Iowa state senator drops prohibition on regents' political activities

Provision was part of bill that would force Board of Regents to be more transparent

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, left, hugs his wife Ruth before speaking at the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday,
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, left, hugs his wife Ruth before speaking at the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008. (AP Photo/Kevin Sanders)

A measure that might prohibit Iowa Board of Regent member Ruth Harkin from attending a steak fry hosted by her husband, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, has been dropped from legislation to force the board to be more transparent.

Dropping the prohibition on political activity by regents “is the most important concession I will make,” Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, said Tuesday at a subcommittee hearing on Senate Study Bill 1163. The prohibition likely would violate regents' First Amendment rights to free speech, he conceded.

“I don’t have a decent idea how to make it constitutional,” said Danielson, who has been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, to a transparency task force being created by the regents. Rep. Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, has been named to the panel by House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. The board will vote next week to officially approve the task force membership.

Dropping the prohibition frustrated members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which has waged a running war on the regents, specifically Gov. Terry Branstad’s appointee, Bruce Rastetter. The Alden businessman is a contributor to Republican candidates and causes.

Iowa CCI spokesman Ross Grooters of Pleasant Hill was disappointed lawmakers wouldn’t limit regents’ “political endeavors.”

Some regents treat the board as if it was their private company board and appear to be “working in their own business interest,” Grooters said.

Grooters call SSB 1163 “a good first step,” but regents’ lobbyist Keith Saunders said Iowans should not have to give up their 1st Amendment rights to serve on the board.

Danielson also plans to offer amendments to reduce the requirement for the board to have its meetings around the state. He wants the board to have at least one meeting a year in each of four regions.

“They need to leave the I-380 corridor and I-35 corridor” to have meetings in western Iowa, he said.

Saunders pointed out the board has had meetings at the School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs and at the Lakeside Lab in Okoboji.

Danielson also will seek changes in a provision of SSB 1163 calling for a faculty representative on the board. That could create a conflict when the regents discuss faculty contracts in closed session. The faculty at the University of Northern Iowa faculty is represented by a faculty association.

Putting a faculty member on the board would likely increase conflicts of interest rather than reduce them, Saunders said. Other groups could make the same argument for representation on the board.The full State Government Committee is set to take up the bill Thursday.