House Speaker Pat Grassley

Iowa Press | Episode
May 5, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guest is Rep. Pat Grassley (R-New Hartford), Speaker of the Iowa House. We discuss the 2023 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, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register.



The Iowa legislature adjourned its 2023 session this week. We'll sit down with House Speaker Pat Grassley to discuss some of the key priorities majority republicans passed 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, May 5th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest today is the top republican in the Iowa House of Representatives. Pat Grassley, a republican from New Hartford, has been Speaker of the Iowa House since 2020. That was his first session. They just concluded the session this week and he is here to talk about that and more. Speaker Grassley, welcome back.

Grassley: Good to be here with you guys again. Thank you.

Henderson: Thank you. Also joining our conversation, Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Speaker Grassley, this week Governor Reynolds announced that applications will start being taken for the new school choice program that you all passed very early in the session. What are you watching for as that program is implemented to ensure that the state dollars that are being dedicated to this, up to $315 million or more at full implementation, are being appropriated appropriately?

Grassley: And I think that's part of why we have a system in place that involves technology. Obviously, I've already met with the new director of the department, I think it was the previous week, and just made it clear that the legislature wants to be involved in this process, when we ask questions we want to be able to make sure we're getting the information. And I'm hopeful. And this was kind of the message I left with the new director is we expect it to be a two-way street. When we ask questions, we need to make sure we're getting the answers and when there's recommendations, if there's things that need to be modified from the legislative standpoint we need to hear about that. But I think a lot of that is going to be an open line of communication and a level of transparency with the legislature and the new department director and the department as a whole. I'm hopeful he brings that mentality with him to the department.

Murphy: Do you expect to have to work on any legislation next year? Or is it more let's see what happens in the coming months first?

Grassley: Yeah, there's nothing that is looming, but I also don't want Iowans to think that whatever it is, no matter what it is, if it needs to be tweaked or there's something that we didn't catch, I don't want to say that -- we would do that on any program, it doesn't matter what it is, we want to make sure that the tax dollars of Iowans are being used the way they were expected to be. So, you never say never. That's not our expectation. But we plan on being involved with a two-way street in that conversation.

Murphy: And we're hearing reports already that some private schools are raising their tuition rates with this new program in place and this financial assistance being made available. Is that what you intended when you passed this legislation?

Grassley: Well, so from what I'm hearing a lot of them are going to that $7600 amount, which is obviously going to fluctuate based on what SSA does. But from the standpoint of the taxpayer from our standpoint and I would say as a legislature it doesn't cost us more. The commitment that we have made is at this $7600 per student. So, from the taxpayer and from the legislative standpoint the cost itself does not vary based on those changes that may or may not be happening.

Gruber-Miller: Yesterday the Governor signed a property tax cut package that you all passed this week in the legislature. And part of that has to do with limiting how much more revenue cities can take in over several years. So, how quickly will Iowans actually begin to see relief from this?

Grassley: And remember, you always pay your property tax in arrears, so whatever we do through the property tax formula that does lag behind a little bit. But what we wanted to try to provide is some certainty and some relief, which I think the bill does. And I just want to remind everyone, I said this yesterday during the bill signing, that this we hope is the first step of a global comprehensive conversation around tax policy within the state of Iowa whether it's property, income, the combination of sales, whatever that would be, I think this is the first step. And within the bill keep in mind one of the things that I think is unique about the way we're trying to do this is the relief is going to come through using levels of growth. So, local governments that aren't seeing significant growth, we would expect probably aren't raising their property taxes at a real high level. We're not out trying to punish those. But the ones that are really seeing massive amounts of growth, we think some of that growth needs to go back in the form of relief. And that is what this bill starts us down that path. But we know there's more that needs to be done. And again, as that conversation unfolds between now and next session I think you're going to see us dig further into that property tax conversation that we just started.

Gruber-Miller: The Governor and the Senate Majority Leader have said that getting rid of Iowa's income tax entirely should be part of that global tax conversation. Is that something you can support?

Grassley: I think, again, I think you'll hear me say this a lot between now and next session is that we need to have an overall conversation to decide what the path forward is to do that. That's a very, very in-depth conversation. If you go to zero it sounds very good on the surface and we want to continue to lower taxes, but I would also say be mindful there's a lot of credits that already exist, exemptions that exist, a lot of things within the tax system that will have to be looked at and it's not as simple as just going to zero and using the revenue growth that we will see or the taxpayer relief fund or growing within state ending balances to be able to offset that. That is a big decision that has to be made by the legislature working with the Governor. So, I would say that some of the options that really need to be on the table, like I said, look at further property tax relief for Iowans, look at further certainty for Iowans. We've already passed the state's largest tax cut last session. That's on the books. We could look at potentially speeding that up. We could look at potentially going further. But again, I think you're hearing a lot of things that need to be a part of that conversation and I think that will work itself out moving forward.

Henderson: You mentioned sales tax. There has been a proposal from Senate republicans that has never really gained steam over the past couple of years to raise essentially a statewide sales tax and use part of that money for water quality. Is that part of the equation?

Grassley: Well, I think it depends what the end result would be, obviously. That would have to -- whatever you're going to do as you -- you can only go so low based on the revenue and the amount of money that we currently have at the state level. As you continue to go lower you'll have to be able to put other revenue sources on the table. So, that would have to be one of them. But be mindful that that wouldn't be able to be the sole place you could go to offset any other levels of revenue. It could be part of the conversation. But I don't think we want to be in a position where we're adding four, five, six cents to the sales tax either. So, while it could be part of the conversation, I don't think anyone should look at that as the sole offset to be able to continue to do income tax relief.

Henderson: During this past week a democrat on the House floor said republicans are hoarding taxpayer dollars in the Taxpayer Relief Fund, not spending all of the anticipated tax revenue. I think your budget that was presented to the Governor this week spends about 89% of expected revenue. Why are you keeping all of that money and not spending it or providing it in tax relief at this point?

Grassley: Well, I think that number one, back to what I just answered with Stephen's question, we passed the largest tax cut in the state's history. We did that with anticipation that we know the tax cut is going to work, however, states that have tried to continue to lower their income tax, especially going to the flat rate which we're going to, if you at the same time continue to grow spending at a rate that outpaces what you're going to grow in revenue and you start looking at those one-time monies, if there were to be something unforeseen happen whether it's with the economy as you see continued raises with inflation, whatever it would be, we don't want to put ourselves in a position where we've passed this tax cut that we know is going to work and then we proactively make decisions that undermine that. We're spending more money on education than we ever have. For example, we're investing significant amounts, if not more than ever, when it comes to Medicaid services. And so, the point being, we still feel we are fulfilling our obligations. However, we've made a commitment to the taxpayer that we were going to lower their tax rates. We don't want to just start now saying well, we have a little extra money, let's spend it all. And quite frankly, we haven't done that from House republicans' perspective over the last 12 years putting our budget together. We use ongoing revenue so we're not using a bunch of one-time funds to make sure things balance. So, my message to Iowans would be we're trying to show them that we're obviously going to fulfill that commitment we made by saying we're lowering their income tax.

Murphy: One proposal that didn't make it through the session was Governor Reynolds' proposal to make birth control accessible behind-the-counter. This has been around for about a handful of years now, the Governor has been pitching this and it has not passed despite the republican majorities in the Iowa Senate and House. Is this just one issue where Governor Reynolds is not in the same space as other Statehouse republicans?

Grassley: Well, so there may be, even if there's just 50 republicans that are in the same spot, that doesn't mean there's not others that are in that space. I think that the conversation and where we've moved this year, I think we made some progress. However, we have 24 new members, sometimes that plays to your advantage, sometimes it doesn't. So, for a third of our caucus it was the first time being engaged in this issue. One of the things that we want to see with that proposal that the original proposal does not do is we want to ensure that women are still making sure they're having their annual visits and things like that. We don't want to make it so it's so accessible that you also ignore your other health care and lead to other situations where we're missing pieces within those yearly and routine checkups. So, we're trying to move more towards providing it in a situation where if you can't get into your doctor, it's an emergency type situation, that's what we're trying to move towards, however not completely upending the system that we have. So, I think within the caucus we've had members that have moved from solid no’s that are getting more comfortable as we're working through modifying the language and I'm sure it will be something we continue to talk about.

Murphy: And you have those members with those concerns but you also have some members who just ideologically on the other side of the spectrum are not comfortable with expanding access to birth control. And that's why I ask, is it just, is this just an issue that is doomed to fail in the Iowa Statehouse?

Grassley: I would never make a prediction of that level that it is doomed to fail. But it obviously, clearly based on the last few sessions, faces an uphill climb. But like I said, there's also people philosophically within our caucus that believe in it as well. And so, they are going to want to continue to work on it. So, it's just like other legislative pieces, you guys have all been around long enough to know that it may take first year it might not work, second year it might not work, it may be the third or fourth year in which you finally reach a level of resolution. But, I think it's something that the legislature should continue to engage in that conversation. I don't think it's something we should just shelve and say it's not an issue we need to look at.

Murphy: And on a similar topic, the Iowa Supreme Court is expected to rule sometime this summer on the Governor's request to have the abortion restriction law reinstated. I'm wondering what preparations you're not maybe actively making because we're waiting for the ruling, but what kind of possibilities you're preparing for including if the court puts the issue back in the hands of state lawmakers, might we see a special session later this year?

Grassley: So, and while my answer is probably driving all of you nuts for the last probably going on eight months now, I'm not going to change the position we're at, I'm not going to speculate. There's varying rulings that could happen that change what the legislature does. So, I don't want to put us in a position where we're putting the cart ahead of the horse. Obviously, our caucus has been pro-life, we have made a lot of advancements within this state on that issue and I think at this time until we see a clear direction for the legislature to go, I don't want anyone to be preparing for something that we don't know what to prepare for. And so, you will see the expectation of the legislature obviously having a conversation and tackling that issue if it is put back upon us. But at this point I don't want to go out and just speculate on something of that significance.

Gruber-Miller: Another session has passed without the legislature taking action on eminent domain. You all in the House passed a piece of legislation but the Senate did not take it up. Unlike last year, you didn't try to put that into the budget negotiations, really push it towards the end of the session. I'm wondering if you wait until next year to try to take action again on this is it going to be too late with some of these carbon capture pipelines that are going forward?

Grassley: I think there's varying opinions on what the timeline looks like and whether the legislature's willingness to take action whether this session was the time it had to happen, whether there's potential still for next year. I don't know if I have a solid answer for that today. I would also say from the perspective of the House we passed that in a bipartisan manner with a significant majority of the entire House doing that. Hopefully Iowans see that we sent a very clear message on where we stand and not only where we stood this session but going back to last session we also tried to do some things as well dealing with timelines of when the process would unfold. So, what I would say to Iowans is they need to continue to engage because we don't know for sure what next session, or excuse me, what the timeline looks like for next year. And House republicans if there is a need and there still is the ability for us to weigh in based on what that timeline may look like, I think there will still be a willingness within our caucus.

Gruber-Miller: And the Governor has just appointed two new members of the Iowa Utilities Board that makes decisions about granting eminent domain for these projects. Do you have confidence that they can handle these questions when they come before them?

Grassley: And to be perfectly honest with you, I haven't had the opportunity to sit down and have any of those questions answered. Unlike the Senate, they spend a little bit more time vetting the new appointments to any of the approved things like the board itself. So, at this point I haven't had a time to sit down and have a conversation with them. But I'm assuming if it was approved by the Senate and the Governor appointed them, they have a level of competence to be able to do the job. But I have not had any conversations specifically surrounding any of the issues dealing with the IUB.

Murphy: To follow up on Stephen's first question real quick, was there any possibility of that pipeline legislation that you all passed being a part of those session shutdown negotiations? Was there an opportunity or was that off the table?

Grassley: Well, I think the message was pretty clear that there was going to be no action taken from our friends in the Senate. And so, we had to make a decision whether it was an attempt in which we actually thought we could make progress or it would be a futile attempt just trying to delay session. And at this point I didn't feel comfortable that we'd be able to see any level of movement. So, I think we made the decision, we were very clear in our position. Our bill was a very strong bill that had been developed and it was, the basis of it was supported by the Farm Bureau, the largest land-owning organization, not land owning, that represents the largest amount of landowners within the state. And I would just say that we sent a very clear message. Some of that has to play itself out through the grassroots efforts of people engaging as well.

Henderson: This past week the legislature took final action on a bill that republicans call the Youth Employment Bill, democrats call it the Child Labor Bill. When it came before the House you made some sort of significant changes in regards to 14 and 15-year-olds and their ability to do certain jobs. Why did you make that decision?

Grassley: Well, and I think it was touched on this week during the legislative session, not only during debate but also in the close down of session, that was an issue that the minority party approached us as a very, obviously they've had concerns about a lot of the bills that we had and we knew we couldn't reach any resolution on some of the topics we've taken up this session. This one, for example, we felt that they brought some positive pieces to this conversation. So, we tried to work with them to develop some changes. And I just remind everyone that one of the examples in this bill, because I think it is being spun up to be not necessarily what it is, this is about trying to encourage and give the ability for younger Iowans to be able to be in the workplace. For example, instead of having to leave the workplace at 7, they can work until 9. I think some of those things that we did within the bill were being overblown that we were forcing people to be in the workforce. This is for kids that want to enter the workforce. And quite frankly, I think it will benefit not only our employers, but I think it will be a positive step forward for young people within Iowa that want to find themselves in the workplace. But I think ultimately back to your question, Kay, we were able to take some what we saw as some differences we could work through. Now, that doesn't happen on every bill because that just isn't possible on some. But on this one we felt that was possible.

Henderson: One part of the bill would examine the driving ability of teenagers. There is a graduated process for teens right now to get a driver’s license and there's some places they can't drive. Driving to work, is that something -- to and from work -- do you think that's something teenagers who are a little younger should be able to do?

Grassley: And I think that's why we landed with the study because there's been other versions of not only in that bill and other bills that would continue to expand it. We've already taken some steps to expand graduated driver’s license and where you can go. And I think we probably ended in the right spot at this point in time, instead of just piecemeal one at a time for this job, for that job you can drive. I think it is time for the legislature to examine that and then make a policy decision more at the global level of what is the right decision versus just one-off bills that we've kind of been looking at throughout the last couple of sessions.

Henderson: And finally, a bill about adults driving hit a stop sign. You're not going to address distracted driving. Why did that fail? It didn't fail, it just never got brought up.

Grassley: Well, just the obvious answer is we didn't have the support to be able to move forward within the caucus. But I would just say, there are still concerns from members of our caucus who do not feel comfortable just for having the ability that if you are even to have your cell phone in your hand that that now is a primary offense. And so, there's still some of just the logistical questions within the caucus that how would this work? What are the actual impacts? Is this going to be taken too far? How does it limit itself just to distracted driving? And who is to say whether it's a phone in my hand or a potential pop -- and the point is that ambiguity, there's just members that aren't comfortable at this point in time to be able to get to a level of support.

Murphy: The Governor's plan to reorganize the Executive Branch of state government was passed through the legislature and is in the process of being implemented now. One of the criticisms of that proposal was that it seated too much authority to the Governor's Office. Do you agree with that assessment?

Grassley: No, I think it was time and I think it's actually a very bold move for the Governor to take that probably was overshadowed by some other issues within the, that we took up this legislative session. But when you, for example, have more cabinet level positions than what the federal government has, I think if there's one thing we know about Washington they're definitely bloated, we don't want the state to be resembling anything like that. So, some of those types of decisions that were made I think were the right thing to happen within state government. It has been years since we've really taken a big look at this internally. And I think the one thing that is positive about it, as we had already started to make some transitions with DHS and Public Health, that with the right director in place, which we have right now, we've been able to make that transition. You haven't heard any outcries of any lack of services or any during that transition a disaster in the department. So, it was a good guideline that the largest department was able to do this. I think it shows that we can do that within state government with the right people leading it. And so, I think that is kind of the model that this followed.

Murphy: The legislature holds the purse strings. This gave the Governor's Office a little more leeway, some would argue a lot more leeway, in setting salaries in that office. Are you comfortable with that?

Grassley: And at the end of the day you have the, obviously there's the ability to set salaries, but there's also from the standpoint of the legislature the ability to ask questions of why, the ability to stop those from happening, the ability not to fund those level of increases. But I would say more importantly, if we're going to, the Department of Human Services is a perfect example, to have the right people to be able to make that kind of transition, I think we have that right now in Director Garcia. And to be able to keep and retain people like that in these other departments that we're trying to bring together, I think you need to have the ability to have the right person at the helm.

Gruber-Miller: Some of the education related bills you've passed will give schools some work to do in implementing them. For instance, schools are going to have to look through their library books, remove any books with descriptions or depictions of sex acts. How are they going to go about doing that and make sure that they have basically gotten them all and are complying with the law?

Grassley: Yeah, I think the first thing that we say about this is I think when we're having these conversations I actually think, and off the record from a lot of administrators and superintendents and others within the education community, were telling legislators like myself and others, give us a standard that we can all work by, because right now in each school building, in each school system, there was such a different process in place that people were unable to decide, just the legislature tell us what to do and we'll implement it. I think the most important piece back to the specific for age appropriate, we recognize you're not going to be able to go through and audit every single book you have on the shelves over the next week or two. That's not what we're really talking about. We expect that process to take place, however. This really, I think where it's going to have the impacts is what's coming in for the curriculum, what is coming into the libraries, what that material looks like on the front end. And that is why we actually went with, in the House we really drove the conversation around age appropriate. So, it was a broader conversation versus some of the other proposals which would have been more book by book basis. We didn't feel that was the right approach from the House's perspective. And that's why we said, let's look at setting that definition of age appropriate material and then hopefully this starts fixing itself just by the new material coming into the school districts, they will have to meet that level of standards. And quite frankly, we should know, each school district should know what is going in there. And I think this will make sure that that happens moving forward.

Henderson: On the final day of the legislative session, the House chose not to take up a bill that would have provided significant state tax breaks to huge billion-dollar economic development projects. Was the hold up the part which would let foreign companies buy farmland?

Grassley: So, I think there was multiple, obviously on the last day we were unable to achieve that level of support that we needed and so I think there was multiple things. Number one, I'm not convinced that the proper legwork went into selling the program to the House members, obviously not even enough to the point where at the last day of session they were comfortable to bring it up. You also had the piece with the ag land, I will tell you that we had a conversation within the caucus about amending that out to only American companies. That was one of the conversations that we had and where if this bill were to move forward I am assuming is part of that conversation from the House's perspective. Also, just the impacts, and back to the earlier questions about tax policy, as a state we need to make a decision on what our tax policy looks like moving forward. And so, I look at this as one of those pieces. Those are refundable tax credits, excuse me, those are refundable credits that would have been able to have been given out. So, those would have had an impact on what the general fund looked like and the amount of money that we take in. And so, again, some of that pause from our perspective was, if we're going to keep continuing to talk about taxes, which we should, we should always be wanting to give back more money to Iowans, this is part of that global conversation. So, I think it was a lot of factors at play. And if it were to move forward I think we've got some pretty good guidance from the membership what they would want to see as part of it.

Murphy: We have just a minute left and this is a big one to ask in a short time, so I apologize ahead of that. But, I wanted to ask you about this bill that in the campaign last year, Governor Reynolds said at one point that she was tired of having an auditor who is suing here and now this session republicans passed legislation that would define but also in some ways restrict the State Auditor Office's authority. Democratic Auditor Rob Sand is the only currently statewide elected democrat. How do you convince Iowans that that was not a legislation move purely for political reasons?

Grassley: Well, I would say two-fold. At no point does Auditor Sand's name appear in the bill. This is about the office of Auditor. Republicans have held this office in the past, so it's not like this has been a democrat-controlled office, the first thing I would say. Secondly, we feel very strongly that personal information like your vaccination records, for example, which in a recent court ruling even the court said the auditor had restrictions upon him that he didn't feel that he had. So, this wasn't just the legislature, even the Supreme Court of Iowa said that these need to be restricted. And so, we followed through with that. But, for this to be portrayed to be political I think would just be trying to derail us from what the real conversation was about.

Henderson: We'd like to continue this conversation but we are out of time. Thank you, Speaker Grassley, for joining us today.

Grassley: Thanks, Kay. Thanks, guys.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


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