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Iowa Senate Minority Leader Talks 2020 Priorities

janet petersen
John Pemble
IPR file
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen stands for a portrait at the Iowa Capitol in January.

The top Democrat in the Iowa Senate said she is thankful that federal investigators are looking into possible civil rights violations at two residential institutions for Iowans with disabilities.

In an interview Monday with Iowa Public Radio, Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said Democrats wanted to take action in the spring after the Des Moines Register reported a spike in deaths at the Glenwood Resource Center.

“It is frustrating that we were sounding the alarm months ago and no one was listening, but now, I guess, we should say we are fortunate that the federal government is stepping in,” Petersen said.

The Register reported last week the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating possible inadequate medical care and harmful human subject experiments, among other violations at Glenwood and at Woodward Resource Center.

In April, Senate Democrats proposed adding more staff at Glenwood and starting an interim investigation of all residential facilities run by the Iowa Department of Human Services.

A procedural move by Republican leaders blocked that and all other health budget amendments, and Petersen said the Senate Oversight Committee refused to hold a meeting on this issue. 

Legislation to change how decisions about lawsuits against the state are made

Petersen is working on a proposal to change the law that allows the governor to decide whether or not to appeal judgments against the state.

The proposal follows Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ recent decision to appeal a verdict against the state in a costly discrimination lawsuit that has lasted seven years. Other high-profile discrimination and harassment settlements in the past few years have cost the state millions.

Petersen said it might be better to require the approval of the state Executive Council, which is a five-person panel that includes the governor and other top state officials.

“We’ve been hearing from Iowans about the craziness, the amount of money they are having to pay in judgments and settlements for mismanagement in state government,” Petersen said. “So we’re trying to look for ways to make sure that government is more accountable to taxpayers.”

Petersen’s proposal would likely face a tough path in the legislature because state government is controlled by Republicans.

A spokesman for Reynolds did not return a request for comment. But Reynolds recently told reporters she thought her decision to appeal a discrimination verdict against former Gov. Terry Branstad could save taxpayer dollars if the state wins.

Petersen talks Senate Democrat priorities for 2020

The 2020 Iowa legislative session is scheduled to start January 13. Petersen is heading into another year of leading the minority party, which gets very little say in setting the lawmaking agenda.

Petersen said she hopes to work with the Republican majority on things like putting stable funding into mental health services, developing the state’s workforce, finding affordable housing solutions, and preventing youth vaping.

She said Senate Democrats would also like to work together on some issues where there is less agreement between the two parties, including dealing with maternal health gaps and privatized management of Medicaid.

“We’ll continue to call attention to the issues that we think are impacting Iowans, from providers still not being paid on time, to the alarming number of labor and delivery units that have closed down,” Petersen said.

As top Republicans tout a $289 million budget surplus and discuss possible changes to income and property tax laws, Petersen said Senate Democrats want to get “back to funding our basics.”

“I really believe the surplus money won’t go very far,” Petersen said. “We have the Medicaid privatization mess that’s not fully covered, and we have concerns with our public education system and making sure we’re fully funding that as well.”

Petersen added those concerns should be addressed before lawmakers “continue to tinker with our tax code.”

Republican leaders say the state’s privatized Medicaid management has been improving, and that they’ve been funding public education at historic levels.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Friday on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” that he is considering a one-cent sales tax increase. Three-eighths of one cent would fund water quality and outdoor recreation through a voter-approved trust fund, and the rest would likely fund income tax cuts.

Whitver also said he would look at restructuring other natural resource protection programs, too, because “a lot has changed in 10 years” since lawmakers decided how Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWILL) funding would be distributed.

Petersen said “it would be nice” to be included in those discussions.

“I think that you’ll see that Democrats have concerns about pursuing regressive taxes and that we want to make sure that our tax code is fair for Iowans, especially those Iowans that are living paycheck to paycheck,” Petersen said.

She added Democrats are also concerned about possible changes to the IWILL funding formula, and that Iowans concerned about water quality and natural resource protection should “have their antennas focused on programs that they care deeply about.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter