iowa's Caucuses should remain first. Instead, Iowa democrats had a mail-in system. It turned out that participation in that mail-in system was lower than it was in 2012, the last time a democrat was in the White House. What is your analysis of what transpired in the caucuses on the democratic side?

Konfrst: You know, I think there has been so much coverage of the caucuses, the democratic caucuses, and there was this big storyline for a long time, democrats lost the caucuses in Iowa. So, I think there was a huge education campaign that needed to be done and I think Iowa democrats did the best we could do remind Iowans that actually, in fact, we did have caucuses this year and the process was new. It's a learning curve. I think Iowans just maybe weren't quite as aware as they needed to be, but I think a lot of folks did get involved, and I think that does show that the system can work.

Henderson: A week ago on this program, our guest was House Speaker Pat Grassley. He has been in the legislature 18 years. I asked him if he might want to run for Governor. You've been in the legislature for --

Konfrst: Six years.

Henderson: Might you want to run for Governor in 2026?

Konfrst: When I look at the table and at the landscape of the state, I see that Iowans are pretty fed up with republican rule. They have seen that things have gone too far, too extreme, they're pretty fed up with Kim Reynolds. Iowans are looking for a new Governor. I know that I am focused on flipping seats in the Iowa House in 2024. But, look, I'm not taking anything off the table. I go around this state, people are really mad at Kim Reynolds and really mad at the Governor and republicans and yeah, people ask me to run for Governor a lot. But right now, I'm focused on 2024.

Henderson: I'm focused on the clock and we are out of time for this edition of Iowa Press. Thanks for joining us.

Konfrst: Thanks for having me.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.


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

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