Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 15, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we gather Iowa political reporters for a roundtable discussion that covers the ongoing Iowa legislative session and recent political developments in the state.

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


An Iowa legislative session entering its final days, a presidential trip to Iowa focusing on biofuels and a litany of Iowa political developments. We gather a Reporters' Roundtable on this edition of Iowa Press.


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. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at


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, April 15th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Gathered around this Iowa Press table today, a group of reporters who have been covering things like a presidential visit to an ethanol plant and state government, where it seems as if the legislature is not doing much in the past week. Our guests this week are Katarina Sostaric, she is the State Government Reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Welcome back, Katarina. Stephen Gruber-Miller is the Statehouse Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Welcome back to you. And also Erin Murphy, he is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Henderson: Let's first talk about the Iowa Caucuses. The Democratic National Committee has a rules and bylaws committee that is discussing just sort of a fruit basket upset of the schedule for presidential primaries, and I emphasize the word primaries, because the party has been encouraging states to get rid of caucuses. Of course, Iowa has not. Erin, give us a read on what is happening with the Iowa Caucuses and if they will survive in 2024.

Murphy: Oh, so you're going to start the show by making me be the heavy, deliver the bad news, huh? It doesn't look great for Iowa's first-in-the-nation status. Stephen's colleague, Brianne Pfannenstiel with some great reporting yesterday on what the DNC has decided and the rules that they have set up. States still get to apply, so theoretically there is still a chance for Iowa to be first. Everybody has to apply to be in that early voting window. They have carved out spots for five states if I remember the number right. So we have a chance, but there's rules in what they're looking for in those states, and Iowa is going to have a really hard case to make that they belong in that group because they're still a caucus state, to your point, and it would take a state law change for them to go to a primary. Hard to see republicans doing that. And because of the demographics of the state. It's a very, very, very steep uphill climb now for Iowa as what is being currently constructed.

Henderson: Stephen, one of the other requirements for this group of early states would be battleground status in the General Election in 2024. So, what is your read on what is going on?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, I think there is a lot of national democrats who won't like Iowa right now for several reasons, one of which is that President Donald Trump won the state twice. Another is it's a caucus state. Another is it is a largely white state. They're not voting to approve this entirely new process just so that they can give Iowa the first place again. It seems pretty clear. So I think it's going to be an issue here.

Henderson: And how do you change this thing because there was a party group that met after the 2016 caucuses on the democratic side and they talked about making changes and then they decided, oh we're going to keep all this complicated caucus math? What is the discussion like within the Iowa Democratic Party and activists?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn has said that they are going to talk to stakeholders around Iowa, they're going to find ways to make the process more transparent, more open, make sure that people can participate, which they are hoping will meet the criteria for national democrats to still give them a place at the front of the line. But, like you said, they tried to do that for 2020 and there were issues. They tried to do a virtual caucus system that was shot down by the DNC over cybersecurity concerns. They've had trouble in the past. And then the other thing is, it's just always a tricky dance between Iowa and other states like New Hampshire who holds the first primary, anything democrats do to be too close to a primary could get them in trouble.

Murphy: Yeah, which may be less of a problem now because New Hampshire is in the same spot. They're tossed out and they have to apply to get back in. But even if you, to Stephen's point, the democrats have tried to make it more accessible, more transparent, more like an actual primary and less like a caucus. But it still at the end of the day is a caucus and that is still going to be an issue with a lot of national democrats. And Iowa is still going to be 97% white at the end of the day and that is still going to be an issue. So even if you go through all of these procedures to try and appease the people who don't like caucuses, you've still got the demographics issue that just isn't going to change.

Henderson: Well, and there is truly a debate within the party about whether they should have these things.

Murphy: That's right, yeah, and that's the other thing, you don't even have 100% of your own Iowa Democratic Party structure on board with this. There are many Iowa democrats who are fine with the caucuses going away even if it means Iowa is no longer first.

Henderson: Now, we have been talking about the Iowa Democratic Party Caucuses, which are completely different from the Iowa Republican Party Caucuses. Katarina, what is happening with the 2024 schedule for the Iowa Republican Party Caucuses?

Sostaric: It seems like the Iowa republicans have a much better chance of keeping their first-in-the-nation status at this point. The Republican Party of Iowa Chair Jeff Kaufmann is also the Chair of the Republican National Committee's committee that decides the process or makes recommendations for the process of the presidential nominating calendar. So that shows that Iowa has influence still among national republicans in terms of deciding the order of the presidential nominating states. And candidates have been, potential 2024 republican presidential candidates have been coming here. Mike Pompeo was just here and there has been several others who have already been visiting the state.

Henderson: Like President Trump.

Murphy: And that sets up the very interesting and real possibility that we could wind up with two different nominating schedules, at least in the early part of the calendar, which used to be the case, it's been a while though. We're dialing way back to get to the point where republicans, Iowa had republicans and democrats went on different days. But that is looking like Iowa republicans could be first but Iowa democrats may not be.

Gruber-Miller: And I don't think that national democrats maybe understand fully how much of a mess that could create in all of these different states where you have, like we talked about earlier, you need a state law change to change Iowa's Caucus process even though the caucuses are run by the political parties. And so multiply that by 50 states and a democratic and a republican party in each of those states and it could get really complicated.

Henderson: Stephen, on Tuesday of this past week a candidate that you covered during the Iowa Caucus campaign returned to the state, sort of a surprise that President Biden would choose to make a big announcement here, but explain what happened.

Gruber-Miller: Yes, fourth place Iowa Caucuses finisher Joe Biden has returned for the first time since the 2020 election. He came to Iowa and he went to, as you alluded to in your opening, Menlo, Iowa where there is an ethanol plant to announce that he is putting in place a waiver for ethanol with, or gasoline with 15% ethanol to be sold year round and that is supposed to help bring down gas prices, which have been high, particularly after Russia invaded Ukraine. So the ethanol announcement was a big one that has been pushed for by both democrats and republicans here in Iowa. And he was also here to sort of do double duty and talk about the infrastructure law he signed that is supposed to bring $5 billion to Iowa over the next years for bridges, airports, roads, water, broadband, other upgrades.

Henderson: Erin, you were in the barn where distiller's grain is stored that is a byproduct of --

Murphy: And I didn't get any on my jacket, so there was no question about what happened there.

Henderson: Exactly. Anyway, so what was the significance in your view of making this announcement in Iowa?

Murphy: Yeah, I think that's interesting. What he clearly got out of it was a great visual. He was in this huge facility with this gigantic pile of distilled grain pouring in literally beside him, unfortunately getting a little on his jacket and becoming a meme.

Henderson: And for those of us who were in the room, I had stuff all over me too when I left.

Murphy: Yeah, I'm so grateful my allergies haven't gone nuts this week. But there are barns and ethanol facilities in other states too. So it is kind of interesting that he chose Iowa. Now, he has been in other states already to talk infrastructure. He was in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, maybe the combination of Iowa obviously being a huge corn producing and ethanol, renewable fuels producing state was the draw to come to a place to make that specific announcement about E-15, Iowa makes sense for that reason.

Henderson: But wasn't it interesting who was there with him? Congresswoman Cindy Axne. And this is a facility that is in her district.

Murphy: Yeah, she kind of had to be I think maybe because it's in her district. None of the other democratic candidates were there.

Henderson: Democrats are making a decision, do I want to appear in the same frame with a very unpopular President? Or do I want to continue to support him physically by supporting these policies very actively? Stephen, what is your view on the significance of that visit and how it might impact Axne's race for re-election?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, Cindy Axne has not been hiding the fact that she needs to run and hopefully in her case win on Joe Biden's agenda, which is the infrastructure law, which is some of these other moves he's making on E-15, the American Rescue Plan. These are the things that she needs to tout as accomplishments if she's going to win. And so she has made the decision that she can greet Joe Biden at the airport, she can give him a hug there and republicans can put out a press release saying, Axne is literally embracing Biden. But that is what she has calculated that she has to do to win. And so for the President to come to Iowa and say, Cindy Axne has done a heck of a job and she has been a champion for you, she is taking that credit.

Henderson: Katarina, you and I in our email inboxes got a bunch of written statements from republicans saying, thank you but, and you and I were at a news event where Governor Reynolds talked about this. What did she say?

Sostaric: Right, so she has thanked Joe Biden for allowing this year round use of E-15, which she has made it clear she's not a huge fan of Joe Biden, she gave the rebuttal to his State of the Union Address last month. But she is saying that she actually hopes this move will also boost her proposal to boost ethanol in the state. She has a bill in the legislature that would require gas stations to sell higher blends of ethanol fuel at more of their pumps. There is also a waiver involved for gas stations to get out of that as well. But the House has passed that and the Senate has not. So that is something that she says she hopes this kind of just gins up more support for that bill to pass.

Murphy: And Governor Reynolds talked about a project she is working on with other Midwest governors that would apply and the details are still in progress. I'm kind of vague on this, but essentially a waiver for a group of Midwestern states to be able to sell E-15 year round and that is a bipartisan group of governors that are working with the White House on this. So that is something that the Governor is also trying to move the ball on ethanol on.

Gruber-Miller: And she said that that is one of the sticking points she has heard from gas stations, you can't tell us to sell E-15, that we have to sell E-15 when we can't sell it in the summer. And so if the federal government allows them to do that, that could take care of one of those concerns.

Henderson: Katarina, the legislature's primary responsibility in many respects is passage of a budget. That hasn't happened yet. It seemed as if there was not much happening at the Statehouse this week in public. Is anything happening in private?

Sostaric: Well, what I'm hearing from sources is that the Governor and Senate republicans are making a really big push to pass an education bill that one of the main points of it, one of the main sticking points is state-funded scholarships that families could use to send their kids to private schools. So that is something, the Senate has passed this bill, this is the second year in a row that Governor Reynolds is making it a priority. She said she is fully focused on this when she is talking to lawmakers. And House republicans just have not had enough support within their group to pass it in the House.

Murphy: And it's not particularly close if you believe what we're hearing from folks close to the House republican caucus. It's not a matter of they're a vote or two or three shy of getting this thing passed, we're talking into the dozen to 15 to 20 range.

Henderson: Well, and just to do the math here, there are 60 republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives, you need 51 to pass a bill.

Murphy: Yeah, and it sounds like we're at 40, maybe 45. So there's a lot of room to be made up. And there are some within that group that are just no, no matter what. There are some persuadables, but there's a percentage of that group that is just not going to move and they have said as much even publicly a number of them. So there is a big lift still to be done there if it can be done.

Henderson: So, Stephen, the Governor made a similar proposal last year. It was revamped this year. What happens next year?

Gruber-Miller: Right, so the Governor has tried to do this before, this is the second attempt and it's the same obstacles. The House republican caucus, don't ask me to predict the future, but as of right now the House republican caucus does not have the votes to pass it. Like Erin said, there are people who have been public about this, some of them are retiring, some of them might face primary challengers this year, there is an election coming up. So I thought it was interesting this week that the Governor said that she's not giving up on this and she might try again next year if she needs to. And so perhaps she waits and sees what the election map creates as far as an opportunity for more favorable votes. But I don't know if she has quite made that decision yet, it seems like she is still making that push this year. And she had tried to sort of win over some of the rural lawmakers with language designed to sort of siphon some of the money that they would lose and then kind of bring it back to them but --

Murphy: But then that lost her votes going the other direction because you had a Quad Cities area republican saying that part of it was the reason he is now a no on it because it would take money away from his urban school and send it to a rural area school. I think if this does get done, I think the pitch on the vouchers, the scholarship, tuition assistance, whatever you want to call it, that pitch is over, everybody knows where they are on that. If it gets done it is by packaging votes between these other bills that are still hanging out there. There is a bill on unemployment benefits, there is a bill, the ethanol bill, there is the bottle bill, God help us all. So there's four or five major bills that are still out there and I think if the K-12 private school tuition bill gets done it is because they strike a deal that says if you give me a vote for this, we'll give you a vote for that one, both of these bills happen. I don't know if that is going to happen or not but I think that is the only avenue left for this session.

Henderson: Katarina, we know something that is going to happen. The Governor announced last week that in two years in 2024 the Glenwood Resource Center will be closing. What led to that decision?

Sostaric: Well, the Governor says that it was a tough decision but that basically the state couldn't find a way to meet the U.S. Department of Justice's requirements for them. There have been a couple of DOJ investigations of the center. One was a couple of years ago and involved, they found that there was human experimentation on residents of the center and these are people with severe disabilities and also just inadequate medical care of people there. There was a spike in deaths at the center. And now more recently there was a finding from the federal government that Iowa has been keeping people with disabilities in too restrictive of settings, that more of them should be in home and community-based care rather than in institutions. And so what the Governor says is that as they were working with the federal government to try to come to an agreement of how to comply with their requirements for proper care, that there were in terms of funding and workforce they just couldn't find a way to keep it open is what she says.

Henderson: So what is the impact on southwest Iowa, which already saw the closure of the Mental Health Institute in Clarinda a few years ago?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, there's about 700 employees at this Glenwood Resource Center and that is a big employer in that small town. And so it is going to be a big impact on that community and sort of the surrounding communities, but it is also going to be a big impact on these residents, some of whom have not lived almost anywhere else their entire lives. These are adults, like Katarina said, with severe disabilities who this is their home and while the federal government has said that some of these folks should be in less restrictive conditions, some parents and family members have said that this is providing them the services that they need. So it's going to be a really hard decision to figure out how to move those folks to somewhere that can provide for them.

Murphy: And when you talk to those folks I think it's the unknown now that is the biggest concern, to Stephen's point, that there are families who the residents there they knew they were getting the care they needed, they knew they were safe and now what? That's the big question and that's the big concern of what's next?

Henderson: Okay, now what will the legislature do, Katarina, in regards to carbon capture pipelines? There has been a lot of discussion but nothing has come to the Governor's desk yet.

Sostaric: Still very up in the air. The House did pass an amendment to a bill that would basically put a moratorium on the pipeline company seeking eminent domain rights to take pieces of land that landowners don't want to give up for this pipeline until early next year. But the Senator who is in charge of that budget basically said he's not going to do it and that he's working on some other legislation regarding eminent domain rights but that wouldn't be ready until next year. And there's a lot of landowners who want something done now.

Murphy: And this kind of all speaks to, it's kind of interesting at the legislature right now with the, I don't know if disharmony is the right word, but the lack of agreement that we're finding between the House and Senate despite both being under republican majorities and that is why so many of these bills that we're talking about are still floating out there because the House and Senate see things very differently on a number of these bills, which is just as those of us who are observing this is kind of fascinating to watch. You think, oh it's all republican control, it's going to be smooth sailing and that is obviously not always the case.

Gruber-Miller: One of the reasons that we're still here is the Senate hasn't acted on the budgets that the House has passed and sent over and the Senate doesn't really want to act on those budgets that would let them adjourn session until they get some of the things that they want from the House, like this education student first scholarship bill, like a disagreement they have on a one week waiting period for unemployment, like some of the other things. So that is the impasse that we're at right now.

Henderson: Stephen, for the benefit of our viewers, we're having this discussion on Thursday morning. We don't yet know the outcome of a challenge of Abby Finkenauer's nominating petitions' three signatures, if they are invalidated by the court then she will not appear on the primary ballot. So aside from that, what is this whole debate showing us about the Democratic Party? If anything I've heard people at the national level say, this is just another check mark against the Iowa Caucuses happening first.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, it's a close, whether she is on the ballot or not it is a close call and she is in a situation that I think her supporters and probably she would be hoping she wasn't going to be in. She would hope that she'd be on the ballot and she could focus on running her campaign instead of making sure that she can survive. But this is not the only scare that Iowa democrats have had this year. The gubernatorial candidate, Deidre DeJear, caused really a stir earlier this year when her fundraising numbers came out and they were a lot lower than everyone expected. That doesn't bode well for her chances of taking on Governor Kim Reynolds.

Henderson: And you had a member of the Iowa House who was running, Ras Smith, who said he couldn't get people to give him money, he couldn't get big donors in the state to give him money.

Murphy: Or even have a meeting with him in some cases.

Henderson: Or even have a meeting with him. So, Erin, what is your thought on the situation?

Murphy: Well, and the other thing, so this extends beyond even those races, you've got to think about Cindy Axne in the Third District, Christina Bohannan in the Second and Liz Mathis in the First. Did I get those right?

Henderson: You did, congratulations.

Murphy: Their races are impacted by what is going on around them too, especially at the top of the ticket. So when your candidates for Senate and Governor are struggling, that's got to make them nervous, those three who are all expected to be in very close races. And you get wiped out there at the congressional level too it's a very nail biting time right now for Iowa democrats I think it's safe to say.

Henderson: So, Erin, I believe you mentioned the bottle bill and we can't end this program --

Murphy: Did I?

Henderson: You did. So we can't end this program --

Gruber-Miller: You brought this upon yourself.


Henderson: We can't end this program without talking about the prospects for some sort of change in the bottle deposit law. That was a pun, I don't know if you caught it. Anyway, what is your analysis what's going to happen?

Murphy: Well, it kind of fits in the theme of what we talked about earlier with the lack of unity in the two caucuses. The House did their bill, it's somewhat similar to but just enough differences with the Senate, who did their own bill. And now they're at an impasse. And who knows if they're going to come together. That is not one I will say that has to get done. Jack Whitver has told us here at this table --

Henderson: And he's the Senate Majority Leader, the guy who decides what is debated in the Senate.

Murphy: Thank you -- that that's not a critical bill to get done to adjournment. So we could be back here talking about the bottle bill on Iowa Press next year too.

Henderson: Well, the Senate has already passed its version of the bottle bill and the House has passed its version of the bottle bill. Stephen?

Gruber-Miller: I think the Senate likes its version. I think they could reach an agreement on this if it were a priority for the people in charge. I think the Senators and the House representatives who are working on this, they're pretty close, they could probably get an agreement. But the leaders have to decide that this is something that they want to get done this year and I think they have a lot more priorities that we've kind of discussed that they would rather get done first.

Murphy: Including one big one, the voucher bill.

Henderson: So let's not talk about leaders plural, let's talk about leader singular. We have about a minute left. Katarina, the Governor weighed in on this, this week too.

Sostaric: On the bottle bill?

Henderson: On the bottle bill.

Sostaric: Yeah, you asked her about it I believe when she was talking to reporters. And she said she is not talking about the bottle bill, she's talking about her student first scholarships is what she calls them, her proposal to give state-funded scholarships for private schools. It seems that is what she is fully focused on.

Henderson: She said, let's talk about the kids, let's not talk about the bottles and cans.

Murphy: And there is also the threat that has been made by some Senate republicans that if they don't pass a bottle bill this year they'll just come back next year and repeal the whole program. I have a hard time understanding the logic behind that. If you can't pass a tweak to the law, how do you have enough votes to repeal it all together, unless that is the feeling of the caucus that they would just rather be done with it all together?

Henderson: Well, we are done with this discussion today. Thanks to you three for coming and sharing what's in your notebooks and on your air waves and in your newspapers. Thanks for watching this edition of Iowa Press. You can watch every edition online at For everyone here at the network, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at