Iowa Senate Majority Leader

Iowa Press | Episode
May 27, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Sen. Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny), Iowa Senate Majority Leader, discusses the 2022 legislative session, which adjourned this week.

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

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



State lawmakers wrapped up the 2022 legislative session this week. We'll look back and discuss what they did and didn't do. Our guest, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, 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, May 27th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Just in case you were sleeping Wednesday morning at 12:10 a.m., the Iowa Senate concluded its work for the year, the Iowa House of Representatives adjourned about six minutes later if you were keeping track. Some of us at this table were. Our guest this week is Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver. He is a republican from Ankeny. He was in the room where it happens where you were making decisions for the shutdown of the 2022 legislative session. Welcome back.

Whitver: Thank you for having me again.

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

Murphy: Senator Whitver, one of the bills that did not make it to the finish line this year for a second straight year was Governor Reynolds' school choice proposal putting taxpayer funding to private school tuition assistance, scholarship. The Governor has made it fairly clear that she plans to make that an issue on the campaign trail, talk about that with Iowa voters and hopefully take another crack at it next year if she survives re-election. Is that your plan as well? Will that be the top priority in the --

Whitver: Yeah, absolutely, this has been a priority of our caucus for several years and obviously disappointed that we didn't get it across the finish line. But really this is an issue that we strongly feel that parents need a bigger seat at the table when it comes to the education of their children and we want to empower parents. And over the last two years there have been so many issues that have popped up related to schools. And back in 2020 it was should our kids go to school? Then it was, should they be wearing masks? What are the vaccine policies? And then different concerns that parents are bringing to us. And ultimately we decided, we can sit here and play whack-a-mole every time a new issue comes up or we can try to give parents more choice in where their kids go to school. And so we're obviously disappointed that it didn't get across the finish line. But obviously the Governor is extremely passionate about it and our caucus is as well. So I don't see that issue going away.

Murphy: And to that point you're disappointed because your caucus has passed it two years in a row now and both years it did not pass in the House. Governor Reynolds has now actually endorsed some challengers to sitting House republicans in hopes of getting more people who will support that legislation. Is that, are you happy to see that? Does that make you a little uneasy as the leader of your own caucus?

Whitver: The thing I love about our Governor is she is conservative, she is passionate and she is competitive. And you guys talked to her about her agenda, she is passionate about the issues she brings forward. And there's a lot of governors across the country over time that bring milk toast agendas, 85% issues are easy to get done. She doesn't do that, she brings tough issues and that is what we want to work on is tough issues, we want to go find the tough solutions. But she is obviously extremely passionate about this and I'm not surprised that she wants to find people that will support her passions.

Gruber-Miller: There was another educated-related item on the agenda all year, you all talked about transparency in schools around curriculum and library books, you talked about a parents bill of rights and then the last week we saw your session wrapped up with no proposal on that topic. Why not?

Whitver: Yeah, that issue was something that the Governor brought forward, the House brought forward, the Senate brought forward and we all had different ideas. And so trying to meld those together was one thing. That ended up being part of the larger education reform bill that we have sent to the House. So it was in the same bill that has the ESAs and we just kind of made a joint decision that it's either all going to go or we're going to continue to work on it. But the entire bill to me is about empowering parents in their kids' education and when the bigger part, the House didn't find the votes for the bigger part we decided we're going to keep working on it and we'll come back next year.

Murphy: That just seemed like such a surprise because it was a topic that so many republicans were passionate about to just give up all together. Why not at least pass something and come back next year?

Whitver: I think over the last month so much time was spent on the ESA part that we didn't really dive into the transparency part to sort through those differences and really it just came down to either we're going to pass the bill on parental rights or we're not. And it ended up the House didn't have the votes for it.

Gruber-Miller: One thing you did do in the final day was getting rid of the March 1st deadline for students to open enroll in other school districts. How do you feel like that fits into the education agenda? Why is that important?

Whitver: I've been on this show before during COVID talking about school choice means different things to different people. That might mean whether I can go from one public school to another public school or from one public school to a charter school or a public to private. So school choice means a lot of different things. And that open enrollment we think is a really important part of that public to public choice. And so this is just if you are not satisfied or if your kid is being bullied or if you for whatever reason want to open enroll to a different public school, you can do so even after the March 1st deadline. That deadline has been there, but we think it's important -- it's a drastic decision to pick up and move your kids in the middle of the school year to a different school. And so it has to be something pretty serious that the family feels they want to move their kid. So I don't think that will happen a lot but we've had instances pop up in different schools in the last even month after the March 1st deadline to where now the parents can't choose and we wanted to try to fix that.

Gruber-Miller: Can you be specific about some of those instances you're talking about because the law as it exists had already had exceptions for bullying and things like that. So what are you referring to here?

Whitver: Yeah, really anything the parents find that they don't like about that school. And so obviously one of the high profile ones is what was going on in Marion and when they rolled out a transgender policy shortly after that March 1st deadline. Parents are saying, what is our alternative? And we don't think there is one. And so we wanted to open that up. But that's just one. It could be anything. If a parent feels a different school is better, we're from Ankeny, Erin, and it might be like the class sizes are way too big here and we're at a point where we want to move, now they can move to a school that is willing to accept them.

Henderson: One last question on this education topic. Last year the Governor proposed a plan that was very lean, it just applied to a few schools for sending students from those public schools to a private school. This was far larger, $55 million. How did you get more votes for something that was bigger and not for something that was smaller?

Whitver: That's a good question. Last year it was smaller, it basically dealt with what we call the 34 failing schools or schools that are failing their kids according to the federal rankings. This one was more wide open and I think it's just because we hear from more and more parents about things that they are concerned about in their schools and we can't possibly fix everything legislatively. We've tried that in certain instances but we don't have enough time to only legislate what we're hearing from our local schools. And so as we're talking to members it's like, this is the ultimate choice for parents and we need to open it up and allow parents to make that choice.

Henderson: On the final day of the legislative session, you passed a moratorium that essentially means that the city of Cedar Rapids cannot apply for a casino license for a third time. Why did you do that?

Whitver: Well, over the last few years there have been a lot of changes to our gaming laws in the state of Iowa. And then there's been changes that will affect Iowa like Nebraska bringing casinos on board. And so there's a lot of gaming fatigue within the Capitol, including our caucus, and there were a couple of changes that the casinos wanted to make this year that really aren't that drastic of changes but one thing that our people wanted to see is they don't believe we need another casino right now and they wanted to take a little pause and see how Nebraska shakes out, see how our new gaming laws, including sports betting, are really shaking out before we build another casino. And so really it wasn't a tough thing to get passed. We took it to caucus in probably 20 seconds, people were like sounds good, you saw the debate on the floor, there wasn't a single comment and the people that voted no were largely people that don't support any gaming so they vote no on every gaming bill. And so really I would say more than anything it's a fatigue of a lot of the gaming bills that we've passed. And so people just said, we just want to put a pause and see how this shakes out over the next couple of years.

Murphy: To that there is a state Racing and Gaming Commission in place that typically handles those questions and issues those licenses. Why did the legislature need to get involved right now and not leave that decision to the Commission?

Whitver: Historically we have left it up to them but the legislature is down there, we're trying to make good policy on what we think is best for Iowans and like I said, there's just kind of, especially after the sports gaming bill that passed there's so many ads, so much talk about gaming that people are like, we just need to put a pause on this.

Murphy: Obligated to ask you about the bottle bill as I often do. So, this year something was actually done on the state's deposit recycling law, years and years and years of talk on this and years and years of reporters' questions. Some changes were made and there's some difference of opinions about whether or not they will be good for the program's long-term solvency. Was that your goal to keep the program healthy for the long-term? And do you feel that this legislation will do that?

Whitver: Yeah, well first of all, I'm very proud that we were actually finally able to get a bill passed. It has been 40 years plus that this law has been in place with zero changes. And every time I'm on here you guys ask, every time I laugh and say, probably not because no one can agree. I'm glad the Iowa Senate finally stood up and we got the different parties in the room from the beer distributors to the grocery stores to the redemption centers to the average Iowan, what is best for all of those groups? And I think we put together a pretty good bill. And we passed it over to the House and really within a short amount of time that spurred action in the House and we finally got agreement. I didn't pass it until the last day or two of session. But I'm proud that we got agreement on that and really Iowans spoke up, have spoken up over the years and they support the bottle bill. I think it's in the 80% range. And so we wanted a program that works because one cent for the redemption centers for every can just doesn't work anymore. One cent isn't the same as it was in the 1970s, frankly it's not the same as it was a year ago under this economy. And so we wanted to get more money into the redemption centers. And so now they're getting three cents per can, so instead of one they're getting three, that's three times the revenue obviously and so we think that will increase the amount of redemption centers across the state but also get it out of the grocery stores because let's face it, it's disgusting to take those cans through Hy-Vee in the cart that I'm about to put my groceries in and take them into grocery stores. And so we think redemption centers would be the right model and we think this will help with that.

Murphy: But to that a lot of people still like to take them to the grocery store. Are there going to be enough places for them once their local Hy-Vee does stop doing it?

Whitver: We'll see how it plays out. We put a little bit of a gap before the grocery stores can get rid of the cans. I think you're going to see more mobile stations pop up in the parking lot of a grocery store. But you're also going to see more of the traditional redemption stores. Growing up in Grinnell, we didn't take them to Hy-Vee, we just took them down to the redemption center and I think you're going to see more of that than we have over the last decade.

Gruber-Miller: I want to move to another topic, one of the other things that passed in the last day of the session was a fix to a gun law loosening regulations last year and you had to come back and fix it this year because it inadvertently allowed 16 and 17 year olds to have guns when they shouldn't have. Given the mass shooting that we saw this week in Texas, I'm wondering, are there things the legislature needs to be doing to come in and tighten gun laws to make it harder for people who might be dangerous to get a hold of them?

Whitver: Well, certainly the situations and incidents we've seen in Texas and in New York are tragedies. I can't imagine, having a first, a third and a fifth grader myself, sending my kid off to school or dropping them off at school and them not coming home. It's an unspeakable tragedy. But you look at some of these incidents, you have New York which has some of the strongest gun control laws in America and then you have Texas which is a little bit more open as far as supporting the Second Amendment and there's crimes happening in both of those. And so what we'd really like to and need to look at is the underlying issues that would cause someone to wake up in the morning, walk out of their house and say, I'm going to ruin my life and a lot of other people's lives. So first I'd look at mental health. That is one thing that we have worked extremely hard on over the last few years is mental health. We have reformed the entire adult system. Governor Reynolds, the minute she was sworn in as Governor, gave her first speech and laid out a children's mental health system. The state has never had a children's mental health system. We implemented that, put it into place. And then the third thing is funding and we have in the last year developed a long-term sustainable funding source for mental health issues and that will go up over time with inflation so that it's funded long-term, it's not frozen in time like our last. So mental health is a big part of it. The other thing that you look at some of these incidents and I would look at East High School in Des Moines and Texas and the common denominator of those is the shooters largely dropped out of school. The Texas shooter was failing school and wasn't going to graduate, going to be a dropout and that caused a downward spiral. You look at the incident in Des Moines at East High School, 13 people were involved with that. One ended up dead, two in the hospital and ten will likely go to prison for life if they are convicted. And so over COVID we had schools that were literally locking kids out of school. And we know how important getting kids in school not just for the academic part but that is a big part of their social network and when we locked them out of their school we lost some of those kids and some of them joined gangs and now ten of them are going to possibly be going to prison for life. And so that is why as Senate republicans and as republicans in general, last September the thing that we campaigned on the hardest is we're going to get your kids in school. And that seems like a no brainer decision when you look back at it in history, but at the time that was the hottest decision that we had to make, one of the hardest. And we stood up and said we're going to do it, in January of 2021 we passed the law, the Governor signed it and we got our kids back in school, one of only two or three states that got that done. So we really need to look at the underlying issues as well, but as far as any changes to the gun laws, we haven't had any conversations about what might happen next year. Frankly, we just got done 48 hours ago so we haven't had any conversations on that.

Gruber-Miller: I want to pick up on one of the things you said though which is stopping people who decide to go out and obviously ruin lives like this. People argue that red flag laws are a solution that could allow you to address that, right, by looking for warning signs and being able to intervene so that they cannot legally access a gun. Is that a solution that could be on the table?

Whitver: Well, I know New York has a red flag law and I know that the shooter from Buffalo was in a hospital for mental health issues and he wasn't even flagged under the red flag law. So, like I said, I really think we need to look at the underlying issues that would cause someone to want to commit these heinous acts.

Murphy: Just real quick on that, what is the unique issue here in our country because other countries have problems with mental health issues, other countries had problems with the pandemic, other countries' kids watch video games and violent movies, etcetera, etcetera but mass shootings and especially in schools are such a bigger problem here than everywhere else. Why is that?

Whitver: Yeah, I don't have an answer to that. I've never looked at every country and their laws and how many mass shootings they have. I don't have that answer. But obviously it's something that our society will continue to have the conversation about and continue to look into.

Murphy: Speaking of this fall real quick, Iowa voters are going to be asked whether to put similar language to the federal Second Amendment into the Iowa Constitution that is actually even a little more strongly worded. Given everything that we've seen not just this past week but in other recent tragedies all over the country, do you think it is still wise for Iowans to vote into the State Constitution something that would make it difficult in many ways to enact new or enforce current gun regulations?

Whitver: I absolutely support that part of the Constitution. But what I support even more is giving the choice to Iowans. That is how we amend our Constitution here in the state of Iowa and so that will go the voters and every voter that shows up in November will have an opportunity to say yes or no whether to put that in the Constitution and that's the way it should be.

Henderson: One of the final bills that passed the legislature dealt with deer hunting and actually the overpopulation. The legislature decided to set up a new hunting season in January where there is overpopulation and allow the use of AR-15s. Why is that necessary?

Whitver: Well, it's more about the caliber of ammunition to use, the 223, which if you look at it we're one of about only 10 states to not allow that. But really the impetus of the bill is, if you drive anywhere outside of the Metro and sometimes even in the Metro for 30 minutes, you're going to see a lot of deer on the side of the road. We're overpopulated and it causes a tremendous amount of property damage to people's cars. And so we want to be able to control some of that population by adding that additional season for those hunters that want to go out and get the antlerless deer. And so we think it's a way to continue to have our traditionally strong trophy bucks and tourism hunting and strong hunting culture in Iowa, but also control the population so that you don't have to be afraid of hitting a deer every time you drive in the dark.

Gruber-Miller: You ended the legislative session this year without passing any major abortion-related legislation. I know we're waiting on the U.S. Supreme Court decision that could involve Roe v. Wade. We're also waiting on an Iowa Supreme Court decision. If you get clarity from those two courts, would you come back for a special session before the election and pass restrictions on abortion?

Whitver: I think there's a lot of things to sort out there. So number one, we haven't had any conversation with the Governor or the Speaker or our caucus about any special session to come back and address it. Really the Roe v. Wade decision or I guess the Dobbs decision would have to come out probably sometime in June. I don't even know if our court will take up or address the specific issue in the 24-hour wait period bill they have. The heartbeat bill still has an injunction on it out there. So there's so many moving parts. But Iowa is one of I think about 12 states that even if the Dobbs decision totally eliminates the Roe v. Wade case, we still have our State Constitution ruling by our Supreme Court saying that abortion is a fundamental right. And so until that is addressed there's nothing that the legislature can really do. So I know the question was if that gets addressed will we do anything? I don't know that at this time. Really it's a wait and see, which is what I've said the last two or three times I've been on here.

Gruber-Miller: What are the restrictions you would like to see on abortion though if those things happen?

Whitver: I haven't talked about it, we haven't talked about it as a caucus and so I'm just going to wait and see how it plays out before we start putting together what we think might be the proposal that we would work on.

Murphy: You passed a moratorium on new casinos. One moratorium you did not pass this session was on the use of eminent domain to acquire land for pipeline projects. The House did pass that. Your caucus actually took that out. What is your message to landowners who are concerned right now and maybe don't want to have to give up their land for these, to let these pipeline projects come through?

Whitver: Well, number one, the moratorium that the House put in place was a moratorium on using eminent domain until next February with the goal of we're not going to let anything happen while we're out of session. Working with the companies that are looking at building pipelines, they have all agreed to file that no one is even going to have a hearing until at least March. So we got actually another month from what the House even proposed, it just didn't require legislation to do it. And so the message to landowners is we're watching this very carefully. We understand the importance of keeping a strong ethanol culture here in the state of Iowa and having an ethanol industry that can export to all the other states that now have different carbon standards. We also understand eminent domain. And so we want to watch the process. And I do know that talking to some of the companies that have built these pipelines, they have never used eminent domain, they have built these without it. And so that would be the hope and the goal is we can get a pipeline built without having to use eminent domain anywhere in the state of Iowa.

Murphy: What was that discussion like in your caucus? This is one of those rare issues that doesn't necessarily fall democrat versus republican. You had a senator who ran legislation on this and held a hearing. I'm just curious what that conversation was like within your group on this issue.

Whitver: Well, there's a lot of different things to consider about whether you're changing the process in the middle, changing the rules in the middle of the process versus what is good for the ethanol industry and ultimately the most important is what is good for our landowners and property owners. So there's a lot of different viewpoints there. But again, we're going to watch the process and continue to see if something needs to be done.

Henderson: In 2018, the republican-led legislature and republican Governor approved tax cuts, approved another series of tax cuts last year and then this year's tax cut package was signed into law on March 1st. Now that maybe you've done that project, what is the next big project for republicans?

Whitver: I think, thank you for pointing out all three of those. We have been very determined to continue to reform our tax climate in the state of Iowa over the last six years and I think we have done a really good job. We're going to go from 8.5% down to 3.9%, which is going to be one of the lowest in the country of the states that have an income tax. So we're very proud of that work. We need to make sure that we have continued conservative budgeting so that those tax cuts can go in and be sustainable. So I don't see a lot of action on the income tax side for a while. I think one of the hottest issues next year at this time is going to be property taxes because with inflation and with the value of homes going up, those new assessments are going to be coming out and your tax bill is going to go with it. And so a lot of that is going to be determined by the local cities and schools and counties on if they're going to adjust their levies to account for your house now being worth $400,000 instead of $300,000 or $200,000 instead of $100,000. But that is going to be a really important topic for a lot of Iowans who are concerned about they're happy their house went up in value but they don't want to pay 20% more tax because of it.

Henderson: I covered the legislature when somebody held up a blank sheet of paper and said, we're going to start from scratch and we're going to fix this property tax thing. It never happened because once you pull one thread, you pull a lot of others. Are you really going to be able to do any reform?

Whitver: Well, what we've decided over the last couple of years is a couple of things. Number one, we in Iowa use so many different, we use property tax for so many different things. It's the city, it's the school, it's the county, it's your county hospital, it's your county transit, it's the community colleges and one of the things we identified last year was mental health. We're the only state in  the country that continue to pay for mental health with property taxes. And so we said, if we really want to reduce property taxes we need to start taking some of these things off of the local taxpayer, especially things like social services that should be at the state. And so we did that, we took mental health off of the property taxes. So from a bigger picture we're starting to say, you know what, we need to look at how many things we're using property taxes for and change that. That's number one. The other thing is we can do a lot of different things at the state level, but if the cities just want to go ahead and capture all of that growth of assessment without lowering their levy, a lot of it is on your cities and counties. So they have to make the adjustment. So for example, when we did take mental health off of the local property taxes, on average it was probably about a 30 cent decline for the county taxes. Some counties passed all of that on and said, we're going to reduce your taxes by 30 cents. Some said, we're not going to do that, we're just going to keep it all and they didn't reduce it at all. And so it has to be a partnership between what we're putting in policy at the state but also working with your locals to make sure that they're keeping it in check.

Henderson: Well, there's one thing we really can't change on this program and that is how long it runs.

Whitver: That was fast.

Henderson: Thank you again for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press.

Whitver: Thank you for having me.

Henderson: We'll have you back probably before the fall election to figure out what you're going to present to voters.

Whitver: Sounds good, thank you.

Henderson: Thanks for watching at home. You can watch at our regular broadcast times, Friday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at noon. You can watch any episode online at iowapbsorg. 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