The 2017 Iowa legislative session presses forward and our congressional delegation on recess meets a wall of angry Iowans. We'll cover issues from the Statehouse to the town hall meetings on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, February 24 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: Media watchers, journalists and everyday Iowans may have had a case of deja vu this past week. A congressional delegation back home on recess facing angry crowds at town halls and elected officials providing few concrete answers. It certainly feels a little bit like the summer of 2009 when the Tea Party movement was emerging. But now it's democrats and progressive groups pushing back in community centers and gathering places across Iowa. Here to dive deeper into the news of the week, Erin Murphy is Statehouse Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises, Kathie Obradovich is the Political Columnist for the Des Moines Register, Barbara Rodriguez serves as Statehouse Reporter for the Associated Press and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: We've got a lot to talk about this week. And so we'll put you through your paces here. Kathie, these town halls, you attended a few of those, are they making any difference? Are they doing any good?

Obradovich: You know, it's really interesting and you mentioned the 2009 town halls, I was covering those with the Tea Party and I wondered the same thing back then, is this going to make any difference? In 2009 I think it did make a difference in terms of the Affordable Care Act, it helped scare republicans like Chuck Grassley right out of the water when they were getting, they were working on the bill and they were engaged. Now that Grassley, Joni Ernst are in the majority party, I think their minds are fairly well made up on some of these issues. But democrats are still, they're a little bit heartened by the turnout on these things. They say, this is a way of people showing their engagement on issues and it is an opportunity then for organizers, progressive organizers to identify who those people are, try to get them involved and keep them involved for the 2018 cycle.

Henderson: And activism isn't just at the town halls for Iowa's members of Congress, it's at the Statehouse as well. We've seen huge turnouts for public hearings, we've seen huge turnout for committee meetings. So groups are engaged. There was a huge rally of women at the Statehouse that spread all over the Capitol grounds. So groups on the left are hoping that this is a harbinger of what the Tea Party did in 2010 and had total victory almost at the polls in 2010. They're hoping that this is an indication that things are moving their way for 2018.

Yepsen: Erin, do you have any idea whether this will work bottle and canning this anger? I think a lot of democrats and progressives feel a little bit guilty that they didn't do enough organizing in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, a few more votes turned out in those places and we wouldn't be having a lot of these conversations.

Murphy: That's exactly the challenge and that is what is maybe keeping Derek Eaton up at night these nights, the new state chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, is finding a way as you said it to bottle this energy, this enthusiasm. It's out there. It's palpable. Keeping those people engaged. November 2018 is a long ways away for people who aren't normally involved in the process like some have become. So that's the challenge they face, keep them engaged, keep them involved, get them volunteering, maybe there's people they can convince to run for local offices. That is the big challenge is to bottle that right now.

Yepsen: Barbara, I want to welcome you to the Iowa Press table, your debut appearance here with us. Welcome to the crew.

Rodriguez: Happy to be here.

Yepsen: Before you were signed by the Associated Press to Iowa you told me one of the places you covered was the Wisconsin legislature. Good training for what is going on here. How does it compare? What do you think?

Rodriguez: I started there and it was for the 2012 session so it was a lot of interesting dynamics with the fallout back then with collective bargaining, there was discussion on voter ID. So I'm seeing a lot of similarities there so it will be interesting to continue to follow that.

Yepsen: One thing I learned from watching the coverage of the town hall meetings is that I think Chuck Grassley is running in 2022. He beat that teenager in a pushups contest. And that’s pretty good.

Obradovich: He can beat a lot of people who are a lot younger than him, not only in a pushup contest but probably in running when he keeps running every day, whether that's running for political office we don't know.

Yepsen: Well, we've got a lot of Statehouse issues to get through. And Barbara, I'll start with you. I'm curious what some of the live rounds are on many of these issues, where the status of things are so let's just wade into a lot of these issues. Gun legislation. What is the status of that?

Rodriguez: Well, there was legislation that was introduced this week that would make sweeping changes to Iowa's gun laws, everything from easing some permit restrictions, removing restrictions for background checks for private sales of handguns, guns could be allowed on campus. I think the thing that really stood out on the discussion this week in the legislature was the stand your ground provision which has made an appearance in other legislatures. So republicans have supported a lot of provisions in this bill in the past and so it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Henderson: And a few of these things have gotten democratic support when they have been stand-alone bills and have come up for a debate in the Iowa House. So it will be interesting how democrats approach this. Senator Gronstal shepherded through a few years ago the changes to the permitting process for carrying a concealed weapon. This bill makes changes to that, offers a lifetime permit, because democrats understand that guns are popular, people go hunting, guns are sort of ubiquitous in Iowa and so I think this is going to be an interesting one to watch and see how democrats sort of split their votes on this.

Obradovich: This may not be a slam dunk for republicans either because a lot of the law enforcement community, county attorneys, sheriffs, were coming out against the stand your ground provisions saying it will make it harder to prosecute crimes and also concerned that it will change the climate for gun ownership and people's sense of where their role is if they're carrying a gun. Are they out looking for things happening that they can then step in, almost like vigilante? So there are concerns and republicans tend to listen to law enforcement and so are they going to break with that constituency on this bill?

Yepsen: And what is your sense, is there some kind of big gun bill that is going to ultimately be passed?

Murphy: The one that is working through the House right now, and Kay touched on it a little bit, instead of deciding to do these piecemeal they have it in one big piece of legislation where it is all piled into one and that seems to be the one that they're really working on and will ultimately get the up or down vote.

Yepsen: So the train is a coming. Kay, let's talk about social issues. There's a lot of things that fall under that category of social issues in the legislature, abortion, death penalty, drugs, anti-sanctuary bill. What is the status of some of this legislation?

Henderson: Well, I was sort of struck by what President Trump said at CPAC today, earlier today. He said, basically all I've done so far is keep my promises. And he said, the era of empty talk is over. Republicans have historically campaigned on peeling back abortion rights, on reinstating the death penalty, on passing gun rights legislation and in some ways getting tough on drugs. You have a new Attorney General at the federal level who has suggested that he may crack down on states in regards to marijuana laws and low and behold there was a surprise at the Statehouse this week when a bill that had been seeming to advance that would expand the use of cannabis oil for people with a variety of medical conditions absolutely crashed and burned when it came to committee because republicans withheld their support. So I think it's interesting in that republicans have been addressing these sort of high profile, combustible issues that they've been campaigning on for years, whereas they haven't been addressing the other part of their agenda which the era of big government is over. We haven't seen any state agencies closed. The cuts that they made to the current year's budget were not that seismic. So I'm sort of fascinated by that.

Obradovich: And the other part of that too is the business community. All the talk in the campaign was about cutting taxes and creating jobs and we're seeing legislation that might actually deal with cutting away the minimum wage increases that have happened in counties. So that's not increasing people's paychecks around the state. And we're also not seeing a lot of the business friendly legislation that we might expect from a republican controlled legislature as well. So tax cuts may be a matter of timing. I think, first of all, we're more likely to see that in an election year, also Terry Branstad has kind of put the lid on what they think they can afford this year. But I didn't think that the Governor was going to really deter republicans, especially in the Senate who have been chomping at the bit for a chance to do this.

Yepsen: Erin, do you think some of these, as Kathie says, some of these popular bills may get shoved off into the election year? In other words, you do all the mean, ugly stuff in a non-election year and then come back and hand out the goodies in an election year, is that some of what is going on here?

Murphy: That is possible. And it's still possible you could see some things later yet this session, especially when we get into the budget where we could still see a tax cut bill or something else along the economic development lines. But that is an excellent point, there's a good chance that this is the year that they tackle the big -- it's almost like they’re going through the party platform, the party planks, all the things that they didn't necessarily campaign on it but everything that the republicans have said they have stood for in recent years they're ticking them all off the list now that they have a chance and maybe next year is saved for more of some of the feel good stuff.

Yepsen: Back in the day when I was covering state political conventions you never paid a lot of attention to those platforms because they didn't do anything. I wonder if a different time is upon us where you better pay attention to those platforms because they're starting to do what they say they're going to do.

Obradovich: It may be because I've been telling people, the platform usually elected officials don't even pay attention so why should we?

Rodriguez: But on that point on some of the social issues as it relates to abortion I am curious to see where we go from here. There was a lot of discussion at the beginning about funding over Planned Parenthood but there was also a personhood bill that has been introduced, there was a 20 week ban on abortion that has been introduced, there's some discussion of it trying to be moving through the legislative process next week. So I think that republicans will try to get that through.

Yepsen: What about the death penalty? Is that a live round? Is something going to happen there? Well, legislation has been introduced. Two bills kind of come to mind that aim to reinstate the death penalty which has been abolished for several decades. But I'm not sure, we asked House Speaker Linda Upmeyer this week about it and she had said that it wasn't something that had been discussed within the caucus so I'm curious to see where it goes if at all this session.

Henderson: The one thing that occurs to me is that republicans in Iowa are doing what voters thought republicans in Congress would do in Washington, D.C., replace, repeal and replace Obamacare, do all these things. And while it seems that there's sort of a stalemate and there's no clear agenda on some of those key items that republicans at the national level ran on they're getting it done here in Iowa.

Obradovich: Well, and I think with the death penalty they are going to probably run into the same thing they did in the mid-90s when republicans had control of both chambers, Governor Branstad tried to bring forth a death penalty and it's not a clear cut partisan issue. There were republicans who could not stomach going that far and it is also a fiscal issues these days because it costs a lot of money to have, set up a death row and do those sorts of things. And so I really don't think that they are going to get that bill even to the floor this year.

Henderson: And, David, you were at the Statehouse back then when they debated it in 1995. It was fascinating. It passed the House 54 yes votes to 44 no. By the time it was taken up in the Iowa Senate it failed 39 no votes and only 11 for. So once the discussion starts going people get really nervous. And the other thing is states are having a hard time finding the cocktail to actually put people to death.

Yepsen: I just wonder if something hasn't changed here, if the past is not a good guidance. As they used to say, it's not your father's Oldsmobile. This is not your father's Republican Party anymore either. So does that lend us to think that something like the death penalty could actually have some more traction this time. Erin?

Murphy: It could. I still tend to agree that it's a little bit more of an uphill climb. But it's a good point that you raise. After the election before the session I spoke to some of the leadership who was in the Republican Party 20 years ago the last time they had the trifecta here at the Statehouse and it was described to me as a much more moderate agenda that they had then. And at that time they were saying it will be interesting to see how Iowa republicans handle this newfound authority this year and they have clearly taken it and run with it.

Yepsen: Barbara, what is your sense on the death penalty?

Rodriguez: Again, I haven't been around too long here in Iowa and I'm still kind of getting my bearings in but for me I find it interesting that this legislation was introduced now in the roughly seventh week of the legislative session and if you're going to try to really commit and prioritize legislation you kind of try to get it in a little bit earlier. And so for it to come in now I just don't see the dynamics there at play to make this happen this year.

Yepsen: Another trick from the good old days that I remember is that leaders, reporters were all bored and looking for a story and so leaders would run these hot bills up the pipe, let's legalize the possession of a machine gun in Iowa and reporters, it's news, we write about it, while in reality the show is going on behind closed doors as they write a tax bill.

Murphy: I was going to say, the only other reason you do it that way is if you know you have the support already so you wait until the last second to introduce it. I don’t know that that's the case here.

Yepsen: Kay, what about anti-sanctuary bill. Talk about federal.

Henderson: Right. There's a movement in the legislature to pass a law that would deny state tax dollars to cities which offer sanctuary. It doesn't address churches that might offer sanctuary but that's a hot button issue that republican legislators in the House have tried to address.

Yepsen: School choice. Talk about where that legislation stands and what it contains.

Rodriguez: Well there has been long standing conversation since the election of this discussion over so-called school choice, giving students and parents more educational opportunities outside of a regular school building. There has been some legislation introduced but it doesn't appear that we've seen the one, the bill that is going to be moving forward. And so I think the clock is ticking because Upmeyer has also referenced that it's a priority for republicans this year. But I don't think that we've seen the bill that is going to be moving forward.

Murphy: Representative Walt Rogers from Cedar Falls is chairman of the education committee, says he plans to have a bill that kind of encompasses school choice, we haven't seen that yet. The challenge that they face with that is also a fiscal thing in a tight budget year. If you do anything too expansive on that whether it's education savings accounts or the so-called voucher program there's not a lot of money in the state budget as we know already coming in.

Yepsen: Kathie, a lot of controversy surrounding the Regents institutions. Talk about all that.

Obradovich: Yeah, well so republicans have I think an uneasy relationship with the state universities. They tend to be the more liberal areas in the state, especially Johnson County is the only county that Governor Branstad didn't win in the last election. So I think we're seeing bills like doing away with tenure. I don't think that bill is going anywhere. But allowing guns on campus, which would sort of usurp the authority of the Board of Regents which does the policy for campus. There's a bill by a republican senator that would require party balance among staff and faculty at universities which I've never heard of anything like that before. And so I don't know how much of these bills are actually going to go forward. I think what universities really have to worry about is the money and where is their appropriation going to fall. And right now the budget cuts that were approved for the current fiscal year, the University of Iowa displeased a lot of legislators by clawing back scholarships that had already been awarded to students. So passing those costs along to students as well. So I think that we're not done hearing about legislatures, the dome versus the unions.

Murphy: I was going to say real quick the collective bargaining thing impacts that too. There is a lot of concern among university educators with the collective bargaining reform.

Henderson: And one of the strangest decisions to make is to go after student scholarships. That just added to the percolating unease about how the universities are run.

Yepsen: Is that a game the Regents are playing with the legislature? It's called fireman first, cut our budget and we'll fire all the firefighters? Cut our budget and we'll do student scholarships?

Henderson: Make thing horrible for the students so the students and their parents will contact legislators at home and complain. That seems to be the game plan there.

Rodriguez: The other thing that is interesting too, it gave this opportunity for democrats to come out and say, republicans, this is their fault because they chose not to fund the Regents adequately. Regents come out and say it's everyone's fault. And there is this -- and republicans also say the Board of Regents didn't have to do it that way. And so there's a lot of yelling back and forth and in the process it's unclear whether students are going to be able to get the scholarships that they need.

Yepsen: Kathie, is ISU President Leath in trouble over guns on campus, his own guns?

Obradovich: Iowa State President Leath, so I don't think it's guns but there was a criminal investigation into his use of the university airplanes. That appears to have gone away now. And he has had the support of the Regents going through that process.

Yepsen: But what about the legislature? Has he got the support of the legislature?

Obradovich: I have not heard serious push back against him. I do think that the Regents are going to have to shore up their policies on things like use of transportation and to push off legislators trying to get in there and do it for them. I think that would just be prudent on their part.

Yepsen: Barbara, is there a danger here that even though these things are not live rounds, they have a real demoralizing effect on the faculty and the people on campuses?

Rodriguez: Just with what happened with collective bargaining too, there's this theme of does the legislature hate teachers or does the legislature aim at trying to knock down higher education in Iowa and make us less competitive? It's unclear what will move forward but it certainly gives, again, democrats fodder for trying to get ready for 2018 as well. And so is that strategy the best for republicans where they think that there's enough time between now and 2018 where they can be talking about some of these bills?

Yepsen: Barbara, go back to Wisconsin again. What was the effect on the University of Wisconsin, a wonderful university system, with what the legislature did there? Did faculty leave? Where was the effect there?

Rodriguez: I didn't follow it too closely but there was, there has been some comparisons with, at least with collective bargaining, where there was less competition, there was staff that left the state and the rankings of the university may have gone down in that process. So I think Iowa, individuals in Iowa that feel strongly about this issue try to see what's happening in other states to say, we don't want to become what that state, what happened there and I think it's possible they may do the same thing with Wisconsin.

Yepsen: Coming out of Illinois for the last seven years I can tell you that faculty, good faculty there are looking for jobs elsewhere and good faculty don't want to come to Illinois. But that's for another day. Kay, let's switch gears entirely. Water Works, what is going on with the Des Moines Water Works and the legislature?

Henderson: Well, as most Iowans know there is a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works challenging the way three northwest Iowa counties manage drainage and the idea that ag chemicals are getting in the Des Moines Water Works' water drinking supply. There is a bill moving in the House and in the Senate that would sort of snap back and try to change the governance of the Des Moines Water Works with supporters hoping that maybe that lawsuit might go away. On a separate path there is a bill emerging to have the state spend more money and a dedicated source of money to clean up surface water in the state. Republicans in the House tried a plan last year that didn't go anywhere in the Senate. So they're discussing ways in which the state can invest more money because you have small communities out there who have drinking water supplies that need to be cleaned up. You have small communities out there who have sewer systems that aren't working. You have a lot of infrastructure problems out there and that is what that bill may in the end address.

Yepsen: Erin, is the bill changing the structure of the Des Moines Water Works, is that just a Farm Bureau farmer, rural deal to stick it to the big city of Des Moines?

Murphy: There's some who would tell you that this is purely motivated by the lawsuit and also that it is something of an erosion of local control, which is something the republicans traditionally are supportive of.

Obradovich: The Governor wanted to bring this water bill forward last year and he had a funding mechanism that legislators didn't like. And now legislators, it was motivated I think by the lawsuit. Now legislators are just going directly at Des Moines Water Works. And I'm interested to see how interested they are in really putting a lot of money into water quality.

Rodriguez: And it's also kind of interesting with water quality, it was such a dominant topic in the legislature last year and it is one of many things this year. And so I believe that republicans will be able to get a piece of legislation out as it pertains to water quality without the publicity of last year.

Yepsen: Barbara, we've got less than a minute left. Real quickly, minimum wage. Is the state legislature, what are they going to do to the minimum wage?

Rodriguez: Well, they have indicated for a couple of weeks now that they're interested in a pre-emption law which would basically ban counties from raising the minimum wage above --  Yepsen: Will that get passed?

Rodriguez: There is support from republican leadership so I can see that happening.

Yepsen: Kathie, bottle bill.

Obradovich: Bottle bill. So they have been trying for decades to kill the bottle bill, the 5 cent deposit. Grocery stores hate it, they hate having to take the deposits. I think they have a good chance to do that this year if they get serious about it.

Yepsen: Well, we've got a lot on our plate up there at the Statehouse. We're out of time here but we'll be back on a lot of these issues. Thanks for joining us. And, again, Barbara welcome to the table. We'll return with another edition of Iowa Press on March 17th at our regular Friday night time of 7:30 before Festival programming that weekend. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at