Reporters’ Roundtable

Mar 2, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4526 | Podcast


Rounding the corner into March means decision time for key legislation in Des Moines. Will majority republicans advance social issue bills and massive tax cuts? We dive deeper on this Reporters' Roundtable edition of Iowa Press.

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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, March 2 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: Legislative funnels have a way of refocusing the Iowa legislature on issues more likely to reach final passage. But this year a handful of previously unattainable republican priorities are still hanging in the balance. Among them, massive tax overhauls and one of the most conservative restrictions on abortion. For an update on those and other political developments we have gathered an Iowa Press roundtable for reporter insight. Jason Noble is Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. James Lynch writes for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Kathie Obradovich is Political Columnist for the Des Moines Register. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Well, good to see you all. You're surviving the session well I see. I want to talk about the tax bill first and I'd like each of you to weigh in a little bit. Kay, where does the tax legislation stand now?

Henderson: Well, in total Senate republicans have proposed a $4 billion tax cut over six years. Governor Reynolds has proposed a $1.7 billion tax cut over six years. House republicans are working from her tax plan as a template. Some might suggest that the Senate plan might be a Trojan horse because it is so massive and so comprehensive addressing all sorts of tax cuts. You have republicans in the Senate describing theirs as bold. You have the Speaker of the House, a republican, describing the Governor's plan as prudent. So that sort of lends itself to that whole Trojan horse mantra.

Yepsen: Kathie, what is your take on this bill and where it's headed and what it does?

Obradovich: Yeah, so the interesting thing is that the legislature has not even settled its budget for the current year that we're already in. There's only four months left in the fiscal year. They haven't figured out what the budget is for that year and now they're talking in the Senate bill about taking $200 million out of the budget for next year. And they really resisted democrats' efforts on the floor to draw them out on how are they going to balance the budget if this tax cut gets passed. So I thought that was an interesting point. The other interesting point I thought was that the least controversial part of this whole tax bill was eliminating the federal tax deduction from Iowa's tax returns. You guys probably remember some of this, there were practically riots at the Statehouse when Governor Terry Branstad considered that just really a couple, really a decade, fifteen years ago. There was a public hearing where the Speaker of the House threw out the public because it got too rowdy over this one issue. Now nobody cares. Nobody is raising any objection to that now.

Lynch: Well, republicans say they don't want to see Iowans' taxes go up as a result of the federal tax changes. But when you look at this debate everybody is talking about the big numbers, $1.7 billion, $4 billion, but in the end we might end up with just getting rid of federal deductibility, tinkering with coupling with the federal tax code, and that might be all they can agree on in the end.

Yepsen: Because the compromises that have to come out of that.

Lynch: Right, the House republicans and Senate republicans don't seem to be on the same page at all. The Governor's plan is much more prudent or practical than the Senate plan. And democrats seem to agree with getting rid of federal deductibility but beyond that there's not much agreement.

Yepsen: Jason, there's a lot in this bill. What is your take on this tax legislation?

Noble: Well, the republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the Governor's Office. They are fiscal conservatives. This is something that they feel that they have to be talking about and be showing their constituents that they're serious about cutting their taxes. And so, like we've been saying, this Senate bill is very wide ranging, it would represent a big hit to the state budget and even the Governor's tax bill is a pretty big hit to state revenues. I go back to what James said, the baseline here is they've got to do something to offset the tax increase that could be facing Iowans because of deductibility and the federal tax reform and that might be at the end of the day what they can agree on.

Yepsen: But Jason, you mentioned republicans controlling, they've got the trifecta, that doesn't happen very often. I've been impressed by the republican discipline on issues that they have long been favored in this state, they're going to go in, they're going to get it done. And this tax bill strikes me as that very same thing. To them it's not a hit to the treasury, it's a savings to the taxpayer.

Noble: Well sure, but we've had some budget issues over the last few months and there has been the demand for cuts. And it feels like even those modest cuts have been a real challenge and a real tough debate in the legislature about how to reduce state spending. How do you do that and then put on top of that a billion dollars in a year? They're going to have to answer for that at some point on how they're going to --

Obradovich: Even when republicans control everything, you know how it works up there, you've got republicans in control of the House and the Senate and the Governor's Office but you end up with these rivalries that pop up like between the House and the Senate, which we're seeing on this tax bill, or the House and the Senate versus the Governor, which may pop up on some of these issues as well. They often moderate themselves even though they control all three chambers because they can't agree among themselves and this tax bill may be a good example of that.

Lynch: Yeah, exactly. If you remember a year ago Bill Dix came in as majority leader and said we're going to kick in the door. You talk about both chambers being run by conservatives. The difference I think is that the Senate, Senators see themselves as bold conservatives. They talk about this bold tax plan. And in the House they talk about practical and what they can do without upsetting the apple cart. There is a difference in the way they look at this. They'll all say they're conservatives but there is a real difference in their approach and we're going to see that continue to play out for the next month or two.

Henderson: And the one thing to look at here is how the Governor asserts herself into this debate. Does she say okay, the buck stops with me and this is the bill I want to sign? She has not done that yet.

Yepsen: Historically when I've seen these fights in the legislature in the past, House, Senate, Governor, the Governor usually gets what he or she wants because they're the only person that puts all the pieces together. And so do we look at this bill and say, we really ought to pay attention to what Governor Reynolds has proposed because that is going to ultimately be the compromise and the default position? Is that your impressions?

Noble: I think so, especially when you're looking at so many individual pieces here. This Senate bill has some corporate income tax cuts. That is not in the Governor's bill. She sort of went out of her way during her Condition of the State speech to say I'm not interested in corporate tax cuts this year. I think on those kind of details her leadership and her preference and her being sort of in tune to what the politics of this election year are --

Yepsen: But, James, whether you like it or not this really is an historic piece of legislation.

Lynch: Oh definitely, definitely. And one of the things that makes it difficult that I think Jason was talking about is that there are things in here like the taxes on credit union and banks. That is a huge issue in itself. And to throw that into this tax bill complicates a tax cut. And I don't think the House is interested in taking that issue on as part of tax relief.

Obradovich: The Senate also took out a major piece that would expand sales tax revenue on digital products like your Netflix account or your movie streaming account and also for these Internet app based rides like Lyft or Uber and expanding sales tax to that. That's like a $24 million issue right there. And the Senate decided not to include that in their tax bill that passed. It will be interesting to see, because the Governor was interested in that part, we'll see if the House takes that part up. That's, offsetting a billion dollar tax bill that's like $24 million a year.

Henderson: But the messaging among republicans is this is Main Street versus Internet. And so the way they couch that in the House is that we're looking out for those hardworking people on your Main Streets, the retailers who are losing sales to all of these online retailers.

Yepsen: We've got lots more issues. I want to go to fetal heartbeat ban, abortion ban. James, where does that issue stand now?

Lynch: It passed the Senate. It would ban abortions after six weeks. If you remember, the House passed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks last year, but didn't have the votes to pass a fetal heartbeat bill last year. When we talk to leaders in the House they're very wait and see, we'll have to see where the caucus is, we're a pro-life caucus but we have to wait and see where the caucus is. This bill is getting some pushback, for example, the Catholic Bishops are not supporting it. They're not opposing it but they're not supporting it because of the Catholic Church position that life begins at conception, not in six weeks. A life is a life and they believe it should be protected. So there's going to be some interesting divisions on this bill.

Yepsen: The University of Iowa says they'll lose their accreditation for their medical school if this bill passes.

Henderson: Right, the other thing about this bill is it negates that 20 week ban that is current law. The Catholic Church, among others, argue that that's one reason why they don't want this to become law because an already existing law that hasn't gotten a constitutional challenge in court is working, whereas if this six week ban goes into effect I think all parties agree that this is going to go to court.

Yepsen: Kathie, so is this just a bone that republicans are throwing to their base?

Obradovich: Yeah, well yes, this is very, very popular with the base and this is something that, in fact, this issue and the personhood issue, which would take this back to the moment of conception, had actually complicated their ability to do anything on abortion because they wanted to do what was constitutional. Linda Upmeyer, Speaker of the House, was reluctant to bring this bill up, not just because she didn't have the votes, but because she didn't want to spend a lot of time on a divisive issue that was just going to be essentially knocking on the courthouse door because it's unconstitutional.

Yepsen: That debate, Kathie, was pretty spirited in the Senate.

Obradovich: Yeah and what we saw, well it was brief. It was actually a lot briefer than I was expecting. But what we saw was democrats actually trying to make the case overall that republicans are, have a war on women, which we have seen that rhetoric before, and one thing they did that I don't think the republicans were expecting was they brought in the sexual harassment lawsuit that Senate republicans lost, the $1.75 million lawsuit, and added that onto the pile of things that they were doing that were unfavorable for women. Republican staffers sitting on the side of the room that I was on actually gasped when that came up. So I think we can see where they're headed with this and it will be played out on the campaign trail.

Yepsen: Republicans better get used to this. I think democrats are going to be keeping it alive until November.

Obradovich: Yes I think so.

Yepsen: Kay, Kathie mentioned Speaker Upmeyer's role. It's interesting to me she has played a role, she is playing a role in the abortion debate, she is a nurse behind-the-scenes, she is playing a role in that tax debate. Is Linda Upmeyer emerging as the real power broker at the Statehouse?

Henderson: Definitely. She is, for all purposes, the top republican in the legislature and this tax bill gives her an opportunity to work with Governor Reynolds in a way that they haven't before. Sometimes they have been behind-the-scenes at loggerheads. She is now advancing the Governor's agenda on taxes in the House and it calls into sort of full relief the tension between the House, which has what you might say is a mature majority, they have been there, done that. When republicans took the House first and democrats still held the Senate they passed all these tax cuts knowing that it would never go anywhere in the Senate. Now you have this ambitious, new, energetic Senate majority among republicans and they're doing the things that sort of the House republicans got out of their system a few years ago.

Noble: And I would add onto that, that the House republicans are the ones who might be a little more endangered in this election cycle. We'll talk about the politics in a few minutes here I think but the Senate at this point appears to be sort of more secure in its majority in the 2018 cycle than the House does and that might make the House want to moderate a little bit.

Yepsen: James, Speaker Upmeyer, moderating influence? Powerful?

Lynch: I think so. I think so. And it goes back to kind of the mature majority. She has been around there, her father was a legislator, she knows the process, she knows how to work these issues. But a week or so ago we were talking to her and, talking just sort of kibitzing about deal making and she made this comment that really struck me about who is making deals? I'm not making deals. Who is making deals around here? And it wasn't clear whether it was like we don’t do that anymore or it just doesn't happen anymore, the tribes don't make deals.

Henderson: And that was really evident when you looked at some of the debate in the Senate this past week on some even miniscule pieces of legislation that there is a huge schism between democrats and republicans and it's very rare that you see them work in a bipartisan fashion on some of the big issues that face the state.

Obradovich: One of the things that has struck me this year is how in line Linda Upmeyer's rhetoric has been with the Governor's rhetoric. On this tax bill you talk about sustainability is the catch phrase that they're both using. We saw that on the water quality issue earlier this year where we're talking about this being a generational issue and something they have to keep working on. They are in line with their messaging right now and we'll see if that continues as they have to start making deals at the end of the session and there may be some conflicts. Right now they're on the same page.

Henderson: But Linda Upmeyer has shown she is willing to defend her majority even if it means throwing other people under the bus. In regards to this tax bill they're going at it at a slow pace in direct contrast to what Senate republicans did.

Yepsen: Kathie, is that working with the Governor, are we seeing that at work in the budget? What has happened to the budget? We're talking about all these other issues and a while back, not too long ago we were talking about all these dire budget things that had to be done in the current fiscal year.

Obradovich: Yeah they totally pressed the pause button on the budget. We thought, I think probably most of us thought that the first thing they did when they came into session would be to cut the current year's budget because revenues were coming in slower than expected. They still haven't even done that. There's only four months left in the current budget year. Now it looks like they have waited long enough that they might as well just wait until the next revenue estimate comes in, in March. There is a buzz in the Statehouse that republican leaders think that they're going to get a boost in revenue. It might make some of the pain from those budget cuts go away at the time when what they really want to be debating is really fun stuff like massive tax cuts.

Yepsen: Well, as Lily Tomlin said, never mind!

Obradovich: Never mind.

Yepsen: Jason, another big story in the last week was the ranking by U.S. News and World Report that Iowa is number one. Everybody loves to see that. But sometimes I wonder, you look at other states and they've got nothing to brag about, I wonder if being number one in a survey like that is a little bit like being best dressed at a hobo convention?

Noble: Well, everyone loves a list. In the news room we call that a talker. The Governor was on national TV this week talking about it. I don't know what it tells us really about this political moment. This is based on a bunch of metrics and data that might be data from 2014 or 2015.

Yepsen: It's got to be a big help to Governor Reynolds and all incumbents really to have that kind of --

Noble: Well, the question is, do Iowans feel like, do they feel like they're number one in the country? And yeah, the Governor who wants to run this campaign of optimism and things are really bright for Iowa wants to talk about this and democrats want to say, well look at Medicaid, look at mental health, look at education, things are bad. The question is going to be, how are Iowans feeling? Do they feel like they're number one? Or do they feel like they need a change?

Yepsen: James, does this make it difficult for people who want change in Iowa to get that change? Do Iowans become more complacent? I remember covering Lamar Alexander when he was running for President and he said, you know, it's tougher for Terry Branstad to get an education reform bill than it is for me to get one in Tennessee. In Tennessee everybody knows the schools are a mess. In Iowa that's not true. So is this going to make us more complacent as a state?

Lynch: On some issues it might, on other issues, mental health is one that comes to mind that there is broad agreement that change has to happen and we saw that this week in the Iowa House where they voted unanimously to approve mental health legislation. On some other issues it might make us more complacent. Although when I look at these rankings there's things like roads and bridges was rated high. And just remember a couple of years ago school buses were going to fall through bridges and things like that. So I guess that 10 cent hike in gas taxes is paying off. They looked at commute times while, commute times in Iowa is a non-factor. So yeah, I don't know, I'm not going to put a lot of stock in it.

Obradovich: People forget that there is a list for anything you want to show, right? There are lists out there and I remember years when one party was touting one set of lists and another party was touting another set of lists that backed up their political positions. Iowa is number one but the next list is coming along and we will all duly write about it and whoever created the list will get all the clicks on their website. I just don't put that much stock into it.

Yepsen: Right, the next time any of us hit a pothole we'll remember that our infrastructure is number one. Jason, I want to move along here. Guns is a huge issue in the country right now. Is there anything moving on that in the legislature that you know of?

Noble: No I don't get the sense that we're going to see any substantive movement on guns at the state level. This is something that the Governor brought up when she was on CBS This Morning earlier this week, she said she was open to a discussion. I don't know how substantive that's really going to be.

Lynch: The one thing that is moving is the constitutional amendment to put basically Second Amendment language into the state constitution. The other big issue this year was the constitutional carry, that you wouldn't need a permit to carry a gun. That died a few days after the Parkland shooting, the Senate dropped that bill. And that seems to be about the only gun legislation that is moving at all this year is the constitutional amendment.

Noble: Which is liberalizing gun laws rather than restricting them.

Henderson: But the Governor this week convened a meeting of top officials in the education area and in the public safety areas of state government to say hey, let's review school safety issues and make some recommendations. There is already a bill in the Senate that will require all schools to have an active shooter plan. 15% of schools do not today. So that is something that may happen. And also there is now starting to be a discussion about these sort of red flag laws that are in force in other states. The Governor has indicated to us in an interview in her office here in Des Moines that she would consider that if there are due process safeguards written into that piece of legislation.

Obradovich: Keep in mind that just last year Iowa passed a massive legislation that loosened a ton of gun restrictions. So it's not like they haven't been doing anything on guns. This would have, what the proposals were this year were take that really and make Iowa one of the most gun friendly states in the country, even though Iowa is already very gun friendly. So I think that these discussions probably may simmer on into the next legislative session.

Lynch: They're always campaign issues. Gun rights, it's a good campaign issue.

Yepsen: Always too many issues and not enough time. Kathie, one thing that has been moving along, not a lot of controversy, has been mental health. You have written a great deal about that issue. Where does that issue stand up in the legislature?

Obradovich: Yeah, so I went to a news conference this week about mental health and the advocates who have been toiling in the trenches for years and years and years without much say that this is a water shed year for mental health and the legislature. There was a high profile case, somebody that we all know, who lost their teenage son to suicide, wrote a moving obituary, the Register picked up that story and had a gubernatorial candidate forum in December on mental health. A lot of interest groups like the Hospital Association, the Nurse's Association, the counties all made mental health their top priority. So definitely. And then the Governor said this is going to be one of her priorities. The bill that is moving now is a result of recommendations of a task force that had been working for a couple of years trying to get people who need critical care or subcritical care into beds. We have a shortage of beds. So those kinds of things are, it's a significant piece of legislation.

Yepsen: Kay, we've got less than two minutes.

Henderson: Okay.

Yepsen: One hot issue, traffic cameras. What are we doing in Iowa, if anything, about traffic tickets written by TV cameras?

Henderson: Well, the legislature might ban them and they might just regulate them more. The Senate has passed a bill this year that would ban them. The Senate last year passed a bill that would just regulate them. It is now on the House to decide which way this conversation is directed.

Yepsen: Never an official Iowa Press show unless we talk politics. Jason, filing period is coming up for candidates to run, it's open now. A lot of talk about a democratic wave in Congress. Could there be a democratic wave in the Iowa legislature?

Noble: Possibly. I think the House has a better shot at seeing some real movement rather than the Senate, just kind of the way the map is drawn. I think the area to really focus on are the suburbs of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. We just had news this week that Chris Hagenow, the number two republican in the Statehouse, is moving from his very competitive sort of inner suburban seat to a more ex-urban seat in Dallas County, maybe a signal there that they're looking at some competitive races in the suburbs.

Yepsen: And Kay, we have a new Agriculture Secretary in Iowa.

Henderson: Yes and he has indicated that he will seek the office for good and he will face a primary of as many as five competitors. So that race may be decided, the republican nominee for the 2018 ticket, may be decided at convention as will some of these other massively crowded primary races.

Yepsen: Okay. Well, always too much to talk about and never enough time. We'll be back. Thanks to all of you for taking time to be here.

Yepsen: Before we go, our IPTV family acknowledges the passing of a dear friend, colleague and leader. Dan Miller spent 37 years as Iowa Public Television executive producer of public affairs, programming director and general manager. Dan passed away this week at the age of 66. We'll revisit Dan's legacy in the coming weeks on Iowa Public Television but we would be remiss not to mention it now. Dan's work touched not only Iowa Press but every program this network aired across the majority of its half century existence. Dan Miller was a cornerstone of IPTV, one strong enough for the rest of us to stand on for many years to come. All Iowans are better off because of Dan's leadership and vision.


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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