Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Mar 24, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we convene a group of Iowa political reporters to discuss the latest legislative debates and actions at the Statehouse, as well as other political news.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register, Dave Price, political director and anchor at WHO-TV in Des Moines and Amanda Rooker, chief political reporter for KCCI-TV in Des Moines.

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



It was another busy newsy week at the Statehouse. We're bringing together some of our hardworking political reporters to discuss what has happened and what is still ahead 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 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to 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 


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, March 24th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: A lot happened at the Iowa Statehouse this week and we have gathered a group of political reporters who spent a good deal of time inside the Iowa Capitol. Welcome to Amanda Rooker from KCCI in Des Moines. She is the station's Chief Political Reporter. Stephen Gruber-Miller is with the Des Moines Register. He is their Statehouse Reporter. Erin Murphy is with the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. He is their Des Moines Bureau Chief. And Dave Price is with WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines. He is their Political Director. 

Henderson: Dave, this past week the Governor signed a couple of pieces of legislation. One of them deals with bathroom policies in Iowa's schools. Bring us up to speed. 

Price: And I feel like this one will be one of the top ones from the session looking at the what's next component about this. So, specifically dealing with transgender students and it's public and private schools here. But essentially, the bottom line is that this requires students to use the bathroom that would match their gender assigned at birth. That's the easiest way to say it. Now, they can, if they have their parents' permission they can go to the school and try to make special accommodations. But it kind of follows this national push that we've seen in some of the other republican-led states to do similar things. The challenge for the schools then is how do you respond to parents' needs for their child? How will this be policed? All of those kinds of things. 

Henderson: And the bill took effect the moment the Governor signed it. 

Price: Immediately, right. And now we wait to see if there will be a lawsuit about it. 

Murphy: Yeah, we asked Representative Holt about that on this show last week if it was his expectation that schools implement this policy immediately and be ready from day one. And he told us that yes, that is his expectation. So, to Dave's point, if there are students who wish for accommodations to be made, that is something that schools are going to have to grapple with now.

Henderson: And the Governor also acknowledged that this week when she had a news conference that she expected there to be a lawsuit. 

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, she told me she's got a spreadsheet of lawsuits that she just says that's the way it is and she is expecting this. So, a lot of other states have had lawsuits over legislation like this. Now we're waiting, we're thinking about listening to experts about what might the arguments be. 

Henderson: And in other states where there have been lawsuits, they are lawsuits representing people who say they have been harmed by the policy. So, you have to wait to sort of develop that, correct?

Gruber-Miller: Right, but since it took effect immediately, in theory you could have a plaintiff who is a student who is now saying I'm being discriminated against in what bathroom I can use at school. 

Rooker: A lot of these schools I think are grappling, since this took effect immediately, they're looking to try to understand what is the correct legal interpretation of this bill. I know some of the metro schools we reached out to said they're hoping the Department of Education sends them some sort of legal interpretation of the bill just to know if they create a single stall unisex restroom, is that discriminatory for a student that is singled out and has to use that bathroom compared to the rest of students, looking at obviously the bill requires schools to provide accommodations. But is that legally enough? 

Price: And that is such a big part of it, but just logistically for especially some of the smaller, older schools, there may not be that facility that exists and so they're trying to figure out how the heck do you pull this off. 

Henderson: Amanda, also this week on the same day the Governor signed a bill that prohibits Iowa doctors from performing gender transition procedures or prescribing puberty blockers. Bring us up to speed on that. 

Rooker: Yeah, that's right. So, this is another bill that takes effect immediately. Now in the state of Iowa health care providers are no longer allowed to provide gender transition procedures for minors. That is things like puberty blockers, hormone therapies, other gender-related surgeries. There is, that does take effect immediately, it's illegal now. But kids that were on some of those hormone therapies, there is a provision where they are allowed to kind of be phased out for six months. After that it becomes illegal. There is, the law does allow providers to refer Iowans under the age of 18 to out-of-state providers. I know on the same day that the House passed that bill, in Minnesota the Governor did an executive order saying that they are going to allow gender transition procedures. But Iowans under the age of 18, regardless of parental consent or doctor advice, will have to go out of state for that treatment. 

Murphy: Yeah, and Amanda mentioned that kind of phase out period, however you want to call it, and that is something that I know that families in Iowa are wrestling with right now if they have a transgender child under 18 who was already started on this and you're doing the math and you've got -- I'm sorry was it 180 days?

Rooker: Yeah, six months. 

Murphy: Yeah, will they be 18 by then? And if not, what are we going to do and can we make it to Minnesota or other states? And so, it's another one, like Dave said, about the bathroom bill that this has repercussions on Iowans moving forward. 

Gruber-Miller: And it's another one we wouldn't be surprised to see a lawsuit happen with. And you would not only have perhaps an equal protection argument saying that you're being discriminated against based on your gender identity, but you might also have an argument in court that you could see like we've seen in other states that it infringes on maybe the parent's right to decide about decisions for their child or doctor's rights to sort of free speech and describing what kind of care they would wish to prescribe. 

Henderson: Dave, this didn't happen in a vacuum. The Governor of Arkansas and the Governor of Georgia also signed very similar bills into law this week. 

Price: Right, and that is what -- 2023 has been fascinating to me about maybe this year more than I can ever remember where we see things that are going through, similar plans that are going through in multiple states almost simultaneously like this and we'll get to a few more of the topics coming up later I think. But that part has been fascinating about where this starts and then it just kind of almost copies in numerous other states just like dominos. 

Murphy: And Governor Reynolds even alluded to that during -- and we're going to talk politics later -- but when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was here and they were on stage together, Governor Reynolds talked about how republican governors are competitive with each other in wanting to be first to pass some of these policies or maybe go further -- 

Price: And the first ones get the Fox News hits -- 

Gruber-Miller: And it's not even just, like you're alluding to, in past years we've seen maybe a state does this and then the next year a couple of other states do it. This year it's like a state does this and the next week another state is doing it or the next day. 

Rooker: I know when the House passed the bill but before the Governor signed it on that day if the Governor would have signed it that day Iowa would have been the 9th state in the country to ban this type of care. I could be wrong, but I think by the time the Governor signed it there were already other states that were signing it that same day. So, to your point, it's incredibly quickly. So fast. 

Murphy: School choice is another example of that number of states that have done that this year including Iowa. 

Henderson: This past week, Erin, you covered a debate in the Iowa Senate about a package of education related proposals that the Governor forwarded to the legislature. 

Murphy: Yeah, I wrote this down, Kay, because at the top you I think gave a new entry for understatement of the year when you said, a lot happened at the Statehouse this week. I mean, so much happened just in this bill alone. It's a massive bill and to bullet point and highlight this as quickly as possible because we only have 20 minutes. It deals with a lot of the K-12 education policies that have been tackled on the House side more individually. In the Senate they decided to scoop them all up in the Governor's proposal. So, it deals with how to remove books from schools if parents or someone feels that they have obscene or graphic material. It prohibits teaching about gender identification or sexual orientation through sixth grade. And it also requires educators to get the parent's permission before using a student's pronoun, if that is different than what their physical gender pronoun would be. Many, many other policies in there but those are kind of the big highlights. And as I said, moving forward now, because of that interesting procedural approach, the Senate and House republicans are going to have to get together and decide how much of that they agree on and what to ultimately push to the Governor because of those two different approaches they took. 

Price: Sorry to repeat myself, but this seems like another one of those that it's going to be the details that are going to be the challenge in so many ways. So, you have a kid in class who has two female parents, two male parents. How is this stuff going to be discussed? There are so many just day-to-day things that educators deal with, not to mention sexual identity, gender identity, all those kinds of things. Where does this go from here? And how do those things get addressed, in what way? If a district is scared you're going to get the $5000 fine or whatever it is if you don't follow the rules -- 

Rooker: Well, I was just going to say, there's so much interplay too between all of these different bills that we're seeing. I know one lawmaker when we were talking about this bill this past week at the Statehouse mentioned talking about that bathroom policy that if there is a child that has presented one gender all of elementary school and now they have to use a different bathroom and other kids are confused why that child is and that child is transgender, that teacher can't explain to the classroom because of the bill that you were talking about. And another piece in that bill that separates the Senate from the House one is that there is a parental bill of rights at the bottom of that bill talking about that parents have the right over their child's education and their child's medical care, which again, interplays into the gender transition procedures bill. There is an amendment that says parents have rights over everything of their kid's medical care besides gender transition procedures. 

Gruber-Miller: There has also just been a difference in conversation about what might be allowed under this when we talk about prohibiting instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity. We had conversations when the House was doing this bill where the republicans said, listen, the language of this law just says you can't provide instruction or whatever. And they said, well teachers can still answer questions, teachers can still talk about their spouses, things like that. But democrats are worried there will be, if not explicitly in the law, at least a chilling effect for teachers who are worried that they might run afoul of this. 

Murphy: Yeah, that gets into that whole difference between legislative intent and actual legal application of a bill or a law. And we've heard that in other states where similar bills have been passed and the shorthand that it has become known as and acknowledging that this has become a politically charged term, but just because people may be familiar with it, it's a version of the don't say gay bills as they have become known in other states. And the reason they are called that is because, to Stephen's point, while that may not have been the intent that legislators state when they passed these bills, legally and procedurally and operationally educators express that legitimate concern that if I talk about some of these things is that construed as and then is the language in the bill I guess precise enough to protect them from that?

Henderson: Stephen, I do want to talk just insert this in this discussion. Your newspaper has done a good bit of polling about a lot of these topics that are being debated this month in the Iowa legislature, one of which deals with the book policy in school libraries and it found a real diverging opinion among republicans who support the elements of both of these approaches in the House and Senate which would restrict access to books that have sexual content, whereas democrats are very much opposed to that. 

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, that's right. 

Henderson: And some of the other polling that you did shows that Iowans are in favor of some of these others, correct? 

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, some of the bills that we've been talking about, prohibiting instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity, I think we found 54% of Iowans favor that in kindergarten through sixth grade, so elementary schools. And the prohibition on gender transition care, gender affirming care, about 52% approve of that. 

Henderson: Bringing that up because your newspaper also did a poll about pipelines, a very interesting result on that given the context of the House passing a pipeline bill this week. 

Gruber-Miller: Right, so as we've talked about on this show before there's three companies that are seeking to build essentially carbon capture pipelines across the state of Iowa and other states to sequester carbon dioxide in the ground. They say it will benefit the ethanol industry and make it greener. 78% of Iowans according to our poll oppose the use of eminent domain for those projects. So, the idea that these companies could force you to sell access to your land to them. 

Murphy: And I just wanted to, just to drive home what a big number that is for people who may not follow polling really closely, 78% is so huge. So, I looked it up, there was a recent poll and chocolate had a favorability rating of 81%. So, this is almost, this idea is almost as popular as chocolate. That's just a remarkable number in that poll. 

Gruber-Miller: And I broke it down by party lines too because it's 72% of republicans, it's 82% of democrats, it's 79% of independents oppose eminent domain for these projects. So, House republicans, as Kay said, passed a bill this week that would say, it wouldn't ban it outright, but it would say that if you're a company building one of these pipelines you need to voluntarily reach agreements to buy 90% of the land before you can even ask to use eminent domain. And the House Speaker told us they're responding to Iowans who overwhelmingly agree with them on this issue. 

Henderson: Does this put pressure on the Senate to do something, Erin? 

Murphy: I think -- I don't know. Honestly, I see both yes and no answers to that. They have been pretty quiet on this which makes me think that they're not feeling that pressure. But, again, 78% is a huge number. 

Henderson: Dave? 

Price: When you look at these numbers, and I say this a little tongue in cheek, but there may be more Cyclone fans who root for the Hawkeyes to win on game day than people who support eminent domain for pipeline projects. But, how does this not put pressure on Senate republicans, at least in some degree that they may have to do something, not something that is so big that it may kill Bruce Rastetter's project proposal here -- 

Henderson: Who is Bruce Rastetter for people who don't know? 

Price: Bruce Rastetter is a very wealthy businessman who is putting one of the three proposals together, been a republican donor for years. He used to be on the Board of Regents too, I believe. But, how can they not look at these numbers and think, uh-oh, this is actually something that our own base has a big, big problem with so don't we at least put some additional hurdles, if you will, so that they are more voluntary agreements to get this deal done? 

Gruber-Miller: But you also had House republicans saying on the floor of the House during debate, the Senate is not going to touch this bill, it's not going to do what we want it to do. 

Price: But yet they were still willing to do this, which was fascinating to me. Clearly, I would assume, Speaker Grassley has had conversations with the Senate in private about, all right, where is this thing going to go? He was still willing to do that. So, was it just for show?

Gruber-Miller: But we also asked the Governor this week -- was it this week -- whether she had talked to the House leadership about this bill and she said, no. And that was her one word answer. 

Henderson: The Governor had a news conference this week. Amanda, you were there. And I asked about her proposal that started in 2018 about birth control. Where does that sit in the legislature? 

Rooker: Right, it is something she has been pushing and the Governor, at least this year, has gotten a lot of what she has wanted and this is one of those remaining pieces. She brought it up at the beginning of this session. She wants over-the-counter birth control available through a pharmacist without a prescription from a doctor. That would be things like the pill, patch and ring. We saw back in 2019 when she proposed this, the Senate passed something, but it never made it out of the House. We're kind of seeing a deja vu moment maybe here with the Senate amended an epipen bill, included that in it. There is a piece of over-the-counter birth control in a big health care package on the House side. We asked the Governor, you asked the Governor where that was going to go and I think her words were, I'm talking with House legislators, looking for a compromise that everyone is comfortable with but she didn't elaborate on what that compromise would be. 

Henderson: Right, she said I want to get this across the finish line. 

Price: She did but she doesn't say that a lot about we're going to compromise and figure it out. You can tell this one is important to her -- 

Murphy: To that point, we usually get the I'm not going to interrupt the legislative process, I'll wait to see a bill in its final form -- 

Price: But she clearly wants this one and acknowledges whatever the present form is isn't what the end result is likely going to be. 

Gruber-Miller: I will say too really quickly, the Governor has been very careful not to call it over-the-counter birth control, she calls it behind-the-counter. And the reason for that is, while you wouldn't need an individual prescription, the way it would work is pharmacists in the state would have a standing order that essentially serves as a prescription, which might affect things like whether it is covered by insurance. 

Henderson: And as I understand it, the House proposal says you can return to the pharmacist and get birth control prescriptions filled but maybe every two years you have to go back to a prescribing doctor to see them. Erin, real quickly, a bill that sailed through the Senate about distracted driving. Is this the year that Iowa joins half of the country in saying, you can't handle this thing while you're driving? 

Murphy: Yeah, so super quick by way of background, right now in Iowa it's illegal to text while driving, but law enforcement will tell you it's impossible to enforce that because you can just say, well I wasn't texting, I was making a call, which is legal. So, they want all handheld use of a phone while driving banned. You can only use your phone with speaking technology, hey Siri. And as you noted, it passed the Senate this week, which is a legislative first as I'm told by Senate staff, that it had never passed the full chamber before. So, that's a big step and a sign that maybe it's moving. Now it's up to the House and whether they have an appetite for it. It has stalled many years running now. It is in danger of becoming the new bottle bill. But maybe this is the year. 

Henderson: Stephen, the Senate this week debated new requirements for people who receive supplemental nutrition assistance and are enrolled in the state's Medicaid program.

Gruber-Miller: That's right. And really quickly, before we move off of the driving thing, another issue that we have polled on at the Register in the past that has like 70% support or something like that and that hasn't led to passing it yet. 

Murphy: Which is a pretty big number for people inviting a rule, a restriction on their driving. 

Gruber-Miller: Okay, so yeah, the Senate bill that would restrict -- so it would add new eligibility checks and an asset test to see if you're able to receive food assistance benefits. So, households with liquid assets of more than $15,000 could not get SNAP benefits. Now, the asset test would exclude things like the value of your home, the value of a first car or the value of up to $10,000 of a second car. But, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency took a look at the bill and said, if these new requirements go into place, which also includes checking paperwork periodically and things like that, that there could be about one percent of Iowans receiving these benefits could lose them. So, that would be about 8,000 people receiving Medicaid, about 2,800 people receiving SNAP and several hundred people in some other programs. 

Murphy: And these are people who are eligible, they just fall through the cracks because of -- 

Gruber-Miller: The analysis said due to discrepancies they could be kicked off. 

Price: And there was a significant cost to do this, right, for the state? 

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, over the first three years Iowa would pay about $17 million in state money. There would be more cost in federal money. So, the IT startup cost alone would be like $20 million. But the argument is, and the analysis shows, that after a few years they'd be saving about almost $8 million a year and that savings would come from removing people from the program so they're no longer receiving benefits. 

Henderson: Dave, we've got about three minutes left. We have a presidential campaign happening while we're covering all of this stuff at the Statehouse. 

Price: Yes, and it's picking up a little bit here because it felt pretty slow for a while, for what we're used to. Obviously we know the democratic side. But, you had to kind of think that unless Marianne Williamson is going to come in here and put a full throated effort here to dethrone Joe Biden in '24. But, republicans seemed a little bit more in public plus privately kind of doing the work now. Nikki Haley is coming back. Mike Pence is coming back. Mike Pompeo, Mike Rogers having those conversations. Obviously Donald Trump is already in this. But it feels like things are getting a little more serious about this and it feels like they're starting to do a little more staff outreach to figure out who the heck they're going to hire. You have so many talented people to go along and you want some talented Iowa people to run these things. 

Henderson: Amanda, you and I covered Mike Pence here in Des Moines last weekend and you asked him a question during his discussion with reporters. He just can't catch a break because Trump trailed him that day. 

Rooker: Right, right. He hasn't made any sort of announcement, right, but here's here in Iowa, he gave a very campaign-style speech touting his accomplishments during the Trump administration, I think was hoping for, may have been hoping to talk about that and then of course the news broke that Trump was expecting to be arrested on Tuesday. Obviously that prediction didn't come to fruition but -- 

Price: By Trump himself -- 

Rooker: Yes, Trump himself, Trump did, not Pence, Trump himself thought that Trump would be arrested. And I think that that might be something that a lot of candidates including Pence are going to have to deal with on the campaign trail is talking about how do they separate their own accomplishments out from being attached to the Trump administration and as Trump's former Vice President there was a lot of questions about that. But he did also tell us that he was planning to announce this springtime. But he didn't say what that means because now it's spring. 


Henderson: There are a couple of people at this table who are attached to Major League baseball games at various points in the year. Erin, there is a bill pending that would address your ability to see those games? 

Murphy: Say MLB blackout and baseball fans go into the fetal position. And there is legislation that would ban those. Now, it's one of those bills that is more of a planting of the flag. The state really doesn't have the authority to affect this. But the hope is to generate the discussion and put more pressure on Major League Baseball to show more of these Cubs games, Cardinals games, Brewers games. 

Price: I grew up in St. Louis, a million years ago they had these blackout rules with the St. Louis Cardinals when they were a football team and it's just to make sure that if you live in the region you don't stay home and watch it for free on TV, you go spend money and watch it in person, right? Super archaic rules. When you transition to us in this state where we don't have a professional team at the highest level it is obviously nonsensical and archaic in that it's six teams that you have these weird blackout rules. So when you buy the full package from MLB you can't watch a lot of these games, which is hard to understand. So, there is a major bankruptcy underway for some of these regional carriers. So it does appear that something may finally happen. And while J.D. Scholten may be well-intentioned, it is debatable whether the state legislature would have any real role to change this. 

Henderson: My intention right here is to cut this off. Sorry. We are out of time. 

Price: I can talk baseball all day, sorry. 

Henderson: We are out of time for this edition of Iowa Press. You can watch every episode online at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, 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. 

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to 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