A change in republican leadership at the Iowa Statehouse. Linda Upmeyer steps down and a new Speaker is chosen to take the gavel in the Iowa House. We’ll sit down with the incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley 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, October 25 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: When Speaker Linda Upmeyer announced her resignation a few weeks ago, republican legislators quickly tapped her replacement. It’s a familiar name, but perhaps a new face for many Iowans. Pat Grassley is the grandson of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley. At 36 years old the younger Grassley is serving his seventh term in the Iowa House and in January he’ll officially become Speaker. Mr. Speaker, welcome to Iowa Press. It’s good to have you with us.

Grassley: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

Yepsen: Joining us across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Speaker-select, you have accomplished something in 13 years in the House that your grandfather didn’t in the 16 years that he served in the Iowa House of Representatives. Why do you want this job?

Grassley: I think that my time — first of all, thanks for having me here today, I do appreciate that — I do think my time in the legislature, especially these last four years as appropriations chair, I really showed the caucus and I tried to lead the caucus in a way where we had input, probably overly, I was front of the caucus more than even they wanted to hear. I was trying to keep them in the loop on the budget, making sure they were educated. I feel like it really prepped me well for this new role. We’ve done some great things when it comes to the budget and I tried to always show the caucus that we could lead, and in fact probably made it look easy at times when it always isn’t. And I want to try to bring that same thing to the caucus not only on the budget but on all the issues and on a broader level as well.

Henderson: One of the things you told many of us, including the two of us on this side of the table in the journalism community, was that you’re not interested in running for the U.S. Senate. Are you a Terry Branstad republican? He never wanted to run for the U.S. Senate either.

Grassley: I figured we’d get towards the end, Kay, before I got the Senate questions. I told Erin the same thing last time I talked to him and my focus is on being Speaker, clearly. I have full expectation that my grandfather is running for re-election and my job is to focus on the legislature and making sure we not only maintain but grow our majority and pass responsible budgets and strong policy for the state.

Yepsen: But if he didn’t run would you think about it?

Grassley: I have full expectation that he is running. And, again, my focus is on this job that is before me.

Murphy: All right, well let’s focus on the legislature a little bit and talk about some issues that may come on your plate. The medical cannabis law that is in place, there are some advocates who feel that it needs to be expanded. Your predecessor, Speaker Upmeyer, was a little more hesitant than some even in your caucus or among Senate republicans, she was a little more hesitant to expand that program. What are your thoughts on that? And might you see some legislation coming before you that would increase the potency of the product, make more ailments covered? What do you see on that front?

Grassley: I think, and you’ll probably see this in a lot of answers I give you today, and this isn’t to not give you an honest answer, but I told the caucus and I have been very clear with them from the beginning and I have worked with them obviously long enough in my other roles that our caucus is a bottom up caucus and I want to hear the input we have to say on that specific issue. I know we have people that, like you said, have different positions within even just our House republican caucus. But what I can tell you is we’ll have those conversations, within that find if there is a path to something. I don’t know what that path would look like or if there even is that interest. But over the next few months we’re developing what I would say would be the priorities of our caucus. So at this point it’s probably a little premature for me to give you what that looks like. But I’m going to do the best that I can to get in front of the caucus, get their input on issues and make sure that we’re representing what we think is good for Iowans.

Murphy: And that’s fair. But you are in a position of authority now. If something, if some kind of an expansion were to come in front of you that the majority of the caucus supports is that something you’re open to? Or is that something like your predecessor you would put your thumb on the —

Grassley: I have been around here long enough when I don’t see a piece of legislation in front of my I’m going to always err on the side of caution to not say yes I will be in favor or not in favor of something. I think that’s the responsible thing for me to do in this role. Obviously I will have to lead the caucus but I don’t want to have anything that I would say on a show this far in front of session be construed that I’m trying to force the caucus one way or another on a specific position.

Henderson: You’re a farmer in addition to being a legislator. What kind of farming do you do?

Grassley: We farm 1,700 acres near New Hartford, corn and soybeans, and we raise some cattle. 

Henderson: There are statewide standards for hog confinements that were established in the last century, if you will. You and your colleagues in the republican-led House have recently adopted statewide standards that put the kibosh on some local ordinances in regards to the minimum wage, the potential for local ordinances on plastic bags. There’s now cropping up a debate about wind turbines and siting. Do you think that there should be statewide standards for where wind turbines may be located?

Grassley: To that issue, that’s probably an issue that I’m not nearly as familiar with as maybe some of the other ones you’ve mentioned or some of the ones that will be mentioned here today. My position on that is going to be to find out what the caucus has, if any, interest in that issue and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to probably comment on something because that really isn’t one that even is on my radar up until just honestly probably the last few days in talking about being on here today with you. So I’m going to want to be careful in how I answer that only from the standpoint of something that I really haven’t had a lot of conversations about.

Yepsen: Were wind turbines a good idea for Iowa or not?

Grassley: I think clearly with the last name Grassley I think there’s going to be an expectation of supporting wind energy in the state and I think you’re going to see House republicans have been supportive of renewable energy within the state and I think there have been a lot of success stories. But to this specific issue that we have in front of us I honestly have not had enough input on that to probably give you a really educated answer.

Murphy: The water quality issue is something that has been before the legislature for a number of years now, you guys passed something I think it was two years ago now, that created a new funding mechanism. There’s still the ongoing debate over whether the conservation sales tax should be enacted to provide more funding for that. Do you expect to see that debate before your caucus again this year? And are you open to something that would include a broader tax increase with the conservation a part of that?

Grassley: When it comes to that issue, again, that is going to be another issue that as a caucus we have members, and it falls back to the other one you have, we have members on that issue that are probably all over the board on that. I think there’s a lot of conversations on what potential proposals would be. I think that’s something that our caucus we’ll have to see what those proposals look like as we have those conversations moving forward. But at this point to say, because again there’s just so many ideas floating around not only with the three-eighths but the other five and how that ties in and then the funding formula. I think there’s so many unanswered questions on that it’s very difficult to say that’s an issue that obviously is going to move through the legislature or not.

Yepsen: But you do think Iowa has a water quality problem?

Grassley: I think that the legislature has taken very appropriate steps to try to address the issue of water quality. And it really isn’t something that is going to happen overnight. As a farmer, and I’ve said this for the last several years, I’ve been involved with the funding mechanism obviously as appropriations chair, when it comes to water quality when you look at that issue this isn’t just an urban or rural issue and that is why the program that we set up tried to provide resources not only to rural Iowa but also urban Iowa as well. And a lot of these practices, I’ll use an example in our area, in our township I would say almost every bean that is planted is done no till and no till is one of those things that you want to see that is trying to be promoted with some of these programs that we have implemented. And a lot of that happened not because of government programs but because somebody was willing to invest in those pieces of equipment, try something different, and this strategy is really trying to encourage landowners and farmers to try some of these new practices, buffer strips, cover crops. And I really think that we have been proactive. And it isn’t something that is going to happen overnight whether the government says you will do this or you aren’t going to do it this way, I think the way of doing it is education and people in the communities and the leaders in the areas leading on some of those changes.

Murphy: So I’m just old enough to remember the gas tax debate of a few years ago here and how difficult that was to get passed, even for an issue that has bipartisan support, like infrastructure in that case or water quality in this case. How tough is it to get something passed that includes raising taxes?

Grassley: Well, I think as a whole you’re going to see our caucus always err on the side of caution. Any time we have had the opportunity to try to give those taxpayer dollars back to Iowans and put them in their hands because they know how to spend them better in my opinion than the government does we’re going to try to take those opportunities as well. So when it comes to just saying, that’s why it’s hard to answer the question when it comes to the three-eighths because what does it really look like? Is it an overall tax increase? Is it an overall net neutral? There’s so many unanswered questions when it comes to that issue. It’s very difficult to answer it.

Yepsen: You’re from New Hartford. On this water quality issue, this is an urban/rural divide in our state. Can you assure urban Iowans that they’ll get a fair hearing? You’re not just a legislator from New Hartford anymore, you’re going to be Speaker of the Iowa House. Can Iowans who live in urban areas feel assured that they’ll get a fair hearing from you on this issue?

Grassley: One of our priorities when it came to the water quality issue and the bill that we’ve passed and what we’ve been working on, like I said earlier, specifically outlined ways that you could help urban Iowa as well as rural Iowa. I do not think that there is any solution in trying to pit one group against each other, especially on the issue of water quality. I think that is an issue we have to try to address, as a state we’re really trying to address that, and that’s why in the funding mechanisms that we’ve set up and some of the programs it has gone to both so that way neither one of the sides felt like there was any blame, that we need to do this together as Iowans.

Henderson: The legislature has taken several steps toward trying to improve the mental health system in Iowa and this tax increase, which we have been talking about, an increase in the sales tax, has been looked at, at perhaps one way of financing that system, which is currently financed largely by property taxpayers. Is that part of an agenda item that republicans will give serious consideration to?

Grassley: Again, I’m not trying to be difficult, but there are so many options floating around with what that, especially that five-eighths, and that isn’t even all of it. You’ve got to remember there’s still a lot of folks that are trying to figure out what the three-eighths and that current formula would go to. So to sit here and say — the answer I suppose is that is being discussed as far as one of the options. But I don’t even know if the level of support would even exist within the caucus to do the first three-eighths or the last five-eighths. That really is something that would have to be ironed out through different proposals.

Henderson: Over the past few years you have been involved in an in depth look at tax credits. Do you anticipate action in regards to changing the full buffet, if you will, of tax credits that are currently offered in Iowa?

Grassley: Well, you’re going to see next week we have our first meeting of the tax review committee, so in the tax legislation they passed we laid out that that had to happen. So we’re going to be having our first meeting coming up here next week. And I really look at this as an opportunity for us to have a conversation. From the bill that I originally had filed when I was appropriations chair, it was a pretty broad bill and it took a pretty big look, I would say one of the bigger looks that we have at tax credits in a long time, and while that only made it out of committee, it didn’t go any further, I think it really started the conversation because this isn’t all about just going in and just taking a big whack at every tax credit and going across the board and just eliminating everything. We have to be very specific in what we’re doing. Can we look at some of the credits that currently exist? Can they be doing better? Can they be modified so that way they’re working for today’s economy? Because a lot of these tax credits that exist, back to Erin’s comment, probably even go back before your time, which that’s a long time ago, and some of them probably even go back to that far. And so I think we have to as a legislature not just go in and say okay, everybody is going to be cut, but everybody needs to be looked at when we’re making these decisions. And I think this opportunity from this tax review committee, we have already been hearing as legislators and myself that’s interested in this issue, we’ve been hearing from folks hey, after this committee gets going we may have some suggestions to some of our credits or how they maybe could work more efficiently or be more responsible.

Henderson: There’s one credit which has drawn a lot of attention because it’s a check that is sent to many large corporations. It is the Research Activities Tax Credit. And it sort of erases the tax liability for some of the largest businesses in Iowa and in addition to that they get a check from the state. Is that the number one?

Grassley: So as I approach this, I shouldn’t say I approach it, but being on the committee I look at it that way, as the committee is approaching it I don’t think we have any that we’re going into that with saying okay, before we even have input we’re going to just start whacking at them. That’s not what the intention would be of the committee. I will tell you that we need to have a fair hearing on all of them and we need to be willing to look at all of them. Now, remember, part of the reason we found ourselves in this situation that we have, which is having quite a few tax credits, that isn’t a republican or a democrat problem, we’ve all voted for almost every one of those, a lot of that happened when we had split control of government and instead of being able to actually just lower the overall tax rates the common ground was found through tax credits.

Yepsen: Is it possible in an election year to be eliminating tax credits? I’ve been around a while too and I’ve seen this movie before. Yeah, we all want to get rid of tax credits, but when you get one up and start talking about doing away with it the special interest groups hone in and especially in an election year when you’re asking those same interest groups for contributions. Is it realistic to expect —

Grassley: I can tell you if there’s anyone in the legislature that knows whether you have 1 or 20 on the list what comes your way as far as groups, what I can tell you is, again, we’re not out to try to just dismantle every tax credit, that is not the intention of what we’re trying to do. I think there’s a lot of them that we probably can look at and say okay, could this money be spent better doing something else? Could we repurpose it and try to use it in a different manner? I don’t want folks that have interest in tax credits to think that just because we’re having a review committee meet that that means that we’re just going to start eliminating credits.

Yepsen: One more question on this. The Tax Foundation this week, this is sort of the flip side of this issue, the Tax Foundation, a national group, came out with a study this week and said Iowa was one of the worst states for business. And the way that usually gets fixed is handing out more tax credits. So what are you going to do when a group like that says we’re one of the worst places in the country to do business?

Grassley: And I think you have seen that, how republicans have reacted to that in the past few years, trying to lower not only individual but other rates as well. We have tried to address that issue but it also comes back to, again, when I answered Kay’s question, would be that we’ve also got ourselves in the situation because we could never find compromise to try to address that overall sticker. Everyone talks about that in economic development, they see that postcard that says Iowa ranks this, this and this, and then when you dig into it there’s a lot of other issues, there’s other credits that they may qualify for, so it’s a difficult balancing act and when we’ve had the opportunity to reduce the tax burden on Iowans we have always done that. Maybe there’s some credits that can be used to try to lower the overall burden. And that is just one of the things I think we’re going to look at.

Yepsen: Speaking of issues, we have a lot more to ask you about. Erin?

Murphy: So one of the most debated issues during the last session was about the proposed changes to the judicial nominating process. It settled on a compromise that only altered one of the positions, gave an extra spot to the Governor. Are House republicans comfortable with that compromise? The original bill went a little farther than that. Are House republicans comfortable with that? Or might we see another bite at the apple on that this session?

Grassley: I think that you, I think that between now, like many other issues, between now and when session starts our caucus is going to have a lot of conversations about several of the issues, probably most of the issues that you asked me here today because, again, that has been what I have made very clear to the caucus is how I want to operate is making sure that we have their input. How can we build consensus on issues not only during the legislative session but make sure that we’re prepared going into the legislative session? So I would say at this point in time there will be conversation within our caucus about that issue and several others that I’m sure we talk about today.

Yepsen: What about the issue of redistricting reform? Iowa has a law, a lot of people, democrats particularly, are afraid republicans are going to come in and try to change that law so that they can gerrymander the state. Are you going to touch the redistricting law?

Grassley: I’ve been very clear that I will not support changing redistricting. If anyone I went through probably the most expensive primary as a sitting legislator that anyone has ever been a part of, if anyone had any problems with it I feel like I probably could qualify for that. But I don’t think we should change the process. We have a good process in the state and I don’t think, those concerns I think have been greatly overblown. I don’t know, again, for my opinion I do not support those changes.

Henderson: The House last year passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore felon voting rights automatically, something Governor Reynolds has been championing. It went over to the Senate and sort of stalled and they are thinking about tinkering with it a little. Does the House like the version it passed? Or do you anticipate negotiations to come up with something different?

Grassley: I have not had that conversation with the Senate as far as whether we would come up with something different but obviously we’re willing to have those with the Senate as they’re trying to figure out what level of comfort they could have with that bill or if they have to make changes to it. So we’re more than happy to have those conversations not only with the Senate but obviously like you said the Governor looking at that as one of her leading issues, I would say that she’ll obviously be involved in those conversations as well.

Henderson: She also this week established a working group to come up with a series of proposals for criminal justice reform with an eye toward addressing the disparities in racial sentencing among blacks and whites in Iowa. Is that something that you think legislators are willing to tackle in an election year?

Grassley: I would say that I don’t see that as an issue that would be something our caucus would just immediately back away from. I think, again, we’re going to have a lot of issues in our caucus that try to address issues that aren’t necessarily just one specific type of thing. We look at it, for example, and the only reason I say this is hopefully this will help with some of your other questions that you may have, I don’t want to knock any off your list, so I don’t mean to do that. But when it comes to our caucus and the conversations we have had, I can tell you the issues that we have before us. It’s going to be things like workforce. We’re going to have issues, the Governor had led on that issue as far as workforce, traveled all over the state, our caucus is interested in issues like that. Our caucus is going to be interested in issues of childcare, not just access but affordability. Again, some of those issues that our caucus is going to be looking at and leading on aren’t going to be those what I would consider to be controversial issues. They are going to be the kind of issues that I think are good for all Iowans and our growth moving forward.

Murphy: Well, speaking of one of those issues, let’s talk a little bit about the state budget. I know House republicans have felt good about the budget proposals they have put forward in the past. First, just real quick, will you remain budget chair or as Speaker will you delegate that to someone else?

Grassley: I don’t think I have the mental capacity at this point in time to be able to handle both of those. No, I kid. No, there will be a new appropriations chair.

Henderson: And who will it be?

Grassley: I will be making that announcement I would say fairly soon.

Murphy: All right, so there’s a surplus right now. What kind of discussion do you expect to have within your caucus about what to do with that? There’s always people who are anxious to get a little extra funding boost when there’s a budget surplus. Public education has raised concerns about underfunding both at the K-12 and the Regents level with tuition costs. Is that a possibility for some of this extra money that is in the budget now?

Grassley: You’ve got to be careful having the former, well I guess still current appropriations chair on to start talking about the budget. Your time might be up after I get done with this one, Erin. But no, I kid. When it comes to the budgeting and again, we have been, I feel like House republicans that’s something that we know when we show up in session that’s what we have to do. These other issues that we talk about get discussed within our caucus but we lead on that budget issue I feel like. That’s something that we spend so much time on because we’ve been entrusted with the taxpayer dollars and we take that job very seriously. Keep in mind when we talk about our caucus has been burned from having to come back in halfway through the fiscal year and have to make deappropriations. I will tell you that that is a part of, when we make the budget decisions, part of why we’re fairly cautious and conservative when we make those decisions. It only takes the Revenue Estimating Conference being off by 2%, which 2% really isn’t that much when you think about an estimate of a $7.5 billion budget, them being off 2% that’s over $150 million. Right there you’ve already just taken that number in half just because of an inaccurate estimate and we still don’t even have the December estimate at this point in which we’ll form our budget off of. So I don’t look at that as something we’re going to go out and just say how are we going to spend this. It’s going to be a continued conservative approach to the budgeting because, again, I would much rather have to be responsible in the front end than to have to come in when the revenue wasn’t meeting expectations and having to make those deappropriations. Our caucus I don’t think wants to have to go through that again. That was very difficult and we obviously got through it. But we would rather err on the side of caution.

Henderson: Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, a republican from Ankeny who is your counterpart in the Senate, made clear at the end of this past 2019 legislative session that on the docket for 2020 would be welfare reform because republicans are hearing from their constituents that are raising concerns. What sort of concerns are you hearing from voters about welfare?

Grassley: And I think, like we talked about earlier before we started, I’ve been traveling all over and that issue does continue to come up. I think what you’re going to see from House republicans obviously the Senate, they have some members that have really been working on this issue and I know that we have members that have been reaching out to them trying to find out where we could possibly make some of these changes. It’s very difficult dealing with some of those programs. It’s not as simple as just passing a bill at the state level that just allows you to make all the changes you want to make. Some of that has to be approved and things so we’ll have those conversations with the Senate.

Yepsen: But you’re saying something is possible then?

Grassley: I think that —

Yepsen: Likely?

Grassley: No I would not say, again hopefully you have learned from my approach and how I plan on operating as Speaker. I would want to have more input from the caucus on an issue like that. But I know we have members, like several other issues that we’ve talked about today, that would be interested in something like that and we’d be willing to talk with the Senate about what they’re looking at.

Yepsen: We’ve got just a few seconds left. Suburban women. Republicans have not done well in elections recently, particularly in the House. What are you going to do to reach out to suburban women in the coming campaign?

Grassley: I think again back to the couple issue that I touched on, I think what you’re going to see from our caucus because I think there is going to try to be this narrative that there is an urban versus rural Iowa divide and I don’t see that to be the case on how House republicans plan on governing. You’re going to see us leading on issues that we hear about. I was just in Blackhawk County last night, my neighboring county right next to me, and the issues of childcare came up, workforce. We’re going to be addressing and trying to tackle some of those big issues that affect all Iowans in our success.

Yepsen: Mr. Speaker, we’re out of time for now. I hope as the session goes on we can have you back to talk in more detail as you —

Grassley: I look forward to it. Thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks for being with us. And we’ll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press when we sit down with New Jersey Senator and democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker. He’ll be one of many candidates hitting the campaign trail in Iowa next weekend. That’s Cory Booker on Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I’m David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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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.