Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 21, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we convene a group of Iowa political reporters to discuss the latest legislative developments from 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.



The Iowa Senate pulled an all-nighter and the legislature passed a broad education bill. We'll talk about another eventful week at the Iowa Statehouse with some of our favorite political reporters on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 21st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: If daffodils are the first sign of spring, a budget deal among House and Senate republicans may be the first sign that the end of the 2023 legislative session is near. I think the folks at this table are looking forward to that. Let me introduce the folks -- let's introduce the folks who are here with us today. Amanda Rooker is the Chief Political Reporter at KCCI in Des Moines. Stephen Gruber-Miller is the Statehouse Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. And Dave Price is Political Director at WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines.

Henderson: Dave, let's talk about some of the things that may have been resolved in the past couple of weeks or may be close to resolution. A bill that the Governor introduced at the very beginning of the session, well kind of at the beginning of the session about schools is one of them.

Price: It is and we'll see what the after effects of this are. But, in quick order, so a lot of talk about books. So, this would ban books at schools that have descriptions or pictures of sexual acts, those kinds of things, Bible not included in this. Schools have to have a policy, uniform policy about banning books. We've heard a lot about pronouns. So, if a child wants to use a pronoun at school that is not the pronoun assigned at birth would need parental permission for that to happen. No talk about gender identity and that kind of thing K-6. You have to post what books are going to be in your library and if the teacher doesn't follow the rules on stuff there could be discipline.

Henderson: Erin Murphy, there was a vote in the Senate this week, took a long time to get there, on a child labor bill. What's up with that?

Murphy: Yeah, so that is one and this is turning some heads across the country, but it would create more jobs that teenagers, especially under 18, kind of roughly between the ages of 14 and 17, that Iowa kids could work at that were previously not allowed and would now be legal if they get parental permission and a waiver from the state. And it kind of created this fairly heated debate over allowing kids to work in more jobs versus worries about putting kids in dangerous positions in the workplace.

Henderson: And Stephen, there was also a kerfuffle during that about an Iowa Supreme Court case.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, that's right. The Senate republicans sort of caused some outrage among Senate democrats by refusing to yield to some questions about clarifying aspects of the bill and made it seem like they weren't going to talk about the bill or talk about their thoughts on the bill on the floor of the Iowa Senate. They said afterwards this had to do with the Supreme Court case that essentially quoted extensively from a floor debate a few years ago to be part of the rationale for why a law had to be put on hold. So, they're saying, hey, if our words are going to be used against us in court we're going to be really careful about what words we use.

Henderson: Erin, you and I have also covered property tax bills, competing plans out of the Senate and the House.

Murphy: Yeah, and this is one that legislators have been talking about the whole session that they've been hearing from voters a lot. Assessments have been going up. Just very recently property owners found out about that in the mail. And so, legislators are trying to tackle ways that maybe will reduce the future growth of the amount of taxes that homeowners have to pay on those assessments.

Henderson: And Amanda, last month the Senate passed a bill regarding the authority of the Auditor of State to do audits and the House took some action this week.

Rooker: Yeah, we have a little bit of a resolution on that this week. The House passed this bill that would basically restrict Iowa's State Auditor from being able to access personal or confidential information to do audits unless that information is relevant to the audit or involves embezzlement or fraud. Another thing this bill would do is it blocks the Auditor from taking state departments to court if they don't want to provide those documents and instead directs that office to go through arbitration. Basically, if there was a dispute it would have to go before a three-member panel. That would be the Auditor's Office, a representative from the Governor's Office and the entity in question. There has been a lot of questions raised around this bill. Republicans say it's necessary to limit confidential information. But democrats say that Rob Sand is the only statewide elected democratic official and this is meant to limit his power.

Henderson: And he has had a pretty vociferous response.

Rooker: Yes. He has said this is a political move and he has also said he thinks this may limit the state's ability to independently and sufficiently do state audits. Republicans push back on that. Of course, we don't know what the Senate will do, but it seems like the Senate will take this back up and pass it through.

Henderson: Let's circle back and talk about some of these things more in depth. Dave, you mentioned the school bill. The context for this appears to me that it's very similar to things that we've seen in other states like Florida.

Price: Yeah, and I was trying to think back about if I can ever remember a time in my career where we've seen so many things that are similar happening in so many statehouses in the same year. It really feels like this is happening, maybe in the end these bills are slightly different as they become law. But in republican-led states this type of thing is happening in numerous places about ever since COVID hit and parents started looking at what was happening at schools, what they liked, what they didn't like, this restricting about certain things, especially when you start getting into gender identity, sexual orientation, those kinds of things. It just seems like this is a broad movement that is happening.

Henderson: Well, and Iowa's legislature had already addressed an issue that Congress addressed, which is the participation of trans athletes.

Murphy: Yeah, that bill was done last year, so this is a multi-year movement in the Iowa legislature and now we're seeing other states, I believe South Dakota just passed a transgender athletes bill.

Henderson: Also, Stephen, there's sort of an adjacent education bill that happened this week. It's a bill that has been percolating through the legislature for a long time about gun policy.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, not necessarily I guess an education bill but it has to do with where you can bring guns and essentially where you can have a gun in a locked car in a parking lot. So, the bill that passed the House that has yet to pass the Senate would allow people to leave guns in locked cars in parking lots of a lot of public buildings. So, that includes state court buildings, state prisons, county libraries, city buildings, city pools, state parks and schools. So, for K-12 schools specifically you would need a permit to be able to bring the gun with you in your car when you're dropping your kid off at school or picking up a spouse or whatever. For all those other buildings you don't need a permit. It's just if you legally can own a gun, you can leave it in your car out of sight, locked up. So, there have been obviously some high-profile school shootings around the country recently and actually a couple here at schools in Iowa in the last year or two and so democrats are saying this is really concerning because you're going to bring guns, make it a lot easier for people to bring guns really close to the schools. You can't bring it into the school unless you're law enforcement or something like that. But, just being able to have it on school grounds, their argument is it's a lot more dangerous. And republicans say the opposite is true.

Henderson: In November, Iowa voters passed a constitutional amendment essentially extending Second Amendment rights in the Iowa Constitution and some other stuff about how the Iowa Supreme Court is supposed to evaluate lawsuits about gun policy. Dave, I guess the question at the time was, what else would the legislature do? Is this just plan one? Is there a plan two behind this?

Price: That's a fine question because I think I would assume most of us at the table thought there would be more. Next year is an election year, so perhaps something has to be saved for next year? But, this is not what I figured would happen.

Gruber-Miller: Well, and there was I think a press conference in December or something like that leading up to the session where it was hinted at that there would be maybe broader gun policy and this is something that has been talked about for several years, hasn't been able to get done, but it's not necessarily a new idea. So yeah.

Rooker: Republicans at the start of session said, we want less gun restriction. But the focus so much this session has been on protecting kids or a lot of things around kid policy when we're talking about schools, talking about child labor, now talking about guns. I think it's interesting that we didn't see any sort of gun policy until we got to the conversation around schools and guns on schools. I don't know if later in future sessions they plan to maybe expand it in other areas. But I do think it's interesting that that seemed like something they teased at the start of session and kept all the way until the very end.

Price: Can I asterisk my own initial comment? Having said all that though, they have been doing things the last couple of years. So, you don't need a permit, you don't need training --

Henderson: Right, Ron DeSantis is signing a law this week that Iowa has had for several years.

Price: Exactly. So, it's not like there has been nothing leading to this moment.

Henderson: A lot has been said about a bill that happened at 4:52 a.m. to pass the Iowa Senate. Erin, you and I and Stephen were awake for that vote.

Murphy: We were there.

Henderson: Well, we were awake, I will vouch for these two fellas. What has been your assessment of how quickly this might move through the House?

Murphy: They have their own bill that is fairly similar and this is like other things that we've seen on some of these major issues during the session where the two chambers are on similar paths but have just different enough plans that it takes a little longer to get there. This seems like a priority for them that they are going to figure out a way to get together and I think the bills are close enough that they can do that. The K-12 education transparency, parental rights bill, whatever you want to call it, was a similar one that had a lot of the same stuff, just different mechanisms and they got that done this week, it's to the Governor now. I think that this feels to me, and I could be proven wrong, but it feels to me like it's a big enough priority that they'll figure out the differences and get something done and get it to the Governor. But that's no guarantee. I mean, it is certainly a heated enough topic and there may be just enough push back out there that maybe they'll put a pin in this and come back next year from a different viewpoint because of all of the concerns that have been expressed about putting kids in harm's way.

Gruber-Miller: I would say I think, in my opinion, I think it's probably likely to happen and one of the reasons, two of the reasons I guess, one is that this is kind of a push that we've seen around the country as well. We've seen other states do this. There was sort of a task force that was made up of Workforce Development people, businesses including the restaurant industry that have sort of been interested in this. The other reason is they have taken out a lot of the things that were maybe the most controversial at the beginning, restricted some of the types of jobs that kids were initially going to be able to do. There was previously an idea that you could have a special driver's permit for kids to drive to and from work when they're otherwise too young to get their permits, that's out. There's just a study committee to take a look at that idea.

Murphy: There was an immunity provision, a legal immunity provision early on and that was taken out too, to your point.

Gruber-Miller: Right, kids wouldn't have been able to get worker's compensation if they were working at these jobs and now they will. So, I think a lot of the things that caused sort of the most outrage at the beginning are kind of out and what's left is certainly an expansion of what types of jobs kids can do and the number of hours they can work, which is still a concern for people. But, I think republicans can say we've looked hard at this.

Price: It's interesting to me that they talk about this is not really about workforces, it's about opportunities. But, big picture since COVID hit, this has gone on for years here, Iowa doesn't have enough workers for the jobs that employers want here. This will clearly help address that, which is what some of these groups have wanted regardless of what the legislators are saying. They're trying to get more people into the workforce to fill some of these spots that have been hard to fill.

Henderson: Who's going to stock my grocery store shelves?

Price: Maybe a robot.

Rooker: Or potentially, I don't know exactly what the bill says on whether it's 14, 15 or 16, 17, but I think when you hear lawmakers on the floor saying that it's not necessarily about workforce, but you're talking to a lot of employers or talking to parents, I know just in my coverage some people that I was talking to on this bill said they saw kind of a double edged sword with this bill of 14 year olds submitting applications and getting turned away because they can only work at restaurants, fast food chains, they can only work until 7:00 p.m. during the school year --

Price: The way it is now.

Rooker: Right now, before this bill passed through. Well, that's not even close to being through the dinner rush. And so, companies that are struggling to find workers and struggling with finances might not want to hire someone that has to leave during the busiest time of their night. But companies are also struggling with worker shortages. So, one side of this that I have heard the pitch is that this solves that with the hours conversation.

Gruber-Miller: And actually the dinner rush, one of the most controversial aspects of this is letting 16 and 17 year olds serve alcohol in restaurants with the parent's permission. So, that is another sort of potential solve for that workforce problem for restaurants.

Murphy: And look, the argument made that this is not about solving the state's workforce crisis but part of that task force that looked into this and came up with these recommendations including the state director of the Department on Workforce.

Henderson: Let's shift gears to big votes that were taken this week in the House and Senate on big bills. The Senate passed a property tax relief bill that was in the neighborhood of a hundred million dollars’ worth of property tax relief, trying to consolidate and get rid of a couple of property tax levies, it enhanced the tax credits for veterans and the elderly and made them more lucrative, whereas in the House their approach is committing to spending more than $200 million in state money for the next several years, if not forever, to have the state shoulder more of the local cost for local school districts, which would then lower your property tax bills. It seems like these two, these ideas are not the same. Erin, how does one resolve something that seems to have such a great chasm between them?

Murphy: Yeah, and this is another example of what I talked about earlier -- and these are a little more different than some of those other examples -- but where you have republicans working in the same direction on the topic but having two different ways of getting there and that is the challenge. The question you asked, is the challenge that faces in particular the two legislators who are working on this most directly, Bobby Kaufmann in the House and Dan Dawson in the Senate, from what they tell us they are in constant back and forth on this and they have to figure out a way to we both want to do the same thing but how are we going to do that. And you're right, there is some really big and really important differences there that they're going to have to work out.

Gruber-Miller: And when you ask them about it -- they have been very full of praise for each other, they have thanked each other on the floor when they have been debating these bills -- but when you ask them about it they don't emphasize the differences, they emphasize well we're concerned with the same things, we're concerned with how much people's tax bills are going up, we're concerned with transparency in your property tax bill. So, even though their approaches are very different they're saying that we're focused on the same areas here.

Henderson: Isn't the problem here the Governor didn't propose this? She proposed income tax cuts before. She has let them make the decision and made it clear she wants to get rid of the income tax. And so, isn't that part of the problem?

Gruber-Miller: I think the other thing is there's so many moving parts with property taxes. I think you can fairly say that property taxes are more complicated in this state than income taxes. It affects local governments, cities, schools, community colleges, counties. There's all these different -- and there's different tax levies. So, I think that that's part of it as well.

Rooker: I was just going to say, at least towards the end of closing remarks in the Senate, a lot of lawmakers were saying, let's pass this forward, this is a great first step, or we're going to continue to look at this, or this is phase one. And so, even though we're talking about being close to the end of session, lawmakers were publicly acknowledging that there is going to be more work even in their own chamber. And another I think interesting thing to note that we don't always see is we're seeing very big differences between the House and Senate, but between republicans and democrats I think it was almost all but one that voted yes on these. So, we're seeing agreement bipartisan but disagreement between the chambers.

Henderson: Dave, we've seen agreement in the House and Senate in regards to a bill that would change the rules for SNAP food stamps and it would establish a new asset test and do some other things. It's now on the Governor's desk. What are the prospects for her signing it?

Price: One hundred percent I would presume. It's hard to imagine that she would not sign this.

Henderson: Also, some big confirmation votes in the Senate this week, Erin, for the Iowa Utilities Board sort of completely redoing the thing in that there are two new members out of three.

Murphy: Yeah, it's the board that regulates utilities and they've got some big decisions coming up with pipeline projects and other things out there. And now two of the three members are going to be new and one of them received very strong, speaking of bipartisan support, bipartisan support, the other one was closer along party lines. So that is how the legislators felt about them. The other just generally broadly speaking about this process, we're in the first year where republicans on longer need any democratic votes to pass these confirmations, these gubernatorial appointments. They used to -- because of the two-thirds threshold needed they at least needed some democrats to join them. Now republicans can approve whoever the Governor appoints regardless of how democrats feel about them and that has happened with a few of them, they have passed with exactly 34 votes.

Henderson: 34 equals two-thirds of 50. Wow, we've done math on this show. Put that down. Amanda, one of the Governor's priorities for several years, first proposed in 2019 after she talked about it on the campaign trail in 2018, is making birth control available behind the counter sort of at a pharmacy. That seems to languish again in 2023.

Rooker: Yeah, this is interesting in a climate where the Governor has pretty much gotten every piece of policy that she wanted through the Statehouse. For the most part this seems to be the one thing that is remaining. Again, the Senate did pass a behind-the-counter birth control bill, it would allow Iowans to access birth control through a pharmacist without a doctor's prescription. The House has it still in a few different health care bills. But it hasn't made it across the finish line yet. And we haven't been talking about it a whole lot at the Statehouse. And so, it seems like this could be something that falls through the cracks, although the theme of the Statehouse is it's not dead until the session is over. So, we could see it.

Henderson: Exactly, so Dave, we've got about three minutes left. A bill was released this past week, last week not this week, about the Iowa Caucuses. Tell us about it.

Price: Not to be a drama queen, but I would call that one stunning. So late in the process, if we reverse here and look back to last May I believe it was, Iowa democrats kind of threw their Hail Mary, so they were essentially going to do the caucus kind of in a mail-in version, if you will, when you make your presidential choice. So, they can start that whenever they want. So, technically they could still say they are first even though the Democratic National Committee doesn't want them to be first. So, all these many months go by and all of a sudden Representative Bobby Kaufmann, the son of State Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann, puts this bill out that what democrats are going to do it's not going to work and everything kind of explodes I think after that. Bobby Kaufmann is also working for Donald Trump as a paid staffer. So, people are wondering where this came from, why it's happening. Now, we'll see if the Senate even does anything with this, which may not happen, but it to me was so interesting that they chose to get involved in what is usually a pretty bipartisan feel, democrats and republicans working together to preserve the future of the caucuses. And in this situation the son of a party chair gets involved.

Henderson: Stephen, you got a statement from the Senate Majority Leader referring to the long-term bipartisan effort to keep the caucuses first.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, the statement was essentially very sort of, was a statement without saying a whole lot. It essentially said, the caucuses are good for Iowa, there is a long bipartisan consensus of trying to keep them, we are evaluating this bill. So, it's not totally clear what is going to happen in the Senate with this bill. I think, to Dave's point, it really reflects the pressure that some republicans, including I think Jeff Kaufmann, are feeling from New Hampshire, which has already said that they're planning to buck the DNC and hold the first contest and so they might be moving forward anyway and possibly facing sanctions. But they are concerned that democrats' plan could jeopardize republicans' position at the front of the pack.

Murphy: Yeah, that's exactly right. That is the stated motivation for this is they believe it will cost Iowa republicans first-in-the-nation status, that democrats have already lost theirs, it looks like that cat is out of the bag and now Iowa republicans feel the need to defend theirs. As Stephen pointed out, this is a mess in so many different ways. New Hampshire was already threatening to jump in front of states on the democratic side anyway. So, there's a lot to unpack here and to unfold in the coming weeks and months.

Price: This late in the session.

Murphy: Specifically, through legislation, yeah.

Rooker: And late in the game when you're trying to plan a statewide caucus as well when there's so much uncertainty of what is the structure of the caucuses going to look like? Are the parties going to be able to go on the same day? And will Iowa remain first-in-the-nation? And we are less than a year out from when the caucuses are traditionally held. I wonder how much that causes the lawmakers to try to jump in.

Henderson: Nothing to wonder about right now, I have some certainty, we are done with this conversation. Thank you all for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press. If you'd like to watch something you missed today or any other episode of Iowa Press you can do so at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.



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