Reporters’ Roundtable (March 15, 2019)

Mar 15, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4627 | Podcast


The Iowa legislative funnel has passed and key bills either perished or been given new life. We get a status update on the 2019 Iowa legislative session with Statehouse reporters on this 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 15 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.    


Yepsen: Last week in Des Moines an annual legislative tradition took place at the Statehouse. It's called the Funnel. Bills had to be sent through a committee or they were scrapped. Watching all the painstaking legislative funneling for us are Statehouse reporters James Lynch, Political Writer for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief of Lee Enterprises. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Thank you all for being here today, coming in off the session and off the campaign trail to talk about the session. What will this session, let's just go around the table, what will this session be remembered for? Kay?

Henderson: Well, in thinking about what previous sessions have been known for, they're most often known for what happens, on a few occasions they're known for what doesn't happen. The democratically-led legislature passed a union bill that labor really wanted, Chet Culver vetoed it. That is what that legislative session became known for, this schism among democrats. You remember Terry Branstad went to the legislature and said, let's get rid of this deduction called federal deductibility and his fellow republicans rejected it. Kim Reynolds is using her mandate from the last election to urge her fellow republicans to pass felon voting rights. If it happens, that is what the legislative session will be remembered for. If it doesn't happen, that will be revealing a schism within the Republican Party on that issue.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: I think it's going to be remembered for year three of the republican trifecta where republicans are trying to push through their plans for elections, judicial nomination and maybe felon voting rights but we'll have to wait and see. But it's this third year of republican control of the Governor's Office and both chambers of the legislature.

Yepsen: Erin?

Murphy: I think we've seen a theme of republicans and their frustrations with the court system and a lot of the topics that we're going to talk about here tie back to their disappointment with rulings by Iowa courts and their ways to solve those concerns legislatively whether it's over the judicial nominating process, a few constitutional amendment proposals, especially one on abortion. Republicans have grown frustrated with what they feel are, you hear the term judicial activism, from the courts and a lot of the biggest topics we're going to talk about today come back to those concerns.

Yepsen: Erin, what is a status report on the judicial selection bill?

Murphy: They have passed it out of the Senate just this past week here. So it has been approved by the Senate. The House has done it through a committee so they just need to debate it on the floor. Once they do that it heads to the Governor.

Yepsen: Is this a done deal, James?

Lynch: I think so. Republicans want it, they control both chambers, so yes it's a done deal. The Governor wants it. They have scaled it back from the original plan that would have done away with the district court level nomination commissions. The current plan, which the Senate approved, they took the House language, maintains those and they changed the process for nominating justices to the Supreme Court and judges to the Court of Appeals. And yeah, I think it will pass. There doesn't seem to be any opposition among republicans that I'm aware of and democrats don't have enough votes to block it, so yeah I think it's a done deal.

Yepsen: Kay, as Erin mentioned, abortion issues have figured into this debate. What is your assessment of prospects for a constitutional amendment on abortion being in the state Constitution or not?

Henderson: The prospects are very good in the Senate. It may be a different animal in the Iowa House where they have a narrower majority. But a lot of these issues that are a priority for republicans have a far easier chance in the Senate where you have, number one, a very unified cohesive group of republicans who seem to share the same ideology on many things and they also have a lot more votes than the House members. And then you have House members who may have future ambitions and they are a little bit more reluctant to embrace some of these abortion related proposals.

Lynch: I think where this could come into play in the House is in the end of session give and take to try and, we've seen this happen before in the House where the people who want to stop abortion, outlaw it, ban it, whatever, have really stuck to their guns at the end of the session and so they can hold up the budget, they can hold up standing bills or they can hold up key pieces of legislation by standing firm on that. And I think that is where this may come into play because I think Kay is right that the appetite for this constitutional amendment isn't as strong as we've seen in earlier years for abortion related legislation.

Yepsen: Erin, how much of what you're seeing in the House, and Kay mentioned the difficulty that republican leaders are having in getting things through the House, how much of that is due to the fact that in the Senate in the last election the republicans gained seats and in the House they lost seats?

Murphy: You have to figure that plays some part in it and the House is dealing with this kind of changing electorate where voters in the suburbs, in particular women in the suburbs, started voting in bigger numbers for democrats and that is what led to wiping out basically almost every Des Moines suburban republican in this past election. And as you noted, that gap between republicans and democrats shrunk in the House, actually grew in the Senate, so there's more appetite maybe to do more bold things. Jack Whitver, majority leader in the Senate, keeps saying we're going to do bold things this session and they haven't.

Henderson: So conversely, it appears that the proposal on felon voting rights restoration may have a better shot in the House than it does in the Senate because of the philosophical issues that you just raised and there's a technical issue too created by this deadline you described earlier in the program in that many republicans would like to in some way determine that there are just some felons who should never vote and they're having a debate among themselves about how do we address the issue of restitution and preserve victim rights. They can't do that on the resolution that solely outlines what will be presented to voters perhaps in 2022. So they're going to have to come up with some sort of compromise on that between the House and the Senate.

Lynch: And I think that a real debate is not going to be over extending or restoring voting rights to felons so much as when that happens, the restitution, that's the issue that really has people at odds and there are some people who say once you have been discharged by the Department of Corrections, you have finished your sentence, your parole or probation, you're no longer under supervision, then you should be able to have your voting rights restored. There are some people who say you have to make restitution, complete restitution. That makes it more difficult than it is today for people to get their voting rights back. And so I think that's where the real fight is going to be.

Henderson: And the really interesting thing is the Governor has again inserted herself in this because this past week she unveiled an even more streamlined process by which felons can apply to get their voting rights back and announced that she's shortening the window by which she promises to review those and she is having these documents handed to convicted felons as they're leaving the prison system.

Yepsen: Erin, how much political capital does the Governor have? Isn't this going to be a big setback for her if she doesn't get this?

Murphy: That's what is going to be interesting to see how this plays out for the rest of the session, how much she chooses to put her finger on the scale, so to speak. So far I've not got the impression that she has done that, she has been comfortable letting the legislators debate. She is aware of the concerns that Kay talked about that some of the Senate republicans have over this and some of the demands they want. She has the option to, like I said, put her thumb on the scale. She also still has the option of attacking this through executive order, which is how the Governors before her did it, Governor Vilsack and then Governor Branstad basically undoing it. She said the reason she doesn't want to do that is for that exact reason, then the next Governor could just come in and change it back. She would like to see a more permanent solution. But if she gets frustrated with the process she still has that option of with a pen and paper doing it herself.

Yepsen: Kay, the republicans for the most part though have shown some pretty good discipline and they're doing a lot of controversial things and democrats are out of the loop and are very frustrated. How much of this is due to the fact that republicans have the trifecta, the House, the Senate and the Governorship, and they know that's not going to last forever? That tends to go back and forth. Is there a sense of let's get it done now, let's do it now while we've got the trifecta and then we don't have to worry, we can protect it in future sessions?

Henderson: I think actually that was more of an issue in 2017 in that you had Governor Terry Branstad who had been Governor for a million years but had only had republican control of the legislature for just a tiny sliver of his tenure during office. And so I think he was a motivator for republicans in the legislature to get certain things done. I think what you're seeing this year is that there's sort of muscle memory, if you will, they know how a bill becomes law and how to build coalitions and how to work the system in a way that perhaps they didn't in 2017. Then you also have this dynamic, which we've already addressed, in that the House seems to be a little bit more I guess deliberative than their colleagues in the Senate.

Lynch: There seems to be a sort of a swagger in the Senate I think. They increased their numbers in 2018 and they're feeling pretty cocky in some ways. And if you look at some of the legislation that has been introduced, and Erin you spend more time in the Senate than I do, but it seems like maybe they're taking this as far as they can. The House I think accomplished some of their big objectives in the 2017-2018 with tax reform, with the collective bargaining bills, and now they're being more deliberative. Judicial nomination, that is one of the big items out there, and they're talking about some of those things. But the Senate is feeling their oats.

Yepsen: Erin, speaking of the Senate, they had the special election for a State Senate seat that democrat Jeff Danielson surrendered when he resigned. How does that look?

Murphy: Yeah, that will be an interesting one. The election is coming up on Tuesday, early voting is already underway. It's a Waterloo, Cedar Falls area district between the democrat Eric Giddens, who is a former school board member in the area, and the republican is Walt Rogers, who is a former state legislator, just not long ago was defeated in this past election. And there's a libertarian candidate in the race too. What has maybe made that race a little extra interesting is you have all the democratic presidential candidates coming through Iowa obviously and they're making their way to the Cedar Valley to help out in that election, obviously help themselves out a little bit as well. But that could have a real impact on that race. If that drives up turnout, and especially in early voting, each candidate is having their rally, there's four of them I think this weekend that are all going to hold events just this weekend. So if that kind of maximizes the early vote and early turnout that could be something that sways a special election which typically has a very low number of voters.

Yepsen: James, let's go back to the session. Budget and taxes, always a big issue. They've done school aid. They've got their budget targets. They're waiting for some revenue estimates. What is going to happen with legislation would limit property taxes?

Lynch: It's moving forward. There's, and it's probably going to change before it actually gets to the floor, but there was a hearing this week, we heard from local government groups, League of Cities, counties, the have a lot of concerns with it and one of the things they talked about is something republicans usually talk about is one size fits all legislation just doesn't work. Taxpayer rights groups like it, they want to cap property taxes at 2% per year and then give voters a reverse referendum mechanism to scale back taxes if they think they're going up too fast. Local governments say this would really handicap them. But it's going to move forward. It has got republican support. And I expect that yeah, it will pass. The impact, and as the case with some of these things, by the time it actually gets to the floor the cap might be bigger, the number you need to petition for a reverse referendum is smaller, it gets scaled back so the impact is less, but yet people can say hey we did something about your property taxes because apparently, according to republicans, that is what they heard on the campaign trail is people are upset with property taxes.

Murphy: And a tangent to this is the mental health care funding, which is primarily funded by local property taxes and you have people and advocates in that system that are saying not only does the adult system need more, better, long-term, sustainable funding, now they're in the process this year of trying to establish a system for children, which we don't even have a statewide system in this state. That could need more funding so there's a lot of concern around property taxes and the ability of local governments to use those to fund these mental health care services.

Yepsen: Anything on the inheritance tax?

Lynch: There is a proposal in the Senate to repeal it, according to Senator Jake Chapman, the state collects 90, I forget the number now, $90,000 a year from the grave and he wants to repeal that tax. Speaker Upmeyer seemed very cool to that because she is concerned that if they lower revenue they'll miss the triggers in the income tax package they passed last year and she doesn't, that would benefit more people, the income tax relief, than the inheritance tax repeal. So she's not real enthused about that idea. She said she'd have to have a lot more information about how that would affect those triggers in the income tax relief package.

Yepsen: Erin, do you see any other flash points on the budget, tax issues that are floating around up there?

Murphy: I don't foresee, knock on wood at this point so they get us out of there on time here in April, any huge budget disputes. They have already come out with their target numbers and they were pretty close, I think $50 million off between the two, that's nothing that the two sides can't work out between each other. There's no huge issue or department that is a red flag right now. So it should be theoretically a relatively painless budget process.

Lynch: And we should point out that when Erin says the two sides we're talking about Senate republicans and House republicans are the two sides in this debate.

Yepsen: Kay, what is the status of the move to raise the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent for environmental projects?

Henderson: Going nowhere it appears. In December when legislative leaders made the rounds at various interest groups to talk about what might be on the agenda the trial balloon that was raised during those events was that they might raise the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent or even more and three-eighths of the cent would fill this natural resources and outdoor recreation fund that was created by voters in 2010 but has never been failed because the sales tax has never been raised. And they would use the rest of that revenue from the other seven-eighths or whatever, my math is --


Henderson: Yeah, five-eighths, sorry. Anyway, they would use the rest of the revenue to, as Erin mentioned, address mental health funding issues around the state because that is a cost that is borne mainly by counties and then somehow maybe again address income taxes and use that sales tax revenue to take the pressure off Iowa income tax payers. It hasn't really come to the fore and perhaps the suspicion is that they may do that in an election year. But David, you covered the legislature for years, it's really unusual that a legislature would vote to raise a tax in an election year.

Yepsen: Well, it depends on what the needs are. I've quoted Jack Nystrom, a former State Senator, who said, to pass a sales tax increase you've got to have two cents worth of need in order to get one cent passed. James, speaking of sales tax, local option sales tax for schools. They're up there asking for it to be extended so they can do some bonding. What is the status of that?

Lynch: I think this is the year they're going to do it. They've been talking about it for about three years that it needs to be extended. Right now it will expire in 2029 and that has created a problem for school districts that typically when you go out to bond for something it's a 20 year bond. Well, if you only have a shrinking number of years of revenue the bonding companies don't like that. So they want to extend it for 20 years. The House has passed it, 95 to 0, and now it goes over to the Senate. I think the Senate will go along with that. School districts, school boards, teachers, have really been pressuring the legislature to do this and one of the sales points is it's property tax relief. So yeah, it's probably going to be the year.

Yepsen: Any restrictions on how this money can be spent? There was a lot of criticism early on they were building football stadiums. Are there any restrictions?

Lynch: There are some restrictions on what it can be used for. It also includes using some of the money for career academies, which is something Governor Reynolds wants, and one of the priorities would be school safety, security, spending. So they're adding a few regulations. But schools are pretty excited about the possibility.

Henderson: And one of the tells on this earlier in the session was when legislators were discussing the general school aid support for K-12 schools in Iowa. This was always presented as part of the package, this proposal to address the one cent.

Yepsen: Erin, marijuana issues are in the offing up there. I have three of them. Industrial hemp, recreational use of marijuana and increasing the level of THC, the chemical that gives you the high, in marijuana. What is the status of those?

Murphy: So, start with recreational because it's the easiest. That's not happening. There's just not support among the legislative field for it so we can get that out of the way. The medical cannabis program got a big expansion this past year but there are some who still feel, as you noted, that the THC level needs to be increased so it can be more effective, treat more ailments. As with past years there is kind of divide, Senate republicans are on board with making some of those changes, House republicans are a little less so. So it will be whether they can, those two sides of the same coin, can come together and find agreement. And the hemp debate has been interesting too and Jim, I think you covered it a little bit more. But there's ag industry leaders who are saying this could be a useful product for us and other states are looking at it too but other states have pushed back on it too. I think it was the South Dakota Governor who just vetoed a hemp bill. So it will be interesting to see how that goes the rest of the session.

Lynch: There's some concern, there's support for industrial hemp as a third option for farmers, a third crop option. But there's some concern about making sure that the seed can be certified because you can only have .3 percent THC in industrial hemp. And as somebody pointed out it's going to be hard to get your banker to finance your crop if you can't guarantee, if there's some question about the THC level in the end product. There's also concern about sort of the posers who might be trying to raise some high THC marijuana in those hemp fields. But there's support in the House, there's support for moving this forward. I don't think it's on the must do list.

Yepsen: Go ahead, Kay.

Henderson: And it is also complicated by the fact that people often refer to cannabidiol, which is cannabis oil, as hemp oil. So the wording of this is also a problem for those who support it.

Yepsen: Erin, in other issues floating around, there's sports betting legalization. What is the status of that?

Murphy: So those were funnel-proofed, they passed out of committee on both sides. They will now go to the Ways and Means, which is the tax policy committee in each side. This is where it gets a little more interesting. So it's one thing to get it through a committee. Ways and Means Committee are bigger, broader representation and then you've got to get to the floor where you've got to get 26 in the Senate and 51 in the House. Any gambling bill is tough to get by and this one will be too. There's a lot of people who oppose gambling just in general no matter what. There are a lot of concerns within these proposals. So they got it to the point where you expected they could. Now it's going to be interesting to see the push and the debate as this continues forward the rest of the session.

Henderson: Years ago Terry Branstad ultimately signed the Iowa Lottery into existence because of public opinion. The public opinion polls on sports betting, legalizing it here in Iowa, are under water and that is making many republicans who might support it nervous.

Murphy: And the people who gamble on sports aren't the type who are calling up their legislators every day.

Yepsen: So this is going to be, gambling will be one that is an issue that is left with the private sector.

Murphy: It may be, it could be.

Yepsen: Neighborhood bookie.

Lynch: It's also one of those where it's not going to be a party line vote probably, at least in the House they don't have a majority of either caucus supporting it at this point from what I'm hearing. And so it will be a decision by leaders are we going to bring up a bill if we don't have 51 republican votes? And they don't right now.

Yepsen: Kay, just a minute or two left here. Election law changes. What's floating around there about that?

Henderson: In the House they have already passed a bill that just deals with absentee ballots. It would require every county in the state to have a code sprayed on it by the postal service that can be tracked and determine when that ballot was mailed. It addresses the issue that was raised in the disputed Northeast Iowa legislative race. In the Senate they have advanced out of committee a wide ranging bill that is getting some push back from folks because it would prohibit satellite early voting stations on the three Regents campuses and it would require the three Regents to produce some sort of document that they would hand to a graduate and say, are you going to live in Iowa after you graduate or not?

Yepsen: Why would republicans want to diffuse the vote of younger voters that are overwhelmingly going democratic by forcing them out of the campus? I would think politically it's better to pack that vote into Iowa City and Ames? James?

Lynch: Well, yeah, it's sort of a way of gerrymandering the voting saying we'll give you Johnson County, we'll give you Story County, we'll give you Blackhawk County, but we're going to take all of the rural area, which is what we really have right now is democrats have the metro centers but republicans control the rest of the state.

Yepsen: And I control the clock here and we're out of time. Thanks everybody. Good luck in the campaign trail.

Henderson: Thanks.

Murphy: Thanks.

Lynch: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. So for all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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