Iowa Senate President Amy Sinclair

Iowa Press | Episode
May 17, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Senate president Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton) 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 Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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



The Iowa Senate advanced fewer bills than the House his year, but the republican super majority of the Senate still passed most of their priorities. We'll discuss the 2024 legislative session 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 17th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: On this edition of Iowa Press, our guest is a republican from Allerton who served two terms on the Wayne County Board of Supervisors. She was elected to the Iowa Senate in 2012. She is currently the President of the Iowa Senate. Amy Sinclair, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Sinclair: Thank you, Kay.

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

Sostaric: Senator, part of your bio is that you were the floor manager for the law that bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks of pregnancy. The Iowa Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on that law soon. If they find it unconstitutional, will you hold a special session to pass a constitutional amendment on abortion rights?

Sinclair: So, we have passed the heartbeat legislation twice and that is, Iowans expect us, in absence of federal statute, to regulate the procedure. I think honestly the real travesty would be if we didn't regulate at all. And so, we have chosen to settle in Iowa on the heartbeat. Iowans understand that the absence of a heartbeat indicates death, the presence of a heartbeat indicates life. And that is a thing that Iowans understand and it's a reasonable place for us to regulate the procedure rather than leaving it wide open up to and including the moment of birth. So we are, yes, we have done what other states are doing and taken the active role of regulating a medical procedure. That being said, as far as what the Supreme Court will or won't do, it's hard for me to speculate. I just don't feel comfortable diving into hypotheticals. We will await the results of the Iowa Supreme Court's decisions and make a decision at that time.

Henderson: But what legal avenue would you have if the Supreme Court doesn't rule as you wish?

Sinclair: The legal recourse would be to go back and discuss what new laws might come into the realm of being constitutional. But again, I have full faith that what we have passed is indeed constitutional, it's regulation of a medical procedure, there are no criminal penalties attached. Iowans want reasonable regulation and I have no doubt that this will fall into that.

Murphy: And just to put a pin on this, the reason we ask is because specifically the constitutional amendment that was proposed was tabled because of the Iowa Supreme Court case and if that does not pass it would restart that procedure of amending the state Constitution. This year was a deadline. Republicans decided to let that pass because of the pending Supreme Court ruling. So, if the court does not rule in your favor there is very much a ticking clock on that constitutional amendment.

Sinclair: Certainly. And again, I just don't wish to speculate on what the Supreme court may or may not do. Our response will be based on what their decision is.

Murphy: One bill that did not pass this legislative session deals with how the state would allocate settlement money from the national opioid settlement, multiple states receiving millions of dollars, including Iowa. Why were the Senate and House not able to agree on that bill and because of that now some of that money won't get allocated for the next year?

Sinclair: It won't get allocated for the next year, but the money exists and it remains and will be used for the purposes of prevention and treatment for folks who have been just devastated by the misuse and misprescription of those opioids. The monies will get out there. The question becomes process. The Senate wanted to give the authority to the Department of Health and Human Services and the directors there as well as the AG's Office for the roles that they have in that process. We don't feel, in the face of what we have done over the last couple of years in reducing the size and scope of government and realigning those boards and commissions, that we need to create another commission that would simply be comprised of the people at both of those agencies that would be making those decisions anyway. It seemed redundant and it seemed a waste of time and money. If we're going to create a commission that will delay the process a full year, I don't see that the House's version with a commission is any different than waiting a year anyway. The Governor has come in and leveraged some federal funds so that folks will begin getting treatment immediately and hopefully we can come to some conclusion for this coming year about getting those dollars out so that whether it's rehabilitation or prevention services or treatment or enforcement, all of those things will ultimately get funded. I think that Iowans would see that we don't need to add a layer of bureaucracy to do good work, especially since the settlement itself outlines how those dollars need to be spent.

Murphy: And that maybe gets to what I was going to ask, is there then accountability in what you're suggesting, what you're advocating for?

Sinclair: Absolutely. The settlement itself outlines how the dollars are to be spent, so the accountability exists right there within the settlement. Additionally, there are reporting requirements that both the AG's Office and the Department of Health and Human Services would have related to reporting what is done with those dollars. There is accountability built in both to our local systems as well as to the settlement itself.

Murphy: I guess just real quick, shouldn't there have been more urgency to get this done given -- and I know you said the money doesn't go away -- but at the same time this is a very real problem that's out there?

Sinclair: There is certainly an urgency and I think part of those settlement dollars went directly to counties, to local governments, and those dollars are getting out there as well as the Governor leveraging that $17.5 million. We are going to start that treatment process and hopefully this will just extend that timeframe a little bit. I don't see that this is harming Iowans. We want to get it right. We don't want to delay it with layers of bureaucracy. And so, we can get this out, we can get the agreement between the chambers and get that out the door early next year.

Henderson: For the benefit of our viewers, we're having this conversation early on Friday morning when the Governor, to our knowledge, has about two dozen bills that passed the legislature yet to take action on. I want to talk about one that she has signed into law a few weeks ago. The immigration law that gives law enforcement the authority to arrest people who have bene deported or were not legally able to enter the country and then gives judges the authority to issue deportation orders. Explain what steps are in that bill to prepare the state to enforce that on July 1st.

Sinclair: The steps built into the bill are no different than the steps maybe for any other law that is a state law. Let me just defer back to what we were talking about, the opioid settlement, and understand that the Biden administration has created a border debacle. It is a matter of national security and Iowa is being impacted so heavily in drug trafficking through those cartels and in human trafficking. This is a necessity for the folks in the state of Iowa that the state step and do what this current administration won't do, that they should be doing. And so, what the state of Iowa did was to take those federal immigration statutes, these people shouldn't be in our nation, they have deportation orders. We have empowered, through our state and local law enforcement, to enforce federal law by making federal law state law. We want to make sure Iowans are safe. We want to do our part in securing our borders and making our nation and our state as safe as possible and so we are joining that fight, along with other states who are doing very, very similar things, and keeping the borders of our state safe. What are the policies and procedures in place?

Henderson: Like did you set aside money to transport people from Iowa to Texas or California or Arizona?

Sinclair: There is not money allocated specific to that. There is money allocated to law enforcement and to public safety and this is a part of that. It's another law that we are going to enforce.

Henderson: Critics said that it was passed knowing that it would be perhaps enjoined by a court injunction just as Texas' law. And they say it has just passed because it was an election year.

Sinclair: We have been accused of passing hypothetical laws before and we have come back and made sure that they're not hypothetical and everyone understands this. It is not hypothetical that our nation is being invaded by cartels. We just talked about needing opioid dollars to deal with the fentanyl crisis and that fentanyl is coming in through our southern border through an unchecked migration of folks bringing that in and bringing it to our state. It's not hypothetical that in absence of federal action, in absence of the Biden administration doing its job, the state of Iowa will step up and do what is necessary to keep Iowans safe.

Sostaric: Last year republicans in the legislature approved education savings accounts, the taxpayer-funded scholarships for families to pay private school tuition. There was recently a study from Princeton University that found evidence that that led Iowa private schools to increase their tuition. Do you think the state needs to have some oversight of private school tuition if taxpayers are spending a bunch of money on private schools?

Sinclair: I think the interesting thing about that study -- and I haven't read the complete study, I've read the highlights -- the interesting thing about that study is that it does indicate that most of the non-public schools are still below the cost per pupil that public schools are spending on a student. That is pretty telling in that we are facing an inflation crisis. I think those tuition increases would have occurred regardless of an education savings account scholarship when you have, over the course of the last three years, cumulative inflation of about 20%. Those costs impact non-public schools. I would suggest to you that regardless of the study, those tuition increases would have had to have occurred.

Sostaric: But is part of the reason that public schools are spending more because they have to serve the people with special needs and English language learners and they are actually bearing that burden for private schools as well?

Sinclair: And they have weighted compensation for additional funding for those students as well. The scholarships are not additional weighted funding for students who choose to go to a non-public. It's a standard scholarship. Public schools do get additional dollars for serving both English language learners as well as special needs students.

Sostaric: And with the private schools raising tuition, for the people who are using the education savings accounts, if the private schools keep raising that tuition, are you concerned at all that the people who are using the ESAs at some point will be priced out of it because the ESA won't even cover their tuition cost?

Sinclair: I don't foresee that happening at all, no. That is not a fear of mine at all. Additionally, those non-public schools are offering scholarships on top of what the amount of the ESA is. I just, I think this is high speculation and I think any tuition increases can be directly attributable to the increased inflationary costs that come with anybody doing business. When you have 20% inflation cumulative over three years, you're going to have to increase your teacher salaries, you're going to have to pay more for the food that is serving the kids, you're going to have to pay more for the supplies that go into educating them. Additionally, in that study, very, very flawed, they could only find data for about half of the non-public schools, so it's not even a full view of the data. I just, the study itself was so grossly flawed as to not even be a topic of conversation for me. Yes, there have been tuition increases. We have also increased funding to our public schools because 20% inflation over three years is going to be detrimental to any system that has to buy supplies and pay people. It's just a reality of what this economic crisis that we have been facing as a nation under the Biden administration brings us.

Murphy: Senator Sinclair, you represent a rural district in the state. I wanted to ask you about sort of a collective impact of some bills that have been passed the last couple of years on rural school districts starting with the education savings account. There were concerns about how that might impact enrollment at rural schools. The Area Education Agency bill, that was one of the concerns we heard about, if the AEAs in those areas are impacted, how does that impact the schools? Even the teacher pay bill that a lot of people got behind and supported boosting pay for teachers, there were some concerns can smaller schools handle those pay increases long-term? Collectively, what are you hearing from superintendents, school officials in your districts? Are all these things creating stress on their systems?

Sinclair: So, I asked some of those very specific questions. Those are questions that matter. I have long been the advocate for rural schools in the state of Iowa from freeing up categorical dollars in those rural areas to increasing transportation funding because that was a built-in inequity in our system and rural schools were most disadvantaged in that position. I have been the voice of rural education. So yeah, of course I have asked those questions. As far as how parental rights, parental choice in education has impacted rural schools, it hasn't. There isn't a choice outside of homeschooling for those rural folks to take. What impacts rural districts more in the area of choice is district open enrollment. And so that is always a rub on -- because you have winners and losers in that proposition from a public school perspective. The education scholarships are not impacting rural districts to any large degree. In fact, spoke with some administration at a fairly rural district that I used to represent a portion of prior to redistricting and because of the additional dollars that come to the public districts for even currently enrolled students, even though they had lost a handful of students who were now able to access a non-public education, financially they were better off. And that is just the fact of the way we set up the scholarship system. Those schools do get additional dollars to make sure they are maintaining their underlying infrastructure and cost of doing business. And so, it didn't impact the one that had some students leave, it didn't impact that district at all, except to impact it positively. As far as the AEA conversation goes, why are we not talking about the overarching issue of why we had that conversation? We have the federal Department of Education telling us that we are not appropriately meeting the needs of students who are receiving special education services. We're not meeting their needs. We haven't been for five years. We have had an achievement gap that was unacceptable to the federal government. This didn't come out of left field. We have been talking about the fact that we have an achievement gap that is leaving those most vulnerable students behind. COVID didn't help it. We have to address it. We have to address it. So, is there some potential impact to rural districts? There could be. And if they aren't meeting the needs of students, Erin, there should be, right? Our purpose as legislators in setting up the rules for education is that we're meeting the needs of students. And if the systems that we have are not meeting the needs of students, shouldn't we change the systems that we have? The AEA bill that we ultimately passed includes a task force to oversee the changes that we have made and to make further recommendations in case the path we chose forward didn't do the right things. But to layer in transparency and where dollars are going, to layer in oversight that doesn't come from an internal source within the AEAs, to layer in local control that puts money in the hands of the school board members and administrators and teachers who are actually serving the kids day-to-day, to put the money in their hands to make the determinations that are in the best interest of the students that they serve daily and to increase teacher salaries for the teachers in the classrooms with those students so that we can recruit and retain the best and the brightest in our classrooms, Erin, those are good things that do nothing but improve our systems and increase student achievement over time.

Henderson: Senator, we've got a lot of questions on other topics.

Sinclair: You can tell I'm passionate about this.

Henderson: One final one on education. Speaking of local control, are you comfortable with letting school boards and school officials decide to go to a four-day school week?

Sinclair: I'm comfortable with this. I have started the process of looking at the results. We always want to know how this is impacting student achievement, how this is impacting families who utilize public schools. We know from surveys, such as through the chamber alliance, that parents use our school systems, both public and non-public, as child care and child care is a big issue. So, there are some concerns in the background. But I think that those locally-elected school boards are going to know their communities better than we at the Statehouse might. We gave them the flexibility to use either days or hours in serving the educational needs of their students and unless the data prove us otherwise in student achievement or in a family's ability to maintain meaningful work, I'm happy letting those local districts make those decisions. But don't kid yourself, Kay, I am keeping an eye on that student achievement data. When this really started becoming a trend, I started tracking the districts that went to four-day weeks to see how it was impacting student achievement. It's a small enough number right now there are no real trendlines to say that it's helping or harming. And so, at this point I think it's a great experiment in local control and letting communities determine what looks best for their students.

Sostaric: This session on the Senate floor you passionately defended a bill that would protect pesticide makers from lawsuits related to cancer and other illnesses. What have you heard from the, Bayer particularly was lobbying for that bill, what did you hear from Bayer that made you so convinced that it's necessary to block those kinds of lawsuits in Iowa?

Sinclair: I will never block a lawsuit of a person who has been harmed by a product. What the bill did, and I will just say this and say full stop afterwards, what the bill did was protect manufacturers from being sued for failure to warn folks when they were labeling their products exactly as the EPA mandated. If they don't label properly, absolutely, sue them. If there was actual harm caused, absolutely, sue them. An individual deserves the protection of our court system for that. But I would suggest that we are an agricultural state. One in every four dollars that the state of Iowa brings in from a state government perspective comes from agriculture. We are able to have such a vibrant farming economy, agriculture economy because we support and embrace changes in technology that help our farmers to be more efficient and effective. We feed the world. We feed the world. And if there are frivolous lawsuits that are frankly being funded by people in nations that are our enemies, the dollars behind those lawsuits are coming from countries like Russia and China. If we are allowing lawsuits to happen to a company who is doing nothing but following the labeling instructions that they have been required to provide, that harms Iowa overall.

Murphy: Senator Sinclair, another bill that didn't pass this session deals with eminent domain over the use of carbon capture pipelines. This is another one where the House republicans and Senate republicans have a different view. Your caucus Senate republicans have, for multiple sessions now, chosen to not advance on that legislation. I'm curious looking ahead, and we have an election this fall, this is something that a lot of voters, a lot of landowners are very passionate about and very upset that legislation hasn't moved forward. Do you have any concern that this is a ballot box type of issue that could hurt some of your caucus members?

Sinclair: Well, as we were discussing before we went on air, I live on a farm too. I couldn't be a more passionate advocate for property rights. Our caucus didn't have a consensus on how to move forward in balancing protecting property rights with maintaining, again we go back to that agricultural system that Iowa is dependent on, carbon capture pipelines fall under the same category as petroleum products, our diesel and our gasoline, it falls into the same category as propane pipelines and natural gas pipelines. All of those are necessary and are a public good and are private companies that are sourcing those. For us to find a change in how we regulate those carbon capture pipelines, we need to make sure that what we do doesn't impact those other areas as well. It's essential that we have a strong and standard regulatory system that allows for us to balance that overarching property rights with the predictable regulatory climate. Our caucus didn't find a consensus among the bills that were presented to us on how to move forward with that.

Henderson: As I mentioned at the onset, you were a Wayne County Supervisor and we have a question about your view of county government.

Sostaric: Yeah, in the past few years the republican trifecta has passed a lot of laws limiting what counties can do, like can't raise the minimum wage, can't ban plastic bags, can't have guaranteed income. As a former supervisor, does that ever give you pause limiting county powers like that?

Sinclair: Most of those don't. Most of those are broader statewide economic issues and we need to have a standard across the board on many of those issues. I think to minimum wage, we can't have a patchwork of minimum wage laws across the state --

Murphy: We have a patchwork of states across the country. Why is counties across the state not okay?

Sinclair: Well, so therein lies the difference. Right, Erin? We were established as a nation as a representative republic and what a republic has is a bunch of sovereign states that join together to create a union. States aren't that. We have states that chose to divide itself up for purposes of ease of implementing laws into counties and cities. It's quite the reverse. The state exists and counties and cities are political subdivisions, and I think this is the important key, of the state. They have local authority in so much as that it doesn't violate state law. That is what all of our laws in the Constitution say. The purpose of local government, yes, is to meet the needs of local folks, but within the framework of the overarching state government. And so, for us to have a standard of state governance for all of our states, particularly in those vital economic areas, is essential.

Henderson: Senator, you have been in the Senate for more than a decade. Will you ever run for anything else like Governor?

Sinclair: I never close doors, but it is not in my plan.

Henderson: Well, my plan here is to end the conversation because we're out of time. Thank you for joining us today.

Sinclair: Thank you, Kay.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at For all of the folks at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.


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 a family-run business rooted in Iowa. We believe our employees are part of our family and we strive to improve their quality of life and the quality of lives within the communities we serve.

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