Iowa Republicans found yet another way to hurt teachers this year

No matter how closely you were following the horror show that was the Iowa legislature’s 2017 session, chances are you didn’t notice every Republican favor to moneyed interests at the expense of working people, especially public sector employees.

So it was that I learned just this week about a new law that could cost some Iowa educators part of their retirement savings.

Credit goes to the Associated Press and Center for Public Integrity for a major investigation of how “State lawmakers often blur the line between the public’s business and their own.” Liz Essley Whyte and Ryan Foley opened the lead article in the series by reporting Iowa GOP State Senator Mark Chelgren’s role in passing a sales tax exemption that benefited his manufacturing businesses. Bleeding Heartland has covered that tax break extensively, partly because the Branstad administration attempted to enact it without legislative approval–Chelgren was a “vocal” supporter of the power grab–and partly because the policy became a big factor in this year’s budget shortfalls.

But I knew nothing about the Iowa law discussed in a related profile of ten state lawmakers “who have introduced and supported policies that directly or indirectly help their own businesses, their employers and their personal finances.”

Iowa state Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink this year spoke on the floor in April in favor of a bill that after it passed dramatically expanded the number of companies that could market retirement investments to Iowa educators. The Republican dismissed Democrats’ claims that the array of investments would be too confusing and allow companies to charge exorbitant fees on teachers’ savings.

Kraayenbrink didn’t mention directly that he would be one of the advisers who stand to benefit from access to new customers in the program. He is the owner of Kraayenbrink Financial in Fort Dodge and now manages about $150,000 in retirement savings from seven educators in the program, which currently earns him around $400 in fees annually, he said in an interview.

Kraayenbrink said it was such a small part of his income that he didn’t think he had a conflict of interest in voting on the bill. “It’s in the best interest of the client to have more choices and to have professional help if they want it,” he said.

House File 569 was just one paragraph long. The Senate debate on the proposal was easy to miss during a week when Republicans were releasing lengthy budget bills with bombshells like deep cuts to grants supporting survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse, or eliminating state funding for the Iowa Flood Center and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

House File 569 was hard for a layman to understand. The bill would permit up to 30 insurance or investment companies to offer products through securities agents or financial advisers to Iowans participating in “investment vehicles authorized under section 403(b) of the Internal Revenue Code.” Those tax-sheltered retirement plans are available in Iowa only to public school administrators and teachers.

When seeking clues on who would be helped or hurt by proposed legislation, you can’t go wrong by checking the lobbyist declarations. Several groups representing insurance companies, insurance agents, or financial advisers registered in favor of House File 569. The Iowa Association of School Boards, the Iowa State Education Association, and the public employee union AFSCME lobbied against the bill.

Responding to my inquiry this week, the teachers union sent the following statement:

“The ISEA opposed HF569 because it weakened the 403b programs that were established in 2008 by the Department of Administration (DAS) to allow for better financial review of the plans as required by IRS guidance. Prior to 2008 some school districts had more than 100 different 403b plans and many had high management fees, surrender charges and were not reviewed by the employer.

“The DAS 403b plan requires participating vendors to bid to participate and the bids are reviewed by an independent financial adviser that does not sell the products and the vendors are not allowed to charge surrender charges if the plan stops participating. The vendors are reviewed by the independent adviser and if a fund is under performing the vendor is required to replace it with a better performing fund. The vendors are also required to provide detailed information on fees and performance.

“HF569 circumvents these safeguards and eliminates the oversight by an independent adviser and the need to provide similar financial detailed information,” said Brad Hudson, ISEA Government Relations Specialist.

Tammy Votava of the Iowa Association of School Boards told me the group opposed the bill “because we felt the current system worked well and that this would create more bureaucratic burden and confusion for the people it was meant to serve-—Iowa educators.”

The Senate floor debate was illuminating. It started around the 5:12:20 mark of this video from April 12 and got interesting at 5:14:30, when Democratic Senator Joe Bolkcom offered an amendment to introduce “much-needed consumer protections.”

An independent consultant retained by the Department of Administrative Services reviews products offered to Iowans who contribute to 403(b) plans, Bolkcom explained. The consultant selects four “core providers,” ensuring that investors are charged a fair price and “the fees don’t drain all their money away.” (In other states, “exorbitant fees” have bilked many savers.) If lawmakers want to let many more companies participate, Bolkcom argued, they should authorize DAS to screen out products with surrender charges or transfer fees and limit money management fees to what the core providers can charge now.

Republican Senator Waylon Brown, the bill’s floor manager, objected that Bolkcom’s amendment would create “many additional hoops” for providers to jump through and “fails to acknowledge that these highly intelligent employees know how to best invest their money according to their individual investment needs.” Democratic Senator Herman Quirmbach countered that lots of smart public employees “just don’t know very much about investing.” People with expertise on financial instruments should “winnow the field” by setting standards that protect consumers.

In his final remarks on his amendment, Bolkcom said,

We know repeatedly it happens that people get ripped off in fees. They think they’re going to have a decent retirement. It ends up, too much of their money left their pocket. […] This amendment and our current operation limits fees and limits these charges. So–and I think we have successful products. I think this bill, frankly, is unnecessary, it’s just an opportunity for some folks to try and sell some products in their world, right? Without limitations on fees, and that’s why this amendment is important.

You know, it’s been a hard session on teachers. We took their collective bargaining rights away. We kicked them on workers’ comp. You know, it’s probably going to be harder for people to save any money out of their paychecks after this session. And now we’re letting these folks in, with no limits on the kinds of fees that are going to be charged. For something really important: retirement.

Bolkcom’s amendment failed on a mostly party-line vote.

Kraayenbrink then spoke in favor of the bill (beginning around 5:30:00). He didn’t hide the fact that he’s an investment adviser: “I might be one of those smooth-talking slick guys that Senator Bolkcom was talking about.” He took offense to critics implying that the bill was against teachers: “I look at it as, we’re offering the teachers more options here.” Kraayenbrink also claimed that due to U.S. Department of Labor regulations, broker/dealers have altered their practices. “They are not letting the investment advisers sell those products that you’re talking about. […] We can’t go and sell all these products to everyone. So we’re already making those changes as an investment adviser and moving our business into advised fees, or advisory fees.”

After final remarks from Brown, the Senate approved House File 569 by 41 votes to 8. The Democrats who voted no were Bolkcom, Quirmbach, Nate Boulton, Rob Hogg, Wally Horn, Pam Jochum, Janet Petersen, and Rich Taylor. Governor Terry Branstad signed the bill into law in early May.

In their fascinating series on state legislators’ conflicts of interest, the AP and Center for Public Integrity highlighted Kraayenbrink’s failure to recuse himself from voting on a bill that could increase his assets under management.

The bigger scandal here is that Iowa Republicans changed yet another policy that had been working well for public employees, this time putting the financial interests of insurance agents and money managers ahead of educators who have paid into extra retirement funds.

  • Clarification, please

    So, most teachers and administrators have IPERS retirement, correct? And IPERS is a defined benefit retirement system. Could someone clarify what 403(b) plans are? Is that an optional 401(k)-type plan where you sign up with an authorized broker, set up an investment fund, and put money in tax free? Is this an option that school districts can offer their employees for additional retirement savings? Thanks.

    • yes, IPERS is the main retirement plan

      for Iowa teachers and most other public employees. These 403(b) plans are optional tax-sheltered retirement accounts. I don’t know how many teachers and administrators have chosen to pay into one of those accounts.

  • Fiduciary rule?

    When Kraayenbrink said ” due to U.S. Department of Labor regulations, broker/dealers have altered their practices” He was probably talking about the Obama rule that financial advisors must look out for the best interests of their clients–that the advisors have a fiduciary responsibility.

    But now that Trump has blocked the rule, we will soon be back to the problem Bolkcom described. Kraayenbrink will again be able to sell the high fee programs that rip off savers.

    Financial stuff is hard to decipher, as Quirmbach indicated. But this vote by Kraayenbrink looks self-serving to me.

    • thanks for mentioning that

      Kraayenbrink did acknowledge during the floor debate that the Labor Department rule had been “delayed” (it has since been blocked).

      You are correct, it’s a self-serving vote by Kraayenbrink. I still think the bigger scandal is that they opened this door at all. The system was working fine.

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