Iowa Representative Jennifer Konfrst

Iowa Press | Episode
May 19, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa House Minority Leader Rep. Jennifer Konfrst (D - Windsor Heights) will discuss the 2023 legislative session, what's ahead and other political news.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Clay Masters, host and lead political reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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



Despite bipartisan agreements on a couple of high-profile bills, the Iowa House Minority Leader describes the 2023 legislative session as frustrating. We'll talk with democratic Representative Jennifer Konfrst 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 19th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest on this week's Iowa Press has been a member of the Iowa House since January of 2019. In June of 2021, she took over as the leader of House democrats. Welcome to House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights. Welcome back to the program.

Konfrst: Thanks for having me, glad to be here.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation is Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Representative Konfrst, this week Statehouse democrats published a letter from the federal Labor Department that addressed some concerns that have been raised regarding legislation passed by republicans this year that would relax some regulations regarding when Iowans under the age of 18 can work, specifically between 14 and 17. Some of that letter has outdated information, though, so I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about -- because the request was made back in March and the bill has changed many times since then. Is there still concerns for democrats within that bill? Are the Labor Department's concerns that they stated still valid?

Konfrst: Absolutely. The concerns are still valid because it still has kids working in dangerous conditions and it still has kids working more hours than they should be. And at the end of the day, businesses are the ones who are caught here. They're the ones who are saying, well wait a minute, which do I follow? What is the law? Is it federal law? Is it state law? And because republicans didn't take the time to sit down and look at what the implications were nationally and also what the implications would be on business, businesses are caught saying, I don't know what I can do and what I can't do. And so, it's just going to cause more confusion. We think it's important that we have consistency here and that businesses understand what they need to do for hiring and we shouldn't be having two sets of rules.

Murphy: So, to that, do you expect, have you talked to anyone with the state Workforce Development Department? Are they going to issue any guidance to Iowa businesses?

Konfrst: You know, I haven't heard back about any of that. I can tell you that we have asked for, how are you going to help businesses navigate this world? And we've not gotten a lot of, or any, response on that. But I do think it's important that we give some clear guidance to business because it's not fair that they would get caught in the middle, especially you're talking small businesses, restaurants in small towns. They just need to know what they can and can't do and there are a lot of questions, especially when you compare it to the federal law.

Murphy: Don't want to rehash that whole debate, but one specific thing I did want to ask you about today was an argument made by republicans that if parents are okay with these situations and the kids themselves are okay with it, why is that not okay? And they put the argument to you that democrats had said that essentially in the debate over the transgender surgery bill that if parents are okay with it and the kids are okay with it, why shouldn't they be able to make this decision? Why does that not also apply to this bill?

Konfrst: Well, we might remember that republicans did take away parental choice in that decision. So, that argument is pretty much moot because the party of parental choice made sure that parents don't have the choice for gender affirming care for their kids. What I would say is that there's a lot more nuance in the underage working world. So, you've got families that need additional income and if a kid is a 9th grader or a 10th grader and sees that I can work 39 hours a week and help my parents pay the bills, that is a societal pressure, that is a lot of pressure on a kid who should be spending some of those nights doing show choir or football practice and economic situations have made it so that they're now having to work. So, we feel like it isn't exactly -- well it is certainly not apples to apples -- but it is definitely a place where we need to be protecting kids from those extra work hours because school should take priority and there's not a lot of protection in there for that.

Masters: Let's stick with children, some of Iowa's youngest. Another bill that was just signed into law on Thursday that Governor Reynolds signed in Fort Dodge raises the income limit for families to qualify for child care assistance and then also increases government payments to facilities to care for these kids. She signed that bill on Thursday. Do you think it goes far enough? Because child care assistance is certainly something that gets talked a lot about in the legislature.

Konfrst: Absolutely not, I don't think it goes far enough. That's not a surprise to anyone. But that is because we as democrats have proposed several things to actually truly address the child care crisis in this state including partnerships with small businesses to incentivize them to give child care assistance. So, public private partnership, which we hear all the time, is what folks want. And then additionally a fund to allow people to build new child care centers. The issue of access is critically important as well. We feel like going from 140 to 165 isn't enough. There are still a lot of families out there who need that help. And if we truly want to address the workforce crisis in this state we have to get more kids who have the opportunity to go to child care and get parents back to work.

Masters: So, how do you continue that conversation then moving forward into the next legislative session and beyond?

Konfrst: One of the ways that I have conversations with voters, because we're out there listening all the time, I'm traveling the state this summer, is do you have more child care spots in your community than you did a year ago? Do you feel like the problem is solved? And the answer is always no. Families are still struggling to find child care. So, when republicans knock on doors or go out on the news and say, we've solved child care in the state, look at your lived experience. That is a political answer. The realistic answer for everyday Iowans is it's not fixed, we need to do more.

Henderson: Democrats in the legislature oppose the Governor's marquee bill that created state-funded savings accounts so that parents of private school students can get some expenses covered for the tuition and other related matters for sending their kid to a private school. We have now learned that some private schools, K-12 schools in Iowa are raising tuition. Is there a means that you see to tell a private business you can't raise tuition?

Konfrst: I can't, but when we're giving that much of our tax dollars to private schools, and it's my dollars and your dollars going to these private schools, we should have a say in some way in how that is spent. And what we're seeing in some of these school districts -- first of all, let me say it wasn't just democrats who opposed school vouchers, republicans in the legislature opposed school vouchers and Iowans opposed school vouchers. So, this is not a popular proposal. This was the Governor trying to get a political win so she could compete with other governors around the country. But what I'll tell you is that we need protections for taxpayer dollars. And if we're having schools, some of them are raising tuition for kids with vouchers and lowering tuition for kids without. And let's not forget that the richest family in Iowa can take your tax dollars and take it to a private school for their tuition, take it away from a public school and then spend that extra money on a beach house. It is not what taxpayers want their dollars spent for and it is simply not fair. Private schools don't have to take every kid. Private schools need -- the whole point of the bill was to make private school affordable. When private schools are increasing tuition that's against the point. We introduced legislation to stop it. We introduced an amendment at the end of session to address this issue. It was a non-starter with republicans in the legislature and that was a mistake.

Henderson: So, what happens to this law say if democrats gain a majority in the House and the Senate and win the governorship?

Konfrst: Well, I can't wait for that day and it's going to be sooner than everyone thinks. But I will tell you that our priority will continue to be funding public education and that is where we're going to start. Republicans this year started their budget process with a billion dollars off the top for private schools. That's not how it's going to work when we're in charge. We're going to fund public education first and then see what is left. And then my plan is to defund school vouchers because that's not how we should be spending taxpayer dollars.

Murphy: So, that means you would repeal that law all together?

Konfrst: The first thing I would do is defund them and see what happens next.

Murphy: Last week on the program, Governor Reynolds said that one of the things she wants to do next session is address teacher salaries. She did not offer specifics to that end, but I wanted to get your reaction to that and what you think that could possibly look like or what democrats could support in looking at public teacher salaries?

Konfrst: Well, I'm pretty frustrated -- that's the word of the day I guess -- but I'm pretty frustrated that the Governor just finally came to her mind that she should raise teacher salaries a week after the legislative session ended with a surplus that we have in the state. She could have addressed teacher salaries all legislative session long, chose not to talk about it until after, which tells me it's politics, it's a political move. She also didn't say that she was going to raise public educator salaries, she said she's going to raise teacher salaries. And so, I wouldn't be at all surprised if she's not finding a way to make sure that private school teachers get paid more at the expense of public school teachers. Look, this legislature has been underfunding public schools for so long and teacher salaries continue to be part of the crisis in this state. We're losing teachers because they're being bullied, they're being told what to do and they're being limited in their ability to be the experts that we know them to be. Raising their salary is the very least we can do. What we need to do is trust them and respect them as the professionals that they are and of course part of that is teacher pay. But I see it as a pretty political, pretty cynical move right now because she just undercut public education to the tune of a billion dollars and now after session she says, oh I think we should raise teacher salaries. All right, we've heard this before, we'll see what happens.

Masters: Let's talk about where there was some bipartisan agreement in the legislature. A reminder that democrats do hold the minority in both the House and Senate, but there was some agreement over property taxes, the bill that passed the legislature and was signed. The Governor has also said that she wants to slash income taxes. Do you see bipartisan support for eliminating income tax in the state?

Konfrst: I can't imagine that -- again, this is another political ploy, right? We came together on property taxes and so instead of saying, good work Iowa legislature, we came together and did some work, now it's onto what else can we do to make political hay, right? So, we've seen other states doing this where they cut income tax and then the results of that are somewhat mixed to say the least. And so, this is a headline grabbing political play that the Governor is doing to say we're going to cut income taxes, it's what the Senate wants to do too. I don't see bipartisan support for something like that, not because we don't understand that there is a tax burden on Iowans, but because we want to make sure that we're playing in a realistic world and it's just not realistic to imagine getting rid of an income tax. What are we doing to do, get rid of public schools? Are we going to get rid of public services? Let's have a conversation that is more realistic, that's more reasonable instead of just throwing out political headlines like, let's just cut income taxes. That's a campaign line. That's not governing. That's just competing with other states.

Henderson: What should happen to the Taxpayer Relief Fund?

Konfrst: Well, I think that the Taxpayer Relief Fund should certainly do more than sit there, which is what it's doing right now. And I think certainly we can use some of that money for some of these property tax cuts. We could be helping local communities make up the difference in the money that they lose through these property taxes because services are still important. So, let's use some of this money to help with public education, to help with child care, to address affordable housing in this state, to make sure that utility costs are reasonable. Let's use that taxpayer trust fund to give money back to taxpayers and also give them the services that they have come to expect rather than continually cutting and leaving the surplus so large just so the Governor can brag about it. That's not a good use of taxpayer dollars.

Henderson: Before the last election, House democrats had a news conference about priority legislation you would pursue if you got the majority. One of them was legalizing marijuana. You introduced legislation this past spring to do so. As you look to Missouri, is that the template for what you want to do here?

Konfrst: I think that we took our bill, we worked on it for a year, and we looked at a lot of states and what they're doing to legalize marijuana. We wanted to make sure that it's safe, that it's a traceable product so that Iowans can trust what they're purchasing, we wanted to make sure that the money would go toward education and substance use disorders in the state, and we wanted to make sure it addressed that incarceration issue, so someone who is in jail for a low level drug offense in Dubuque for something that would have been legal in East Dubuque is kind of the situation we're trying to address. So, our bill is sort of an amalgam of all of those. But at the end of the day, we're seeing states around us in Missouri, Minnesota, we have Iowans going to purchase products there, bringing them back to the state and helping to fund Missouri schools and Minnesota schools and Illinois schools. We are missing an opportunity here for a safer product and more revenue for the state. And our political calculation is, this is what Iowans want. So, it's really, the ball is in republicans' court because democrats have been supporting this issue and have put forward a very reasonable approach. Republicans refuse to even consider it and that is out of step with what Iowans want.

Murphy: Speaking of what other states are doing, Minnesota recently came into the opposite of what we have here in Iowa, which is a republican trifecta and full leadership of the state lawmaking process, Minnesota democrats have that right now. They have passed a number of democratic priorities this year, legislation regarding marijuana legalization is one, voting rights, public education funding, family medical leave, there's a gun regulation bill I guess. I'm reminded of in the 2016 election cycle an Iowa republican was speaking at a campaign event and said to the voters, give us the majority, we have a stack of bills this high ready to go. What is in democrats' stack of bills if they would ever gain the trifecta here in Iowa?

Konfrst: When we win, we gain the trifecta in Iowa, Erin, thank you. But we are going to first listen to everyday Iowans. The things that we proposed in our People Over Politics initiative, they'll be first, things like defending public education and defending reproductive freedom, lowering costs for Iowa families, legalizing adult use of marijuana, the things that Iowans overwhelmingly tell us they want. And then frankly we're going to have to undo some of the things that republicans have done because they have gone too far. They have gone way too far, way to extreme and they have gone all politics. We need to bring it back to the center, bring some balance back. And so, part of our package would be to give parents back the right to decide what their kids do when they're under 18 and would be to ensure that teachers get to decide what books are taught in the classroom and that parents who already have a say, continue to have a say in a way that is more balanced. And then we would take our things -- a lot of what Minnesota does makes me jealous, I'm going to be honest with you, because they're also recruiting Iowans. If you watch Governor Tim Walz on Twitter, all he's doing is saying, if you feel that your state is banning books and your state is taking away food from hungry kids and seniors, come to Minnesota, things are better here. That is taking away our people because that is what the majority of Americans, the majority of Iowans want. It's frustrating and I can't wait to start to fix it.

Masters: So, let's take a look at the situation that you have right now where republicans do have control of the lawmaking process. I've heard from listeners, more than one, who have said I feel like all the democrats are doing is complaining about the legislation that is moving forward, which is what happens when you're in a minority role in the legislature, the news that is moving forward I think people were used to kind of the split legislature for a number of years with the Senate control by democrats, a House republican control. What are some of the ideas that democrats have right now if you were able to get out there and say them?

Konfrst: Well, first of all, yeah, we have a minority right now that is not fun and I do think Iowans expect more balance from their government and that is why balance divided government is good. Our People Over Politics initiative is for things that we have presented that are very well thought out, well researched and researched by what Iowans want. So, we would support public education. That is why we did our People Over Politics initiative. We're not just complaining. We're being proactive about what we would do. We introduced legislation all session that was ignored by republicans but is wanted by the majority of Iowans. So, the question should be to republicans, why aren't you doing what Iowans are asking you to do? I knocked on a lot of doors. They talked to me about affordable housing. They talked to me about reproductive freedom over and over and over again. The legislature did nothing on those issues this year. They took a page from a national playbook, ran a bunch of bills that were written by someone else out of state and they're running a campaign for the special interests. We're running to serve Iowans. We continue to push things forward. When you look at the Child Labor Bill there were 30 amendments that democrats put on that Child Labor Bill that forced republicans to negotiate with us to make the bill better. So, we are doing proactive things. But yes, when you're losing every vote on the floor you're going to want to explain what the holes are there.

Masters: So, how do you recruit candidates then to run when you've lost even more ground since the midterm election, the pummeling at the polls by republicans in 2022 and another legislative session that has moved forward? How do you convince people that they should run against some of these seats?

Konfrst: The best recruitment tool for these seats is republican legislation. So, I'm having not a hard time recruiting people to run for these seats because they are sick and tired of seeing this legislature go too far. And when they have a republican representative in their community who isn't holding town halls, who isn't responding to constituent requests, who isn't truly serving their constituency but is serving special interests instead, I've got more than one person in some of these districts raising their hand saying, I want to run. So, the conversation we have with them is, we're ready to fight back, they have gone too far, let's build back from here.

Masters: Does the party have the money to be able to support those candidates?

Konfrst: We're going to have a homegrown campaign this year that is going to be based in Iowa, that is run with Iowa dollars and the Iowa donor class on the democratic side is also very fed up and sees the importance of state legislative races as a critical way to stop the bleeding here in Iowa.

Murphy: So, what gives you the hope -- and as an extension of Clay's questions here, and you've said not if but when democrats -- so what gives you the hope -- we're into, forgive me, six or seven years of the republican trifecta and throughout that period republicans have passed bills that democrats have said are not good for the state and that Iowans don't want, but election after election republicans have maintained that if not in some cases grown their majorities there -- what gives you the hope that that will change in the eyes of Iowa voters?

Konfrst: The conversations I'm having with voters, the polling that we see that shows that the issues republicans are doubling down on are the issues Iowans don't want. And school vouchers and reproductive freedom are going to be key parts of this next election, I can tell you that right now. Iowans don't want school vouchers. They don't want legislators giving $10 million to Dowling Catholic instead of their local high school. They don't want that. They want their community school to be strong. That is what Iowans want. That's not what republicans gave them. So, we're going to point it out, we're going to hold them accountable and frankly, we're going to spend the next year and a half telling Iowans who is here to bring balance back to the Capitol and who is here to answer to special interests.

Murphy: Are those ultimately pull the lever issues, though? Will voters vote based on those issues that you're describing?

Konfrst: We know voters will vote based on reproductive freedom, which is why you didn't see much from republicans this legislative session on reproductive freedom because we know they'll stop at nothing to ban abortion but they didn't do anything this session, they kicked the can down the road because they know it's incredibly unpopular with Iowans. So, they should probably look in the mirror and decide if they want to support something that is so unpopular with Iowans.

Henderson: On the 2022 ballot there was a gun rights amendment that passed, it got more votes than any other person on the ballot. There is also a proposed constitutional amendment regarding abortion that republicans had advanced. How would that fit in with what has happened in other states like Kansas?

Konfrst: Well, I think that the political calculus from the republicans, if I'm putting on my professor hat for a minute, would be it would be a disaster for them to advance that constitutional amendment next session and put it on the ballot for voters in 2024 because just like in Kansas, just like in many states, abortion rights, abortion access is a key component for many voters and it motivates voters to come out. So, I will be surprised if we see that amendment come up in 2024. We have an amendment that we have proposed to put the right to an abortion in Iowa's Constitution. Republicans ignored it. But let's not say that they intend to ignore the issue, they won't be able to help themselves and they will not stop until they ban abortion in the state of Iowa and they will pay for it politically.

Henderson: Speaking of 2024, perhaps caucuses, how would that impact the Iowa Democratic Party if you don't have caucuses at the same time as republicans? And what impact would the bill that dealt with the caucuses have on the Democratic Party?

Konfrst: Well, let's talk about that Kaufmann bill for a moment. Representative Kaufmann, who worked for Donald Trump on the campaign, introduced a bill that will help grease the skids for Donald Trump to win the Iowa Caucuses. They like to talk about how it's a bill to reign in democratic caucuses. First of all, it's not the state's business to tell parties what to do. But second of all, let's talk about what it really is here. It's a bill that is designed to help Donald Trump win the Iowa Caucuses on the republican side. And when you've got half the caucus on the republican side endorsing Ron DeSantis and others with Donald Trump, it's going to be fascinating to watch.

Murphy: And are you talking about specifically the provision that had required registration 70 days in advance?

Konfrst: Well, that part but also the lack of mail-in ballot. I know that the registration got cut back a lot. But I do think that how it's going to affect Iowa democrats is we've got to learn how to run our own campaigns here. There's not a cavalry coming in to save us every four years, every two years, anymore. And if the Iowa Caucuses are here, first of all, 2024 was not going to be a big caucus year for democrats anyway, everyone knows that because of President Biden. So, the loss won't be felt as acutely this time for democrats. But look, they've got an organization advantage if they have the caucuses and we don't. They have people coming together. We'll still have caucuses. Whether or not there is presidential preference tied to that is part of the question.

Henderson: Well, if you don't have mail-in ballots what is the impact?

Konfrst: If we don't have mail-in ballots then we are missing an opportunity to have the inclusive process that we wanted. Is that what you mean?

Henderson: Yeah.

Konfrst: Yeah, I mean, we're missing an opportunity. We did this based on what we saw was a more approachable, more fair way to conduct the caucuses was to get people who are firefighters who are working on shift, get them to come in --

Henderson: But if they mail it in they're not participating --

Konfrst: But they're engaged in the process then. So, if we have mail-in ballots they're engaged in the process, we've got their information, we can connect with them, we can talk to them and help organize.

Murphy: In addition to your leadership role in the Statehouse you recently were named to a steering committee, a leadership committee within the state party, the Iowa Democratic Party, you along with Senator Wahls and Auditor Rob Sand if I remember right. What is the most important thing for you to accomplish in that role in this newly-created, I should clarify, position within the state party? What is most important for you to accomplish moving forward?

Konfrst: For me it's to get more democrats to turn out to vote. The state looks red right now in terms of our legislation and our legislative makeup. We're not a red state. 68,000 Iowa democrats who voted in 2018 didn't vote in 2022. That's 68,000 people we can engage with and talk to and get out to vote in 2024. That to me is encouraging. I mean, this tells me that we have a motivation problem, not a persuasion problem. So, a lot of folks agree with our issues and so we can get more out, we've got to turn more people out, we've got to define what an Iowa democrat is and we've got to show folks that we're with them. We've got a trust deficit with voters right now. We're going to go out there and prove to them, that's part of what we did this session, to prove to them that we stand with you and we're here to fight.

Masters: The Third Congressional District is likely going to need a democrat to run against Congressman Zach Nunn. Are you thinking about running?

Konfrst: You know, I think that right now I'm obviously -- here comes my answer -- I'm focused on the 2024 cycle right now for winning back the House and I'm running for Speaker.

Henderson: And I am calling time. We are out of time for this conversation. Thanks for joining us today.

Konfrst: Thanks for having me.

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


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