Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Friday the Senate will “absolutely” include more money for Iowa prisons in its budget.
Senate Republicans’ initial budget outline, released March 24, included an additional $4 million to Iowa’s Department of Corrections. The department came into the spotlight the day before when two inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary attacked and killed two staff members.
Whitver said Senate Republicans would look to Beth Skinner, director of the Department of Corrections, to determine how much additional funding would be needed to ensure the safety of prison staff.
“Part of that discrepancy is that we rolled out that number the day after the incident happened, so that process of figuring out how much we need in addition, if there are safety concerns, has not been vetted,” he said.
House Republicans proposed an additional $20.5 million for the Department of Corrections, which they say is the biggest increase to the department’s budget since 2012.
Democrats and AFSCME union representatives responded that more needs to be done to ensure the safety of prison workers. House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, told reporters Thursday the state needs to take a systemic approach to change at the department.
“Is $20 million enough? Nobody knows that. That’s just a number that somebody has thrown at this for whatever reason,” Prichard said. “… Let’s have an honest discussion about how these prisons are managed, how this system works and how we’re going to keep our state employees, our law enforcement officials, correctional officers and nurses, how we’re going to keep them safe.”
Whitver said he expects the final budget to include a number between the Senate’s $4 million proposal and the House’s $20 million.
“It’s going to come somewhere in between there after talking with both the governor and the director of corrections,” he said.
Whitver addresses legislative issues
Whitver holds press conferences less frequently than House Speaker Pat Grassley or Democratic leaders. His appearance on “Iowa Press” revealed his perspective on several key issues as the session enters its final few weeks.
Vaccines and vaccine passports: Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday said she planned to work with legislative leaders to prohibit “vaccine passports” that would verify an individual was vaccinated. Reynolds met with Whitver and Grassley to discuss the issue.
“Yes we want people to get vaccinated,” Whitver said. “But no, we don’t want to have this system where you have to show your government issued passport to go to a ballgame, to go to a concert, to go shopping, to go to church.”
Whitver said he had not been vaccinated yet. All Iowans over the age of 16 became eligible to get the vaccine on April 5.
“There are vulnerable populations in Iowa that I think need it first and when it comes to my time and my turn I will probably do so,” he said.
“Back the Blue” versus criminal justice reform: House and Senate leaders took up several parts of Reynolds’ “Back the Blue” proposal, including bills that intensify protest-related penalties and give police officers increased immunity in court. They did not take up the governor’s proposal to ban racial profiling.
“Where our caucus has started to focus is when you cross the line towards assaulting police officers and shining lasers to injure their eyes during these protests, that is something that we want to stop and need to stop,” Whitver said.
Whitver said he supported “the conversation of peaceful protests,” but that his caucus wanted to work on supporting police officers.
Redistricting: Whitver said his understanding was that the Supreme Court would allow the legislative branch to draw and approve district maps, even if Census data is running late.
“The Supreme Court statement was a little vague, but how I read that is they, like almost everyone, agree that Iowa has a fair and one of the best redistricting processes in the country and they think we should use it,” he said.
The Regents budget: The House proposed no increase and a tuition freeze for Regents universities in fiscal year 2022. Whitver said the Senate budget included at least $8 million additional dollars for Iowa’s public universities, even though he had some concerns about “the pushing of liberal ideas through our college kids.”
“I think it’s difficult to give them zero new dollars and freeze tuition,” he said. “They have to be able to fund their university somehow.”
COVID-19 stimulus versus tax cuts: Lawmakers remain uncertain whether the federal American Rescue Plan might restrict states from passing tax cuts. Whitver said it should not be a problem, as the state plans to use its own money to reduce taxes.
“We’re not going to let Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden tell us what we can do with taxes in the state of Iowa,” he said.
Bottle bill: The long-suffering bottle bill isn’t going anywhere this year. Legislators have struggled for years to find a compromise that works for stores, shoppers and redemption centers.
“We haven’t got a whole lot closer than we were in January (when the session began),” Whitver said. “But in January it was far as it has ever been.”