Rep. Upmeyer and Sen. Petersen

Jan 12, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4519 | Podcast


The 2018 Iowa legislative session is underway and so is the 2018 campaign. We sit down with Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer and Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen on this special Statehouse edition of Iowa Press.

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Henderson: The formal speeches have been delivered this week. Now the work begins on delivering the policy agenda and presenting it to voters this fall. Budget issues, Medicaid problems and tax reform are all in the mix. A pair of legislative leaders have joined us in our on-site studio here in the House Chambers of the Iowa Capitol Building. Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer is a republican from Clear Lake. Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen is a democrat from Des Moines. Joining me to ask the questions here, James Q. Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Lynch: Welcome to Iowa Press. Earlier this week we heard Governor Reynolds deliver her first Condition of the State speech and in it she gave a nod to the Me Too movement, calling sexual harassment a destructive force in our society and it has touched this building. How important was it for her to include that in her opening day, or her initial speech to the legislature? And how much difference will it make as you move forward through this session? Speaker Upmeyer?

Upmeyer: I think it was incredibly important for her to address that issue head on. But before we talk about that I just want to say how inspirational I thought her speech was. I thought that the thing that came across about Kim Reynolds as she really sort of introduced herself to Iowans kind of for the first time in a really public way was how that rural Iowa work ethic, the values, the work ethic I think just came through so strongly and how genuine she was about it. So I think for her to ignore a topic that is such in the fabric of our society right now would have been a real omission. So I think that she addressed it head on, said sexual harassment will not be tolerated, I think that was the right thing to do and I think she genuinely meant every word.

Lynch: Senator Petersen, did it move the needle here at the Statehouse? This is an issue that the legislature has been grappling with basically since the last session. Did it move the needle?

Petersen: I thought it was significant that the Governor brought it up in her speech and brought it up early in her speech. Now in the Senate we're still waiting for Ambassador Kramer to get back with us on her recommendations on how we can improve the toxic climate in the Senate. So I look forward to working with Senator Dix and Senator Whitver to try and implement some policies so that our black eye that we received would dissipate.

Lynch: The legislature and other agencies here at the Capitol have hired a human resources resource person I guess you might describe her. What will she do, Speaker Upmeyer? What will her role be in the wake of this $1.75 million settlement of a lawsuit by a former employee?

Upmeyer: Well actually I was the one that made the decision that I would like to see a human resource specialist, director here at the Capitol. As you know, during the legislative session we employ between 400 and 500 people and we have them employed in sort of an unusual status. People are here for months and then they're gone. So it's a little different than most work environments. We had a retirement of a long-term employee in our payroll and insurance department, which is two people. And as we replaced that position it seemed like a good time for us to sort of up our game a little bit in the human resources area. Where it comes to how we hire people, how we might terminate people, what is it that we need to include in employee files, how are the evaluations done, when are they done, so many things that were just kind of left very open. And in my conversations it was a good time to do that and make sure we had a resource here in the Capitol for all the folks associated with the legislature.

Lynch: So, Senator Petersen, problem solved?

Petersen: Well, this is, democrats weren't involved in the hiring of a human resources director so I'm looking forward to meeting her and looking forward to hearing about her role, who she reports to, will she be given enough teeth to actually address the issue. So is the problem solved? It's yet to see.

Henderson: Another high water mark from the Governor's speech was her mention of water quality legislation. She hopes it is the first bill that clears the House and Senate and gets to her desk. Senator Petersen, are you in favor of either of the plans that are pending here? Or do you think you need to start from ground zero?

Petersen: Well, we saw over the summer months that meetings were taking place without health experts in the room, without environmental experts in the room and without democrats in the room. So we'd like to come to the table. Rita Hart held a water quality summit in her district, brought everyone to the table. There are some great ideas out there and this impacts everyone's faucet so everyone should be able to have a say in what we propose and what we move forward.

Henderson: Speaker Upmeyer?

Upmeyer: Well, I genuinely don't know about any meetings that were not attended by, well I don't know about any meetings, so let's just go from there. The Governor asked for a water quality bill to be her first bill signed. If in fact that is the first bill signed it will need to be the bill that is currently in committee. But I don't think we know the answer to that question yet as we start having our committee meetings and moving forward. If that committee, if we're not ready to do that particular bill it could end up with the House bill or in conference. There's a lot of ways it could go and I don't think we know the answer to that yet today. But it is, I think the thing we have to remember is that this is not just a one and done kind of bill. So I always kind of step back and remind myself and others that this is a generational issue and I think even though we may pass a bill this year that is perhaps not exactly what you have in mind or even that we have in mind, we have opportunities to go back to that bill and we will go back to that with regularity as technology changes and we learn more and more about how we can manage water better.

Lynch: The House and Senate have two different bills that they have passed. Is there either one that democrats can support or have a preference on these water quality bills?

Petersen: I want to make sure that we're taking a look and seeing exactly what comes before us before I answer for my caucus on what we will and won't support.

Lynch: Fair enough. One of the other issues that legislators have been grappling with for a couple of years is the privatized management of Medicare, Medicaid, I'm sorry, that serves about 600,000 low income people. In her address the Governor said mistakes have been made in this transition, which seems like a significant admission on the part of the Governor. When she said that, republicans stood and clapped. Speaker Upmeyer, why did they stand and clap? And what does that mean?

Upmeyer: Well, I think many of our members and Iowans, I think we all just, I think it's really refreshing that we're acknowledging that something didn't work the way we hoped it would and now we're going to fix it. So I think my members and I frankly are pleased that the Governor is going to do that. We know that it was bumpy, we thought it would get better quickly. It has not. And there are still issues around this with people getting services, people getting paid, companies that are in and then out and I'm excited that the Governor is going to make that a priority because 39 other states have a managed care program that actually provides better service. When you think about it, under the old plan the Medicaid just wrote checks. So if you never got a wellness check-up, if you never got your immunizations, if you had diabetes that was never controlled, we never knew. We were writing checks. Now we have a managed care opportunity, we should do that.

Lynch: I think some people would argue that republicans didn't show a whole lot of interest in this issue until this year. Is that a sign that this has become a political issue and that republicans are running scared?

Upmeyer: Oh, I don't think so at all. We really wanted to give the, we wanted to give the program an opportunity to work and I think we did that. We made sure that any time we had issues that any of our constituents brought to us they went to the Department immediately, those were resolved, and so we perhaps had the false confidence that the program was improving and things were going better. I think we have seen that that just didn't happen. So the fact that the Governor is going to take it on, I just think that's a very positive thing, good for Iowans.

Lynch: Senator Petersen, Speaker Upmeyer said it works in 39 other states, it needs to work here. Can it work here? Or is there an alternative to what Governor Branstad and now Governor Reynolds are pushing?

Petersen: Well, we have seen so many problems to the Medicaid privatization to try and fix it is almost like trying to slap a coat of paint on a totaled car. Democrats would like to see the program come back under the state management, like they have done in Connecticut, with great success and Connecticut is about 500,000 people more than we have in Iowa. So we know bringing it back in would work and we'd like to see us go that direction. There are so many problems with it right now and we have Iowans who are counting on us to provide care and to pay our providers on time. We are losing clinics around our state that aren't interested in being part of Medicaid anymore and that's a real problem for thousands of Iowans.

Lynch: The argument for the transition was that the state run program wasn't working, the cost was going up exponentially and the state just simply couldn't afford that.

Petersen: Well, and they also said that we'd be saving a lot of money under Medicaid privatization, which now we know we actually aren't. We're shifting costs onto health care providers and families, asking them to stay home and take care of their child instead of going to work because we're not providing the care their kids need. So it has really been a cost shift on the backs of hardworking Iowans.

Upmeyer: And there actually, I'd just like to respond to that because actually there has been savings. But I think the thing we have to remember, that if we go back to the previous Medicaid system we need to make a choice between Medicaid and education because that's our choice and that is why the Governor originally privatized the Medicaid system. If we go back we're going to have to start taking money away from education.

Henderson: Janet?

Petersen: Well, if we had grown our economy, the Governor promised us 200,000 more jobs and raising family incomes by 25%, that would grow our economy. I think democrats are focused on getting Iowans into good paying jobs where we have a bigger economy so we don't have this huge budget problem looming over all of us that republicans are going to have to fix.

Henderson: The Governor used her Condition of the State message on Tuesday to come out four square in favor of getting rid of a deduction that Iowans use on their personal income taxes that lets them take a deduction for their federal taxes. Speaker Upmeyer, are republicans going to embrace that and therefore reduce rates?

Upmeyer: Well, first of all, we'll find out if they embrace getting rid of federal deductibility because I think that's a discussion we've never had. However, we are very committed to whether it's through getting rid of federal deductibility or figuring a way to work around it, the money that Iowans were expected to be able to keep based on federal tax reform has to stay in their pockets. We are not going to use that as a way to grow government and hang onto it. When you get a tax cut at the federal level you shouldn't expect a tax increase at the state level. So we'll fix that one way or the other.

Henderson: Nearly three decades ago a fellow named Terry Branstad gave a Condition of the State message as Governor and suggested the same thing. It was wholly rejected by republicans. But now business groups are saying this is not the way that our tax system should be structured, Iowa is among only 3 states that allow this deduction and when they're going out to sell Iowa as a place to do business these business groups say it's hard to make that sale when they look at the top tax rate. What are your thoughts?

Upmeyer: Well, I think they are telling the truth. I think it is difficult and there has been some discussion about whether you could do that for the corporate and let the individual stay in place, how that might work. I think there will be a broad discussion. As you well know there are Iowans out there that want very much to keep their federal deductibility. So I think that's a conversation we need to have with Iowans first.

Henderson: Senator Petersen, what are your thoughts in regards to the tax details that are emerging from your republican colleagues?

Petersen: Yeah, we haven't seen very many details yet so really the Governor talking about federal deductibility was really one of the first things that we've seen be brought forward. Democrats are interested in looking at tax policy. We want to make sure that any changes we make to our taxes benefit middle class Iowans and also that we're making sure that we have our budget in check first.

Henderson: One of the things that she suggested was let's delay a discussion about cutting the corporate tax rate and dealing with this multitude of tax credits that the state offers businesses for a few years down the road. Is that the path that democrats embrace?

Petersen: You know what, if we're going to look at tax reform I think we should look at the whole enchilada.

Upmeyer: Can I just say I'm very supportive of the priority that the Governor identified. I think it's absolutely correct that we look first, if we can't do the whole enchilada, as you say, that we absolutely prioritize, as she did. Middle class Iowans, those are the folks that we want to make sure get to hang on to their dollars. And I think it's also appropriate where she identified a committee, a group to come to the table and talk about the tax credits and, the tax credits as well as any reform and how that might work together, keep Iowa competitive and yet not sort of overdo.

Henderson: Ernie Goss, who is a Creighton University Economist, was on this program last week and he said, essentially, don't count your chickens before they hatch, go slow, don't expect a windfall from the federal tax changes. What do you say, Speaker Upmeyer, to those who say counting this money as a windfall may not actually ever come to pass?

Upmeyer: You know, I think he could be right and that's why we've talked about it as it could be a windfall for the state and we're going to be very watchful because, as I said, we don't want to make that a way to grow government. It should stay with the people that actually paid that tax. But, I think we're going to be very watchful, we're going to be very pragmatic about the way we approach it. We think it's important for us to fulfill the priorities of Iowans as we are at the same time making sure that we're not growing government exponentially.

Lynch: One of the priorities that both parties have talked about this year is workforce issues. And in her Condition of the State speech the Governor talked about providing money for apprenticeships and work-based learning, even for prisoners. How much of an impact will those programs have on closing that skills gap in our workforce, Senator Petersen?

Petersen: Well, right now we have a waiting list at our community colleges for the Kibbie grants. And so we haven't really seen the details of her plan. We know that the programs we have in place through our community colleges work yet we have seen cutbacks to our community colleges. We also heard today that there are 50,000 open jobs right now and I don't think that says much about the work that the Governor has done throughout her seven years in getting Iowans in good paying jobs that there are 50,000 jobs with no Iowans to fill them. So, putting people in decent career tracks is an important part of the democratic agenda.

Lynch: Speaker Upmeyer, can the state do this on its own or does it have to involve the private sector in designing those programs and targeting those programs?

Upmeyer: Well, I absolutely think we need a private sector because as Senator Petersen pointed out the community colleges have been very involved with that job training and preparation and they do that currently in partnership with private businesses for the kinds of jobs that are necessary in different communities and I think much of that is what the Governor was actually talking about. And those last dollar in scholarships are exactly I think what she would like to expand. I think we can't lose sight of the fact either that this all starts in K-12. So it starts where these kids are perhaps even in middle school and we're assessing aptitudes and figuring out what they're inclined to want to do for their career in the future and help find opportunities for them to experience that. So I think the fact that we have made sure that K-12 education has been a priority in this state since the time that Governor Branstad and Reynolds came into office and we took the majority we have put $735 million new dollars in the K-12 system and we have protected it. Every single time we've had to adjust the budget we made sure dollars stayed in the K-12 education and I think that is all part of this whole jobs preparation program.

Henderson: Madame Speaker, the Governor proposed a 1.5% increase in general state support of the K-12 public schools in the state and an additional $35 million that they can use however they wish, money they had been getting to reduce class sizes. Is that something that republicans in the House will vote for?

Upmeyer: I think we're sure going to find a way to do that, absolutely. We haven't compared her budget with our budget. We'll be able to do that here now that we have her budget in hand. But we'll be able to do that and I'm hoping so. That will be our goal. The $35 million we would hate to have that fall off the table because the program ends but then is reauthorized in the future so there is a gap. It would be unfortunate if those dollars weren't available and the $54 million supplemental state aid, we hope we can do that as well.

Henderson: In a budget climate in which you're actually cutting the current year's budget and maybe withdrawing some of the priority areas for the following year, is 1.5% growth in general state support of public schools the appropriate level?

Petersen: Well, if you look at the Governor's budget compared to budgets that republican legislatures have passed over the past few years it's probably the best budget that Iowans are going to see because typically republicans don't spend as much as what the Governor's office proposes. 1.5%, we have seen very low budgets going to our public schools over the past years under the Branstad/Reynolds administration. It really equates to about $7 increase per student. That's about $1.20 per year less than a honey crisp apple.

Henderson: Speaker Upmeyer, what are you going to do for private schools? There's rumblings that you're going to give them some tax advantages.

Upmeyer: Right now the only thing I'm aware -- first of all, let me say the caucus is very supportive of school choice, just as we think it's appropriate for students to have options of going to a neighboring school if they don't like their own school and their family wants them to attend something that might be closer to mom or dad's job or something like that. That's great. That's a part of school choice. And we think that would be great to be able to expand that to other areas. However, we're sure not going to do anything that infringes on our public school system and I think it's interesting to take a look at what the Governor suggested with the 529, if that opens up the opportunity to perhaps use that program in a little different fashion. So we'll take a look. We'll see how that goes.

Lynch: In recent months we've seen competing polls on the popularity of the 40 year old bottle bill and there is a proposal in the House now to repeal the bottle bill. Is there some middle ground between the people who want to expand it to cover all beverage containers and repealing it? Let's start with you, Speaker Upmeyer.

Upmeyer: I sure hope so. I think there are as many, well not as many ideas for a bottle bill as there are members, but there's probably at least 15 of them out there. So I think this is something that some people are satisfied with what we're doing now, others are certainly not. I think people are in agreement that they don't like them being near their food in the grocery store. However, they aren't real sure how else they want to do things. So I think the dialogue is a good one and at some point there will be 51 people that agree on how we should deal with the bottle bill but until then I think the discussion is a good one for Iowa.

Lynch: Do you see a middle ground, Senator Petersen?

Petersen: I haven't seen the policy this year. They sure seemed optimistic but they have seemed optimistic year after year so we'll just have to wait and see what's in the proposal.

Henderson: How pessimistic are the two of you about the change that the U.S. Attorney General has announced in regards to state marijuana laws? Speaker Upmeyer, is Iowa's going to get mired in litigation?

Upmeyer: I don't think so. We'll see but it seems to give authority to people to prosecute. But we are looking at a bill that we passed last year that is pretty narrow, pretty confined to oil, cannabidiol. We did that focusing on a pretty narrow group of individuals who there was enough data and research that we felt comfortable that if doctors recommended that, that would be fine. So I feel like we're in a place where we're not getting anywhere close to recreational and that we might be okay. I hope so.

Lynch: One of the things we heard both of you talk about earlier this week in your opening remarks was bipartisanship and working together to do good things for Iowa. What is one thing that the two of you can agree to today, to get done today? What is one thing? And we'll go with seniority, Speaker Upmeyer.

Upmeyer: Okay, I have to tell you this is a little reminiscent of the last time you and I were together and we had a prediction at the end, right? I think, well I think health care. I think there's a lot of room for bipartisan work in health care whether it's the Medicaid or the opioids, the individual market. There are just many opportunities where I think we can work together on health care and it would be really great for Iowans.

Henderson: And you have half a minute.

Petersen: Yeah, well I would say thank you to Linda who helped 150,000 Iowans get access to mental health care, which the Governor cited in her speech today. But then on the same hand she said she wanted to repeal and replace the very program that allowed us to get that health care for Iowans.

Henderson: Thank you both for this discussion. We're out of time. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week with Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen. That's Iowa Press Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For our hardworking IPTV crew here at the Iowa Statehouse, I'm Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson. Thanks for joining us today.



Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. 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.    

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