Iowa Public Television


Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy

posted on February 22, 2008

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Borg: Charting an independent course. Democrats controlling Iowa's General Assembly aren't strictly following the Democratic Governor's legislative priorities. We'll question Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, Pat Murphy, on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation; The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. Any by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure; by Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, February 22nd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Well, last week at this time we questioned the leader of the minority Republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives, he's Christopher Rants of Sioux City. This week we're turning to the majority party. With Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate one might conclude that Democratic Governor Chet Culver's legislative program would have clear sailing. That's not entirely the case. We'll be exploring those areas where the legislative Democrats are exerting independence as we talk today with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dubuque Democrat Pat Murphy. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Murphy: Thank you, Dean.

Borg: And two people you see at the statehouse every day, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Speaker Murphy it's an election years so it might make some sense to start with the politics of the statehouse that seem to be driving everything. You control the house on a 53-47 margin heading into the November elections. Will you maintain or expand that control in November?

Murphy: I think we'll maintain it and I think we will expand it. We feel very optimistic about a number of things. The first part is right now we have, there's still a month before the filing deadline or about three weeks. And at this point right now it looks like we'll have 50 incumbents running for re-election while Republicans have nine announced retirements which puts them at 38. We think it's a very tough hill to climb to get back up to 51. But along with that we've done a very good job of recruiting candidates. We also think that along with that in the last year we've out raised the Republicans. We raised about $1.1 million in our caucus while Republicans raised about $725,000. But on top of all that we feel as if we have an excellent record to run on. We did the plan for prosperity in 2006, we've done 15 of those 16 pieces last year. We're going to continue those commitments that we started last year and we're still going to try to address that 16th piece which is commercial/industrial property taxes which we have Phil Wise will probably be running that bill later this year. So, we're very optimistic, we think the opportunity to increase seats is there.

Glover: You've done the mechanics that Democrats need to do to position themselves in November. Talk a little bit about the political climate this year. What kind of a year is it going to be?

Murphy: Well, usually I try not to get too involved in that. I think the big part that we need to focus on is getting the good candidates and getting good people that reflect the districts to get them elected. I think that is what we really try to focus on. Iowa is an independent voting state and I know everybody is looking at the national politics, things look very good for Democrats regardless of whether the candidate ends up being Senator Clinton or Senator Obama. But the bottom line still is the issue of getting good candidates. So, that's what we're going to focus on. And the reason Iowa has been an independent voting state and I can say that is in 1992 Bill Clinton won the state but Democrats lost control of the House, '96 the state re-elected Tom Harkin to the United States Senate, longest serving Democratic U.S. Senator in the state's history, we re-elected Bill Clinton but we lost control of the State Senate. But then in 2004 we ended up even though President Bush won the state Democrats gained seats in both the House and the Senate. So, this is a very independent voting state so it's important for us to get good people to run for office and quite frankly we think we've done a good job of that so far.

Henderson: For whom did you caucus?

Murphy: That's a good question. I don't remember -- no, I do remember. I do remember but I went undecided and the reason I did was I encouraged all the presidential candidates to help our caucus and they did so I thought it was very important for me to make the decision not to get involved in the caucuses as little as I could. What I ended up doing is going undecided with the goal of helping out any candidate that might not be viable. And then I didn't see the record turnout coming the way it did, I don't think anybody did. I originally went undecided and then on the second round because I couldn't help anybody that wasn't viable, in my precinct we needed 52 people to be viable, there were only 44 people that weren't in the Edwards, Obama or Clinton camp so I ended up caucusing with my wife for Clinton.

Henderson: Do you believe that Senator Clinton is the best top of ticket candidate for Democrats on down the ballot? Or do you think that Barack Obama, according to some national polls would indicate, is the best top of ticket person for Democrats?

Murphy: I'll tell you this right now, I think both of them will be a strength in Iowa and here's the reason I say that. The first thing is I noticed at my precinct caucuses Senator Obama there's no question that no party people and younger people, I've got a son who is 25 and a daughter-in-law who is 24, they both caucused for Obama. They told me, they said dad, I heard you talk about John Kennedy, I heard you talk about Martin Luther King, now I know what it's like to be motivated to go and work for somebody. And so we had, my own children went for Obama. But at the same point too I watched with Hillary Clinton and I watched my wife, my wife is 48 years old, she wants to see in her lifetime a female President of the United States and she thinks the farm system is a little bit weak for her gender at this point and she thinks Hillary Clinton brings the most to the table and she thinks she has the most proven record. So, either one of them I think are very strong for the Democrats and I think will win the state of Iowa.

Henderson: Do you think the protracted length of the campaign is helpful or hurtful for the party?

Murphy: At this point I think if anything it helps us bode well for the Iowa caucuses and that is the part, I'm still interested in keeping the Iowa caucus as number one. I think with Senator Obama winning here the one thing it did do was we proved that a state that is 95% white can accept diversity and be motivated by a candidate that doesn't reflect them in a way that -- with Senator Clinton finishing third we ended up having two people that weren't male or white. So, I think that was a strength of the caucuses so I do think that it's good for the Iowa caucuses that this goes on. I think it will probably be resolved in the next three to four weeks. I think Texas and Ohio will probably make those decisions based on what they do.

Borg: Do a little analysis for me, if you will, on the turnout in November and how that might affect your optimism on retaining control of the Iowa legislature. Turnout is outstanding we blow the Republicans away or turnouts low we have some problems?

Murphy: Well, again you're talking about Iowa and so we are different. In 1992 I think Democrats were very optimistic because the third party candidate was Ross Perot. We thought we'd get a lot of those voters coming over to the Democratic Party. We didn't. Generally if you ask most Democratic insiders they felt that people who went to the polls for Perot did one of two things, they either didn't vote down ticket or if they did vote down ticket they tended to be voting Republican. A lot of the people that Senator Obama draws we will have to make sure that we prove the case to attract them to the Democratic Party. And I think that goes back to our plan for prosperity where we're talking about issues like the minimum wage, making Iowa a greener state, doing renewable fuels which I think Iowans really do believe that we're a part of the answer to our energy crisis in this country. So, I really do believe that we have to sell them on the case, I don't think it necessarily bodes well for Democrats. Generally most people think that but having been an elected official for 19 years I never count my chickens before the eggs are hatched.

Glover: And you're a mechanical kind of an organizational sort of a guy, you like to look at the structure of a campaign. Think about this for me, game plan this. Whoever you nominate either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be a candidate who spent months bringing a campaign organization together in Iowa, running against John McCain who did a drive-by in Iowa. How much of that is an advantage for Democrats? And this is in terms of the organization.

Murphy: That is a very valid point, Mike, and that hasn't been brought up and it's actually a good point to bring up. Bottom line is if John McCain becomes the President of the United States he will be the first candidate since the Iowa caucuses became first in the nation that has successfully shown bypassing the Iowa caucuses and becoming President of the United States. So, it would have an impact, I think, on how Iowa caucuses would be viewed and you would have more people saying, well how did John McCain do it, maybe I can do it too. And it does hurt the Iowa caucuses and so I do think that is detrimental. And quite frankly if I'm Senator Obama or Senator Clinton I think that's party of my message next October and I think most Iowans will agree that they want to keep the attention they've been getting and not lose it.

Glover: What can you do -- the conventional wisdom nationally is a Democratic year -- what can you do to bring that message home in Iowa?

Murphy: Well, first of all I think Iowans -- it's one of those things I don't think they have focused on yet because Senator McCain didn't do well here but he didn’t' campaign here. But the second part too is that is something that we will have to remind Iowans about as that strategy gets closer. But because he wasn't here I think there's no question that he is going to be somewhat hurt by his organizational activities. If you take a look at Senator Clinton and Senator Obama they had huge organizational structures, both volunteer as well as paid staff, much of that will still be on the ground and many of those people will be coming back because they have the knowledge of Iowa, Iowa is always a toss up state so we're going to be getting a lot of attention in October and November. But there is no question with them that the organization will be way ahead of where Senator McCain is in this state.

Henderson: In 2006 when Chet Culver was elected Governor it appeared in 2007 when the legislature convened as if he was fondly embraced by his fellow Democrats in the statehouse. There appear to be some fishers in that relationship. Has your relationship matured to a level where there are some differences developing?

Murphy: First of all, there are differences. Quite frankly last year was -- I think the first thing you have to look at is this was the first time Democrats were in control of the legislative branch and the executive branch for the first time in 42 years and we wanted it to be very much a success and we very much latched onto, in fact, a lot of things that Governor Culver campaigned on were the same things House Democrats campaigned on in their plan for prosperity. We both talked about raising the minimum wage. He campaigned on the power front, we talked about making Iowa a green state. We talked about making small business health insurance more affordable, so did the Governor. And then when you want to talk about education we were almost all on board with what we wanted to do from K-12 education, early childhood all the way through to funding for the regents universities and for the research that is being done at our state run universities. So, I think generally I'd say 90% to 95% of what we did last year we were walking arm in arm through all of that because we had all freshly campaigned on it. Now you move forward to this year, I think still we agree with the Governor about 85% to 90% of the time. I think there's been a lot made out of the issue that because it's an election year -- the Governor needs to be praised for the fact that he's looking at issues dealing with the environment and he's focusing on some tax fairness issues. But the problem we have is there's not enough votes in the legislature to do combined reporting or to look at the bottle bill this year. Plus I think the other part with the bottle bill was he has to be commended because he looked at four components to the bottle bill. Representative Donovan Olson that is in our caucus tried to raise an extra penny last year for the bottle handlers and a lot of those are non-profits and are hurting financially. One of the complaints from them is you raise the minimum wage, we could use this extra penny. So, we were trying to do that last year in the legislature and we couldn't get that done. The Governor came along with a proposal that increased it from five cents to ten cents, expanded it, took two cents and put it into environmental programs so there's a number of things that basically occurred. He was trying to address a number of issues when we knew from experience it would be difficult for us to even do one of those pieces.

Glover: Well, let's talk a little bit more about those two things because of the tensions between the Democrats in the legislature and the Governor they tend to focus on the bottle deposit bill and corporate income taxes, he wants to do a thing called combined reporting where multi-state corporations can't search out a low cap state to report their taxes in. What are you going to do with that if anything? And what do you tell a Democratic Governor that you’re not going to ease corporate income tax or make corporate income tax rates more fair?

Murphy: Well, I think the first part is we released our budget targets last week and when we released those the first thing we did do was we don't have combined reporting or any issues dealing with the bottle deposit in there. And the reason we didn't is we know that it would be difficult for us to try to get that done. So, we thought it was more important to focus on funding our commitments that we started last year, focusing on education and healthcare but then along with that then focusing on the other parts of the budget. If we're going to have those issues I think that is a discussion for another year. But you still have to commend the Governor because Governor Vilsack and Governor Culver have talked about this issue now for about five or six years. We know it's an issue out there but it's going to be a very difficult issue to deal with even in a non-election year.

Glover: And since you have said you're not going to do those two things the Governor has moved a couple of different ways to step up the pressure on you, to bring in other outside groups to put pressure on you. Is that going to make any difference? Does that sway your votes upstairs?

Murphy: Sometimes it does and so you have to attempt it to see if you can sway votes. And you have to praise the fact that the Governor is talking to those groups, trying to engage them in the legislative process. And quite frankly whenever a Governor has something in his budget it's an opportunity for those groups to make their case and not just have the Governor carrying, you know, carrying their flag or their torch or their ladder. And so I think it's very important for those groups to be vocal. But you have to remember that there's also groups that are going to be opposed to those and quite frankly they were making noise from the second they were given by the Governor, as soon as they came out of his lips on the day that he gave his opening address on January 15th those groups were already moving to consolidate to defeat those. So, they are difficult matters, they get a lot of attention but I do think they're a focus for another year and not this year.

Henderson: A lot of attention was paid at the statehouse this week to a ban on smoking in most public places except for casinos. In what form do you think that bill will pass the Senate and then be agreed to on the House and wind up on the Governor's desk? Or do you think the smoking ban will pass the legislature this year?

Murphy: I think some form of a smoking ban will pass this year. The Senate last year passed a local control smoking ban, it had no exemptions and they were going to let cities and counties or county boards of supervisors make those decisions. We passed a statewide ban and the reason we did a statewide ban was we thought the votes were there which it proved to be right. Now, we have some exemptions in there. We're willing to work with the Senate in regards to what they are able to propose and I know Senator Gronstal committed this week to having a debate on that on the floor. Once we find out what the differences are once the Senate passes it whether it's local control versus a statewide ban or if it's some of the things that we passed in our bill we can make those decisions. There is no question that I think the local control issue, last year we tried to take up the Senate bill, it sort of got locked up in committee because it had so many exemptions in it that I joked that it was a piece of Swiss cheese but it had so many holes in it at the end of it you didn't even know you had a piece of cheese. So, I think at this point we really need to see what we can do. That may be a bill that the before its done ends up at conference but I do think we'll have some form ...

Glover: You started off with the Governor wanted a local control thing and it seems like the momentum for a statewide ban just took over at the statehouse. What happened?

Murphy: Well, I think a couple of things. First of all, 82% of Iowans don't smoke. They have been very vocal. I've heard from a few people that are not smokers that think it's wrong we're doing this. I've heard from a lot of smokers that they think it's wrong. But the same point too I've heard from a lot of smokers that say this is the right thing to do. And I think it gets into the public health issue. When Representative Tyler Olson ran this on the floor in the House I didn't realize until we started the debate that 440 Iowans every year lose their life from second-hand smoke. It takes about 48 hours when a person has been smoking in a room for those toxins to be released out of that room. So, there's a number of reasons to do this. And really the focus needs to be on the overall health of Iowans and I think that's the right step.

Henderson: So, why should the health of casino workers be endangered by second-hand smoke?

Murphy: Tyler Olson made a very good, he made a very good argument on the floor. The first part is we're in the legislature, we focus on what we can get done. There wasn't enough votes to pass this bill in both counts that were done in committee and on the floor without that exemption. But the second part of it though too was -- it wasn't just about the votes being passed, it's also the focus of what you can get done -- and we thought that whether we could address 50%, 90% or in this case it's 99% of all the workers there's 1.4 million workers, there's 9400 people that work at casinos. We thought it was a huge first step. I know it's not a perfect bill but in a legislature sometimes we don't deal in perfect, we deal with what we can do.

Glover: And you're looking at a couple of studies that have come out over the past year or so in a completely different topic, the state's transportation system. There is a study that shows that the state is about $200 million a year short of what is needed to maintain its transportation system. Brand new study just this past week says you've got a big problem with bridges. There is a bill in the legislature that would increase a bunch of registration fees to address that problem. What is going to end up on the Governor's desk? And is the gas tax completely off the table?

Murphy: The gas tax is completely off the table. The Governor took that off before we came into session and we're accepting that. We know that would have been probably the toughest piece for us to pass. But we will do a bill or attempt to do a bill this year on Time 21 -- Democrats just caucuses on the House side, we just caucused on that bill this week where we did the Time 21 study, Representative Geri Huser who has been working on this issue for years, will be floor managing that bill. Her and Representative Jim Lykam led the caucus on that. I think we're definitely looking at -- this is going to be very bipartisan, I have to give a lot of credit to the minority leader Christopher Rants, that this is very much a bipartisan effort. We met on the second week of session, it looks like we're going to be putting votes together where you're going to be seeing a number of Democrats and a number of Republicans working to get this bill passed.

Borg: What is Time 21?

Murphy: Time 21 is the study that they did basically looking at 21st century infrastructure needs for roads in the state. In the proposal that came out from the DOT that they had a 2 year study on recommended a number of things, gas tax, looking at pickup truck registration fees, drivers license fees. We're not going to be doing all of those but we are going to be looking at probably $100 to $115 million that we will be putting in the pipeline by the year 2012. But since you brought that up I probably should lead into the next discussion which deals with school infrastructure, the local option.

Henderson: We get to ask the questions.

Murphy: I'm sorry.

Glover: We're not done with this one. So, therefore if I am an Iowa vehicle owner, car owner, pickup truck owner I should count on paying more in registration and license fees?

Murphy: Not currently with the vehicle you own. We will grandfather all these vehicles in. We're looking, as you two are aware, you see the pickup truck I drive to the capitol, current pickup truck fees will not change, they'll still be at $65. It is when Pat Murphy sells this truck and buys another truck that his registration fees will change and will be treated similar to the way vans are and cars are. But there are a few exemptions as well. If you're a business or if you're a farmer and you can show it on your tax returns that you are a farmer or a businessman that needs a truck as a vehicle for the purposes of your business you can get an exemption that you would still be treated at $65. And back in the 1950's when they created this they did pickup trucks separately because most of them were farmers that had them. So, if you can show that you have a business deed form you will be exempt and it won't affect anybody that is a current owner. So, it will take four or five years to ramp up this $100 to $115 million that we would gain off of that.

Henderson: So, let's steer back to the sales tax for schools. The Governor this week said he was open to the idea of using this sales tax revenue which is currently collected by counties and used for school infrastructure, he was open to the idea of using it for teacher's salaries. Has he effectively killed the chances for this bill?

Murphy: No, he hasn't. I think some of that has been misinterpreted this week and here's the way I would look at it. The first part I would say is the Governor is willing to work with us on the school infrastructure piece, he understands that the legislature is a different body and we've got to work with 150 individuals to get what is done, it's not just the Governor. And I think in his remarks he said he was willing to work with us.

Henderson: But he said he was open to the idea of using it for teacher's salaries and one of our own Democrats said his answer should have been no.

Murphy: We are going to do teacher quality this year, we are going to keep our commitment at $75 million like we started last year, we're going to put an additional $75 in there. It will not be from this piece is what we will be doing, if we do school infrastructure we will be doing that extra penny, we will be raising $54 million for roads, we will be doing $30 to $35 million for property tax equity and then we will set up a process for doing this for a period of time so that we can deal with school infrastructure needs for anywhere from 8 to 15 years. I think that is the discussion the legislature is having. I think a lot of people have really taken the remarks -- I think the Governor's remarks that he was making is he's saying he was willing to work with the legislature on this and if we were to do that he'd be willing to work with us. That's not something the legislature is going to consider and I think he made it very clear to us later in the week that he was willing to work with us on the school infrastructure piece and deal with the issues that we could get to his desk.

Borg: Just a quick answer because we have other topics. On school statewide standards is that the foregone conclusion that you're going to push that through to the Governor's desk?

Murphy: There will be a debate this year on school standards and model core curriculum. The answer to both of those is yes.

Murphy: Was that quick enough?

Borg: Yes.

Glover: The Governor has proposed and the legislature is considering the idea of replacing the state's only maximum security prison at Fort Madison. Will you build a new prison and will it be in Fort Madison?

Murphy: I think the answer to both of those is yes. We will be -- I think this idea of putting out for an RFP, first of all, we have the trained staff there, we know there's going to be reductions in staff because we're going to be building a more efficient prison, it's also going to be more safety oriented for both the staff as well as the inmates and that means it addresses public safety as well. And the infrastructure is there so I really think the cheapest route for us to go is to build it in Fort Madison and then I think the additional staff that we have that because we'll have a reduction, of course, need to deal with some of the understaffing that we have at our other facilities around the state.

Glover: Is the Governor's bonding proposal the best way to pay for it?

Murphy: I think it is, especially the bridge financing. When farmers had a difficult time during the farm crisis in the 1980's they did outreach financing for them during a period of time until they could start making their payments on principal. There's no reason that we can't do that and Iowa has got an excellent bond rating. We're in the bottom ten when it comes to financing of bonds so I think we're in very good position to do that. And I think we should go ahead and proceed with the bill that the Governor laid out or something very similar to it.

Henderson: Will you go whole hog on healthcare reform or minutia?

Murphy: I think in the next two weeks you'll see the House moving on many of the pieces that the Governor proposed. I think we're going to address 18-25 year olds, I think we'll address children that currently aren't insured, maybe we expand Hawkeye. I think we'll deal with telemedicine. So, I think we will, I think it won't be minutia, it's somewhere between minutia and whole hog.

Borg: Thanks for being with us today, we're out of time.

Murphy: Thank you.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we're questioning Iowa's Third District Congressman Leonard Boswell. He has spent nearly 12 years in Congress now seeking a seventh term but fellow Democrat Ed Fallon is challenging him for the party's nomination. You'll see our conversation with Congressman Leonard Boswell on Friday only next week, that's 7:30 next Friday night only. And that is because our annual Festival program begins there on the weekend. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Archived editions of Iowa Press can be accessed on the World Wide Web. Audio and video streaming is available as are transcripts at

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation; The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. Any by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure; by Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at

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