Iowa Senate President
On this edition of Iowa Press, Sen. Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton), Iowa Senate president, discusses what the Senate has accomplished in the first three weeks of the 2023 legislative session and what is on Republicans' agenda moving forward.
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, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.
Kay Henderson: Republicans now hold a supermajority in the Iowa Senate. We'll discuss what's on their agenda this session with Senate President Amy Sinclair 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. Elite casino resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve. 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 iowabankers.com.
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, January 27th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.
Kay Henderson: Our guest on this edition of Iowa Press is a former Wayne County supervisor. She's been in the Iowa Senate since 2013. Amy Sinclair is a Republican from Allerton. And in November, her colleagues in the Iowa Senate selected her to be president of the Senate. Amy Sinclair, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Amy Sinclair: Thanks for hosting.
Kay Henderson: Also joining the conversation are Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.
Erin Murphy: Senator Sinclair, this week, a big one in the Iowa legislature. The Republican’s proposal for private school financial aid passed and was signed into law by Governor Reynolds. I wanted to talk to you about that and ask you specifically, this proposal has been around for a few years, failed to pass across the hall from you in the House and those were actually smaller proposals. This one went even bigger. And then this one was the one that passed. Why is that? Why did you, first of all, feel the need to expand on that, given the history of those other bills and why was it successful this time?
Amy Sinclair: So I'll be honest about the expansion. I'm not the author of any of the three bills that we've looked at over the course of the last three years. Those proposals have come from the governor's office. So I guess that would be a question for her to answer on expansion. But to be clear, any of the three are investments in K-12 education for the students who are able to access those scholarships. And so expanding on it, taking the original version, I can't tell you the why behind that, but I can tell you that as a Republican caucus, we believe in a parent's right to support and educate their child as they see fit. And we believe in investing in students and their futures.
Erin Murphy: And I know the roadblocks were on the other side, as I mentioned. The Senate has passed these bills. Do you have a sense of why this bill passed this time and not in previous years?
Amy Sinclair: You know, I think Iowa parents had just been coming to us saying, you know, we see all of these things that are causing us concern at our child's school or our child isn't thriving at school. And I think the pandemic brought some of that, too, to the forefront in parents’ minds. And so when parents are coming to us saying we need an alternative and we don't know what that alternative would look like, it was truly just a response to that need that that maybe the system that we have doesn't meet every child's need. My child attends public school. He will continue to attend public school regardless. But it suits him. It fits him. And it will continue to fit most of Iowa students. But the ones who don't still are going to need to thrive. If we think about the in some of our districts there, there are high dropout levels, high non complete levels. And if we give children an opportunity to thrive where they are best suited. Are we going to lower that? Are we going to find success for students who didn't find success in a traditional classroom? I think just giving parents the opportunity to help their child determine their best destiny is the purpose of Republicans getting behind it in the Senate. And I would tell you that I think that Republicans in the House finally heard from those parents as well.
Erin Murphy: And wanted to give you an opportunity. One of the criticisms that I'm sure you've heard this is the taxpayer funding going to something that may serve only a small slice of Iowa students. Why should, for example, someone from Wayne County, a taxpayer in Wayne County, why should their taxpayer money go to help someone go to a private school in West Des Moines?
Amy Sinclair: We fund education as a state regardless. And to say that a taxpayer in Wayne County shouldn't fund someone in West Des Moines, I think undermines the connected fabric of what it means to be an Iowan, first of all. But I would take that a step further. We already fund scholarships to private, to nonpublic colleges and universities. We already partner with public funds in our preschool programming. We've left K-12 out of that conversation. We're already doing that. Taxpayers in Wayne County are already paying for and by the way, accessing Iowa tuition grants. They're already paying for and accessing Teach Iowa scholarships, those loan repayment programs that are available if they go into a hard fill teaching position. Folks from Wayne County are already paying for and accessing other types of loan forgiveness programs. Our doctors and nurses, we have loan forgiveness programs and they're already paying for and accessing numerous examples of dollars that are going into nonpublic institutions. This really isn't any different than that.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: So the next step in this process is to hire a private company to help administer this program and separately from that, we're also hearing conversations among some schools, some private schools that are talking about the possibility of raising tuition at their schools. That leads me to the question of, you know, how much oversight of this program is needed as it goes forward to protect, you know, taxpayers and families? And how do you provide that?
Amy Sinclair: Sure. The bill has built in oversight. I will just say there are allowable expenditures and there are expenditures that are explicitly disallowed. As far as the third party vendor being in charge of that, that's an option. It's not required. It allows for that option and largely because of what you said. There are third party vendors that have better built in fraud checks because they've done this before in other states. And so making that one of the options is, frankly, a way to build in a layer of fraud protection. There are many platforms in other states that only allow expenditures to vendors who have been approved by the Department of Education. And that would be if a third party is the route that the state takes, once this is implemented, there will be approved vendors that are only allowed for those expenditures to be made to.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: And what about the question of if schools raise tuition?
Amy Sinclair: Because this is a scholarship to a student, just as our Iowa tuition grant is a scholarship to a student, this bill does not in any way address how a nonpublic school functions. It doesn't even reach into that. That's not under the government's purview to tell a nonpublic school how to function. I would tell you that the people who are paying tuition, the ones paying the bills are also the ones who govern those nonpublic schools. And I can't imagine that they would make obscene increases in what they are having to pay just because some of the kids might have a scholarship.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Sure. And you might have a similar answer for this, but likewise, some private schools might be at capacity right now, or they might reach capacity pretty soon as this program goes into effect. How do you envision this going forward and there still being those options for families?
Amy Sinclair: You're absolutely right. There are some nonpublic schools that are already at capacity. There are some nonpublic schools that have been building out additional capacity over the years because for the last three or four or five years, there has been increased demand on nonpublic schools. And so and so some of that is already in the works. How do we continue to ensure that that there's choice for students who need it? I'm hopeful that the market drives that.
Erin Murphy: Does that mean you expect to see more private schools in Iowa?
Amy Sinclair: I don't know if I expect to see more private schools in Iowa. It would not surprise me if those nonpublic schools expanded their footprint, increased teachers, you know, their staffing and allowed for more students to attend.
Kay Henderson: Earlier this month, when the Governor announced her plan, she said that parents would be getting a nearly $7600 in these educational savings accounts, and that was based on 2.5% growth in the state aid for public schools because it will be equal between public and private. Senate Republicans have introduced a bill that would go to 2%. What happened? I mean, are you going to give parents less in that account in the coming year?
Amy Sinclair: So I wasn't a part of, I haven't been a part of those negotiations on the supplemental state aid increase, that percent of growth that we annually increase the funding that we send to our public school system. The bill that was introduced is a shell bill. It allows for the process to move forward so that we meet the 30 days that we want to get that number to schools. They have to certify their budgets here April 15th. And we want to make sure that they have that bill moving forward. I don't anticipate that 2% will be the number that is included once those negotiations are complete.
Kay Henderson: What about 2.5, which was the Governor's recommendation and the whole debate that we've had for the past week?
Amy Sinclair: The Governor's recommendation was 2.5%, plus an additional 0.5% within the teacher salary supplement that would go directly to teacher salaries. And from my perspective, we also need to maintain the increased funding levels so that we're buying down to the statewide average those transportation costs. That's long been a priority of mine to keep funding equity between urban and rural districts, because transportation is such a huge part of the budget in those rural areas. There are a lot of moving parts within that conversation and I would expect you would see all of them addressed. Truly, the bill that was introduced was just to get the process moving and not a reflection on where we actually intend to be.
Erin Murphy: Last year as Education Committee Chair, you oversaw a bill that was called the Parents Bill of Rights. It was essentially a bill that kind of listed things that schools would be required to offer up transparency wise about curriculum, etc.. Nothing was passed last year in that general sphere that the two chambers didn't agree. So I assume we'll see legislation on that topic again this year. Will you be working on something similar? Do you expect a different bill? And what do you want to see in some kind of legislation that asks of schools regarding transparency?
Amy Sinclair: Absolutely. Parents have a right to know what their children are being taught. They have a right to know who's teaching them. They have a right to access records from their child. They have a right to consent or deny to instruction or to screenings or a whole host of things. And those are already rights that are available through federal rules. The bill that we passed through the Senate last year essentially codified and made it explicitly part of Iowa law that parents do have those rights, that parents can reasonably access their child while they're at school. They can be engaged and a part of knowing what their child is learning. I anticipate we will have something similar as you and Kay both alluded to. I'm no longer the education chair. I now serve in a different role. But I have been working with Senator Ken Rozenboom, who is the new education chair, and he has every intention of bringing that back out and making sure that as a state we're identifying the crucial role that parents play in the education of their children and helping them to be, if you will, in the driver's seat of determining what's best for their individual child. The court ruling, Pierce v. Society of Sisters that said children are not mere creatures of the state. We believe that. It's not just words on a piece of paper. We genuinely believe that children are not mere creatures of the state and that the parents and guardians who are in charge of those children have every right to educate them in the way that they see fit. And so we're trying to make sure that our public policy aligns with that court decision in the scope of parental rights. And I haven't seen what that bill looks like yet. I know there are some proposals, both with the House and the Governor's office that I haven't seen either. But we want to acknowledge from the legislature that that we believe parents are the primary responsible parties in educating children.
Erin Murphy: There has been legislation on the House side on this. Not necessarily that bill specifically, but either you personally or your caucus, do you know where you stand on some of those specific proposals that would, for example, require schools to notify parents if their student, if their child wants to be referred to as a different pronoun or as a different sexual orientation. Those are the kinds of things that LGBTQ advocates have concerns about. Speaker Grassley, when we talked to him on this show, had something similar to what you just said about parents rights. Where do Senate Republicans fall on that?
Amy Sinclair: A child under the age of 18 can't get a tattoo in the state of Iowa, not even with a with a parent saying they can, they can't get a tattoo in the state of Iowa. I think that those of us in the legislature would wholeheartedly agree that a decision as large as altering your identity is something that a parent ought to be involved with, that a parent ought to know about. We're talking about a child's mental health and their well-being. Of course, a parent ought to know. I haven't read the House's bill. Please, please don't make me comment on a specific bill. I often don't pay attention to House bills until they come to us in the Senate. But philosophically, parents ought to know what's going on in their child's lives. Those types of issues can certainly interfere with all capacities of a child's life and education. And a parent ought to know.
Erin Murphy: And I just we need to move on. But I want to follow up and ask you the same thing I asked Speaker Grassley. There are cases where we know where parents react in ways that can upset. and you talk about a child's mental health and well-being, that can go the other way as well. So what is your message then, to those young people who may not feel comfortable talking about this stuff at home but do at school for now.
Amy Sinclair: Court decision after court decision after court decision. And I won't I won't dove into them. But over and over and over again, the courts have granted the parent the final authority in raising their child. And I, for one, am not comfortable with undermining that right of a parent to raise their child as they see fit. And I don't think that agents of the state, which schools and teachers are agents of the state, ought to be stepping up and interfering in a parent's right to educate and raise their child.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: I want to switch gears now and do the thing that you just asked me not to do, which is ask you about a House bill. There's a bill in the House that Republican leadership there has considered a priority that would restrict what foods Iowans can buy with SNAP benefits, excluding pop and candy. We've seen efforts in the Senate as well to sort of add additional checks on public assistance programs and things like that. So is this idea of excluding pop and candy from SNAP something that you might support?
Amy Sinclair: Well, so I'm not going to speak directly to a House bill. Again, I haven't read it. I'm just being completely transparent there. I am glad the House is on board with welfare reform. We know because we've been fined by the federal government, we know that fraud and abuse exist within our system. And so having the House, having the conversation with us about how we get at the fraud and abuse that's in our system so that the folks who actually need assistance, who actually need the benefits, the elderly on fixed incomes, the single moms with kids, the ones who actually need the assistance are getting it. And we're not wasting money buying items for people who actually don't qualify. Welfare reform is a priority because we have to root out that fraud and abuse so that the assistance can get to the folks who actually need it. So I'm happy the House is starting a conversation. I won't speak directly to a bill that I haven't read.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: But the idea --
Amy Sinclair: Oh, the idea of restricting pop and candy. Well, I mean, I've supported it before. So you probably have seen my bill drafting. I believe that perhaps soda pop isn't something that the taxpayer should be covering the cost of, if you’re asking me that directly. Yeah.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Thank you.
Erin Murphy: Another bill that's been around is dealing with medical malpractice lawsuits and placing a cap on noneconomic damages. That started moving this past week here in the legislature. Now, Governor Reynolds has put her support behind placing that cap. And it's one where there's some interesting debates and fault lines, not necessarily Republican versus Democrat thing as you so often see. For example, in one of the subcommittees, Sam Clovis, a very conservative Iowa Republican, has talked about his own personal experience and feeling that putting a cap on those damages is, and this is paraphrasing his, is putting a monetary value on human life. Do you have a sense of the future of that bill in the Senate Republican caucus and if you have a personal take on it?
Amy Sinclair: So I will tell you, it's no secret the Iowa Senate has passed bills similar to this in the past. And I think we will continue to. My personal opinions are conflicted. We have friends on both sides of this conversation. Conflicted because Sam's right. It's difficult to place a dollar figure on the value of life and pain and suffering. And that's a valid argument. I come from a really rural area. It's hard to get health care providers in rural areas.
Erin Murphy: That’s the argument we heard --
Amy Sinclair: Exactly. So when we're increasing the cost to do business in a market that's already very difficult to recruit and retain providers, I have counties that don't have OB services and largely because of the cost of medical malpractice insurance. Am I putting the lives, am I placing a dollar figure on the lives of women who can't access OB services because a provider won't come to serve them because there's not the volume of births happening. Am I placing a value on the life and the pain and suffering of older individuals? I serve a rather aging population in my district. Am I restricting their access and ultimately shortening their lives because they can't access health care? I think when we look at the broader picture, yes. It's hard for me to set a hard cap on what the value of a human life is. But it's not hard for me to set a public policy that allows for us to recruit and retain the best and brightest so folks in rural areas can continue to access their necessary health care needs.
Kay Henderson: A related issue. There's a proposal to set up a licensing structure for rural emergency hospitals. As you well know, the Keokuk Hospital closed recently. Do you believe that's a lifeline for some hospitals or is it like the sort of the beginning of the off ramp to the end?
Amy Sinclair: No, I think it's absolutely a lifeline to some of those hospitals that aren't necessarily seeing the volume of care that can warrant keeping the doors open. Additionally, just as we have workforce issues in every single sector of Iowa's economy, nursing and health care providers are a real shortage. And so having those critical access ERs, if you will, that changing those rules so that we have this lifeline that keeps a provider in place, I think is definitely a lifeline for us. And it is a lifeline for rural Iowans. What we need to make sure then is, is that those emergency access centers have a contract, a connection with a larger health care facility for those people who can't just be treated and sent back home, that they have a place where they can send people when they come to them for longer term care.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: The Governor's health care bill also has a provision in it to expand what's called the Moms Program, provides support to pregnancy resource centers that provide services to pregnant women and new mothers, but also discourage abortion. What do you see as the future of that program? How much state funding should we be expecting to flow into that over the next couple of years?
Amy Sinclair: So I haven't heard numbers on what's expected to flow into there over the next couple of years. I know the initial investment was to get the administration up and running and actually get the programs going. I wholeheartedly support any kind of health care that supports moms and unborn babies. I whether that's through the Moms program, through crisis pregnancy centers, or whether that's through our WIC programming that we have through our local public health. I absolutely, wholeheartedly support moms and children and families in making sure that they're able to access health care, that they're able to access education and resources. So the Governor, including that in her bill, I think makes sense for what Iowans would like to see.
Kay Henderson: The Governor since 2019 has been proposing that birth control be available over-the-counter at a pharmacy. A bill on that passed the Iowa Senate in 2019, but it has never advanced. Is it your sense that that bill will advance in 2023?
Amy Sinclair: I have not seen a bill drafted, though there may well be one. It has been a priority of some of my colleagues in the Senate and I think it will continue to be. It's all part of that over arching view of women's health care that we've really been trying to focus on. And so I actually met with some pharmacy students and talked to them about what their vision of over the counter, if you will, pharmacy based birth control. And they had some good comments about making sure that they were doing risk analysis with women and directing those who might need some additional health care. Honestly, I think it's a conversation we'll have. For me personally, I think it's a fine process to move through. And so if we can gather the support, I would definitely see that being part of the broader conversation about women and children's health.
Erin Murphy: There is a very significant case pending in front of the Iowa Supreme Court that would reinstate or could, depending on how it's ruled, reinstate a law that Republicans passed in 2018 that would prohibit abortions once a fetus’ heartbeat can be detected. From everything we're hearing or not hearing, I guess that ruling may not come until late if during the legislative session at all. So far, most of the leaders we've talked to, Republican leaders in the Statehouse have said that they feel it's prudent to not pass any new legislation on abortion restrictions until the Iowa Supreme Court rules. Do you agree with that? And do you feel like either yourself or your caucus as a whole is comfortable waiting that out and perhaps going through this session without passing any bills?
Amy Sinclair: It's no surprise for me to say that Senate Republicans are pro-life. Nobody's shocked by that. Right. So the question then is, is there something more we're doing or are we allowing our system to work as it was designed to work? From my perspective, it makes the most sense to allow the systems that are there to do exactly what they're doing, to go through the process and make sure that we're letting that separation of powers do the job that it's intended to do. There's no sense in my mind to pass bills that would not meet constitutional muster if the process we're going through doesn't meet constitutional muster. And so for me personally, that’s the route that I think makes the most sense to take, to let this process work with existing Iowa code.
Erin Murphy: And I'm sorry to jump in, because we’re in our final seconds here. Would this be worth a special session, call back legislators to deal with after the fact?
Amy Sinclair: I won't speak to that. That's not a call that I'm going to make. There are folks on both sides of that question and very passionately on both sides of that question. I will just say, I'm interested in watching the process work and making sure that anything we do doesn't muddy the waters.
Kay Henderson: So collectively would Senate Republicans be comfortable with a six week abortion ban? Or do you want to completely ban abortion?
Amy Sinclair: I won't speak for other Republicans. We passed the law that we thought made sense for Iowans.
Kay Henderson: Okay. Thank you very much for your time today. I'm sorry, we are out of time at this discussion, but will have one again sometime.
Amy Sinclair: It has been my pleasure being here. Thank you.
Kay Henderson: Thank you. If you want to watch parts of this that you missed, you can go online to iowapbs.org and watch every episode of this program. For everyone here 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 rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve. 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 iowabankers.com.