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Enjoy the many pleasures of state government reorganization in Iowa
There’s a lot of pleasure to be found in the nearly 1,600-page state government reorganization bill, and most of it is the governor’s.
Numerous state officials currently serve a term set by Iowa law and can’t be removed without evidence of malfeasance or an inability to do the job, with hopes of insulating their position from political pressures. But under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ reorganization plan, several of those officials will “serve at the pleasure of the governor.” That means Reynolds can fire them for any reason, including political considerations.
Most of these officials still must be confirmed by the Senate. But the Senate version of the bill also lowers the threshold for Senate confirmation to 30 votes from the current 34 votes. That’s cutting three-fourths down to three-fifths, for those of you who are fraction fans.
More pleasure for the governor. Less independence and legislative input for state government.
Team Reynolds will tell you this makes these officials more accountable to elected officials. That’s true, but they’re mostly more accountable to just one elected official. One of the main thrusts of the massive reorganization bill is to concentrate more power in the governor’s office. As if more is needed.
For example, there’s the state workers’ compensation commissioner. The commissioner oversees the handling of workers’ compensation disputes between injured employees and employers. It seems like a position Iowans would want shielded from political influence. That’s why, under current law, the commissioner serves a six-year term, unless some malfeasance is detected.
You might recall it was former Gov. Terry Branstad who tried to shove former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey out the door in 2010 to please the governor’s business pals. Godfrey was in the middle of his term and refused to quit. Branstad slashed his salary.
Godfrey, who is gay, sued Branstad and others, leading to a protracted legal battle that cost the state millions of dollars to hire private lawyers to defend the former governor. Godfrey won a $1.5 million verdict in District Court but the conservative Iowa Supreme Court reversed it.
Under the reorganization bill, the workers’ compensation commissioner will serve at the pleasure of the governor. So there’s nothing to stop the shoving.
So will the state labor commissioner, who also currently serves a six-year term. The bill also creates a new executive director of the Public Employment Relations Board, which governs relations between government and public employees. The executive director will serve at the pleasure of the governor.
The CEO of the Iowa Lottery Authority, which serves a four-year term subject to the malfeasance clause, will be renamed the lottery administrator who will, you guessed it, serve at the pleasure of the governor. The lottery will no longer be an “entrepreneurial enterprise authority” and will be folded into the Department of Revenue.
The superintendent of banks and the superintendent of credit unions will lose their set terms and serve at the pleasure of the governor.
And, as I wrote previously, the state consumer advocate, who is supposed to stand up for consumers in cases before the Iowa Utilities board, would lose a mandated four-year term and, instead, serve at the pleasure of Republican Attorney General Brenna Bird.
The governor-appointed director of the Department of Administrative Services will now select the state librarian. Under current law, the state Commission of Libraries makes that pick.
Experts in their field? Who needs experts?
Under the bill, the Consumer Advocate would no longer be a “competent attorney,” eliminating the advocate’s ability to represent consumers in court. Lawyers in the OCA would instead be hired by the attorney general.
The state Board of Health, an 11-member board with seven members specializing in health care fields, is eliminated. It’s replaced by the Council on Health Human Services, a nine-member board with just one member specializing in health.
You might recall in the fall of 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, the Board of Health voted to urge the governor to mandate mask use.
Local control also takes hits.
Community corrections boards in each judicial district would become merely advisory bodies with all policymaking power grabbed by the Department of Corrections, run by a Reynolds appointee. The bill also emphasizes that the attorney general can parachute in to prosecute any local criminal case, even if the local county attorney doesn’t ask for help.
So maybe you’re cheering on the governor for her “streamlining” efforts. Think of the budget savings.
The management consulting firm Guidehouse, which helped craft the plan, predicts reorganization will save $215 million over four years. But considering the state’s general fund budget is $8.5 billion in Fiscal year 24, the plan will hardly give government a buzz-cut.
And all of this “serving at the pleasure” stuff would be easier to accept if the Republican-controlled Legislature hadn’t abandoned all executive branch oversight as we know it. Lawmakers let the governor basically rule the state solo during the height of the pandemic, and never asked any questions about how that went. Pandemic aid was misspent and the Legislature remained silent.
The House Government Oversight Committee, which would be a dandy place for lawmakers and the public to hear a detailed explanation of what reorganization will mean, is too busy inviting in Moms for Liberty to lament how hard it is to ban books in schools and grilling school officials over “obscene” books. It’s tough to investigate real government failures when you’re staging an inquisition.
Without oversight, serving at the pleasure of the governor will result in a remarkable growth in executive power. There really should be a bipartisan legislative unease with this. But this generation of Republicans is more interested in grabbing all the power needed to steamroll lousy legislation to passage than in the health of our governing institutions.
If it doesn’t serve the GOP agenda, blow it up.
If you’re hoping to weigh in on all of this, time’s a wasting. This Spruce Goose of a bill is already airborne, having cleared the Senate State Government Committee this past week. It’s now eligible for a full Senate debate, and GOP leadership is not known for thoughtful, patient reflection. Maybe we can wave as it flies by.
But, as always, it’s been my pleasure to share with you the latest developments under the Golden Dome of Wisdom. OK, maybe not.
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