Iowa Republicans have abandoned executive branch oversight

Governor Kim Reynolds has been lucky at key points in her political career. Terry Branstad passed over more experienced contenders to select her as his 2010 running mate, allowing a little-known first-term state senator to become a statewide elected official. Six years later, Donald Trump won the presidency and named Branstad as an ambassador, setting Reynolds up to become governor without having to win a GOP primary first.

Most important, Reynolds has enjoyed a Republican trifecta her entire four years as governor. Not only has she been able to sign much of her wish list into law, she has not needed to worry that state lawmakers would closely scrutinize her administration’s work or handling of public funds.

During the legislative session that wrapped up last month, the GOP-controlled House and Senate rejected every attempt to make the governor’s spending decisions more transparent. They declined to hold even one hearing about questionable uses of federal COVID-19 relief funds or practices at state agencies that disadvantaged thousands of Iowans.

DO-NOTHING OVERSIGHT COMMITTEES

During the five legislative sessions of the GOP trifecta, the Iowa Senate and House Government Oversight committees have rarely examined executive branch practices or questioned Reynolds appointees. Most years, the Senate panel has done little work beyond holding an organizational meeting. The House panel has been somewhat more active. The committees are exempt from the legislature’s “funnel” deadlines, so have occasionally met to advance bills introduced late in the session.

The Iowa Senate Oversight Committee met only once in 2020, to consider two bills introduced in February. This year, the panel did not convene again after its January organizational meeting.

The House Oversight Committee met twice in March 2020: once to assign bills, and once to hear presentations related to Iowa’s privatized Medicaid program. A third meeting planned to discuss care at a state-run facility for adults with disabilities was canceled due to the pandemic and never rescheduled.

This year, the House panel held three meetings related to a University of Iowa dental student’s complaint that he was treated poorly for being an outspoken conservative. Lyz Lenz comprehensively covered that episode and the oversight hearings for Vanity Fair.

House Republicans also convened a lengthy oversight meeting to berate Ames school district officials over Black Lives Matter curriculum materials.

The oversight committees held no meetings related to Iowa’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was the state’s third leading cause of death in 2020.

No meetings to ask why state officials closed several complaints filed against meatpacking plants without conducting on-site inspections (reflecting a longstanding failure to thoroughly investigate complaints about unsafe working conditions).

No meetings to grill Iowa Department of Public Health officials on why they rejected federal offers to help test workers at food processing facilities. Those outbreaks seeded so much community transmission that to this day, Iowa counties containing large meatpacking plants have the state’s highest per capita COVID-19 case rates.

No meetings to discuss discrepancies in the case numbers, testing data, or deaths reported on Iowa’s official coronavirus website.

No meetings to ask Iowa Workforce Development leaders why many qualifying Iowans had to wait months for pandemic-related unemployment benefits, or why hundreds of unemployed Iowans were asked to repay benefits they received.

No meetings to discuss the 45 percent raise Iowa’s State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati received last year in violation of state policy.

No meetings to question criteria used to dispatch state personnel and the Iowa National Guard to assist with COVID-19 testing at workplaces.

No meetings about using $448,449 in federal CARES Act funds to compensate the governor’s permanent staffers–money routed through another agency so that state databases on pandemic spending would not show any payments to the governor’s office.

No meetings to scrutinize no-bid contracts awarded for COVID-19 testing or to produce personal protective equipment that was not medical grade.

No meetings about the unprecedented decision to allow a for-profit company to film a promotional video on state property, featuring the governor and other senior officials.

Shortly after Reynolds’ surprise disclosure in April that she had returned $95 million in federal funds intended to support COVID-19 testing in schools, the ranking Democrats on the oversight panels requested a meeting about protocols for conducting oversight on federal pandemic relief. State Senator Claire Celsi and State Representative Ruth Ann Gaines wrote,

The billions of dollars sent to Iowa in the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan must be spent according to complicated and sometimes strict rules. We want to assure that the Reynolds Administration spend the money in accordance with the rules to the benefit of Iowans.

We were flabbergasted to discover that Governor Reynolds sent $95 million in COVID-19 testing funding back to the U.S. Federal Government instead of giving schools the option to use it for COVID-19 testing protocols in their districts.

It is our collective responsibility to monitor the disbursement of these funds to ensure it is being used for its intended purpose. Iowans deserve to know where the money is going and what it is being used for. At the end of the statutory spending period, they also deserve to know how much (if any) was leftover and how much should be sent back.

The Republican committee leaders (State Senator Jason Schultz and State Representative Holly Brink) did not even respond directly to their Democratic counterparts. Brink told some news media that a meeting would be a “politically-motivated waste of time.” She declared the $95 million to be “unnecessary federal money,” since Iowa children had been back in classrooms for months.

Leaving aside the value of surveillance testing as a way to identify asymptomatic positives and track the spread of coronavirus variants, the federal government had suggested other allowable uses for those funds, such as purchasing PPE or supporting laboratories and local public health departments.

Oversight leaders also declined to delve into various costly state decisions not related to the pandemic, such as no-bid contracts worth $50 million to purchase the Workday computer system for the entire state government. They didn’t look into accounting problems that ensued after Iowa State University switched to Workday, even as the university’s difficulty in extracting auditable data delayed the state’s annual report for fiscal year 2020. Nearly six months after that report’s usual completion date, it’s still not finalized.

UPDATE: State Representative Chuck Isenhart, a Democrat who serves on the House Government Oversight Committee, formally requested meetings on four topics during the 2021 legislative session: the “state’s future capacity for infectious disease prevention and response” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “regulation of animal feeding operations by the Department of Natural Resources,” state and local government actions to reduce public sector carbon emissions, and whether Iowa should change state law or devote more resources “to address the growing problem of pesticide drift.” The committee did not take up any of those suggestions.

HOUSE REJECTS TRANSPARENCY FOR GOVERNOR’S OFFICE SPENDING

Democratic lawmakers tried to add accountability measures to other legislation. When the House debated the budget bill including appropriations for the governor’s office, State Representative Chris Hall offered an amendment stipulating:

  1. that moneys allocated for governor’s office salaries be used only for salaries, not for bonuses;
  2. that the governor’s office return to the state’s general fund money appropriated for staff salaries if those salaries were covered by federal funds or other state agencies; and
  3. that the governor’s office report to the state legislature annually on total compensation for each staffer and how those salaries were covered, including any use of federal funds or transfers from other state agencies.

Hall noted a “pattern that has developed within the governor’s office” making it hard to follow the state and federal dollars to determine how they are being spent to cover staff salaries. I pulled this video from the Iowa House debate on April 21.

Toward the end of that clip, Republican State Representative John Landon spoke for about 20 seconds to oppose Hall’s amendment. He asserted, “Currently our experience with the governor’s office has been that she stayed inside the budget and has not used additional funding from our committee for any of these bonuses.”

“Additional funding from our committee” is doing a lot of work there. The governor’s office balanced its budget for fiscal year 2020 by using $448,449 in federal COVID-19 relief funds and nearly the same amount from other state agencies.

Reynolds’ chief of staff Sara Craig Gongol told members of a House appropriations subcommittee that some staffers had previously had their salaries paid by other agencies. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the CARES Act covered those salaries, freeing up money for the other agencies, she said.

In fact, only three of the governor’s permanent staffers were being paid by other state agencies from the summer of 2019 until the early days of the pandemic. But 21 employees in Reynolds’ office–including Craig Gongol herself–had most of their salaries and benefits covered with CARES Act money from mid-March through June 2020.

In his closing remarks for his amendment, Hall said the proposal “is about checks and balances” and allowing taxpayers to easily track how their dollars are spent.

The COVID-19 relief funds used for the governor’s staff salaries “got laundered first through the Department of Homeland Security,” Hall noted. A single line item on a state database said $448,449 were spent from that department on “COVID Staffing.” It didn’t delineate which employees were compensated, what duties they had filled, or what kind of work they had been doing.

Hall questioned why the governor’s office should be treated differently from other executive branch agencies when it comes to staff compensation. He argued that the governor’s staff had been in effect been paid twice. “If there was an effort to mislead, or make harder for taxpayers to follow those dollars, why?”

House Republicans rejected Hall’s amendment along party lines.

SENATE REJECTS SCRUTINY FOR AMERICAN RESCUE PLAN FUNDS

State Senator Joe Bolkcom, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, offered his own transparency amendment to a bill allocating funding from federal block grants. The bill came to the floor on the final day of the legislative session. To the surprise of many in the chamber, Senate President Jake Chapman ruled the Democratic amendment germane. Here are Bolkcom’s opening remarks:

The proposal would have stipulated:

  1. that the law banning “self-promotion” by state officials using taxpayer funds applies to federal COVID-19 relief money
  2. that the Department of Management submit to the legislature a “detailed list of all expenditures” made with federal funds received through the CARES Act or American Rescue Plan;
  3. that the Department of Management notify the legislature within fourteen days about any contract with a private entity involving COVID-19 relief funds;
  4. that the executive branch receive approval from the Legislative Council before spending more than $3 million from federal COVID-19 relief funds in any one fiscal year on any contract, agreement, or purpose; and
  5. that competitive bidding procedures be used for any contract involving American Rescue Plan funds.

The first point relates to to the governor’s appearance in tv and radio ads funded through the CARES Act. Bolkcom explained that current law already prohibits such “self-promotion” using state funds. He added that the Legislative Services Agency had trouble obtaining information about how CARES Act funds were used last year. Iowa lawmakers should pay more attention to how this money is being spent going forward, Bolkcom argued, and this amendment would create a process for that.

Republican State Senator Tim Kraayenbrink, who chairs the Appropriations Committee in the upper chamber, made a convoluted case against the amendment.


Kraayenbrink said Reynolds had “done an excellent job of distributing these funds to the people in need,” and claimed Iowa is “one of the leading states” coming through the pandemic. “But honestly, I think all of us could agree that Iowa’s in a very, very good spot about how our governor has responded to this coronavirus with federal dollars.”

The senator also depicted the amendment as “political.” He referred to Democrats who criticized Reynolds’ decision to return money earmarked for COVID-19 testing in Iowa schools, but also her attempt to use $21 million in CARES Act funds on Workday. “If I were giving money back, of $95 million when our schools are open, for school testing, and I got called out on spending money on Workday, I’d be a little reluctant to take any money and spend it on anything as well,” Kraayenbrink said, “Because chances are there might be another reason why our state auditor comes after her in a way that she maybe spent that. So I’d be a little bit reluctant to take money that basically there isn’t any place for.”

Kraayenbrink asked colleagues to resist the amendment and “stand up for what has happened in Iowa and put us in a very successful spot.”

It was too much for Democratic State Senator Rob Hogg, who has closely tracked coronavirus statistics at the state and county level since the earliest weeks of the pandemic. He gave an unplanned speech explaining why Reynolds’ COVID-19 response was “abysmal.”

“We need oversight of how this federal money is used,” Hogg argued, particularly when the governor rejects funds for testing students and school staff, even though some 10,000 Iowa children have tested positive for COVID-19 since Reynolds signed legislation in late January to force schools to offer 100 percent in-person instruction.

Democratic State Senator Pam Jochum also spoke in favor of Bolkcom’s amendment to ensure the $1.4 billion the state receives from the American Rescue Plan would be spent wisely and in accordance with federal law. “If we had an oversight committee that actually met, perhaps we wouldn’t need this kind of an accountability amendment,” Jochum said. “But that committee doesn’t meet” and has hardly done so for several years. Senators are “abdicating” their responsibility as a coequal branch of government, in her view.

Jochum pointed out that in June 2020, Republicans passed a law requiring the secretary of state–a duly elected statewide official–to obtain the Legislative Council’s approval for emergency decisions like mailing absentee ballot request forms to all voters.

In his closing remarks, Bolkcom disputed Kraayenbrink’s claim that it’s “political” to oversee the expenditure of taxpayer dollars. “We think it’s our job.”

Bolkcom reminded colleagues that it was nearly “impossible” for the legislature to track what was happening with CARES Act funds in 2020. The legislature would never pass a bill giving the governor a billion dollars in state resources to spend however she wants.

Bolkcom ticked off a few of Reynolds’ questionable uses of CARES Act funds: the Workday computer system, her staff salaries, and no-bid contracts for some of the governor’s political contributors. Those things “should have had a little bit more scrutiny” in 2020. Had the governor known legislators were paying closer attention, “maybe some of that wouldn’t have happened.”

The Senate voted down Bolkcom’s amendment along party lines.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The legislature’s hands-off approach to how Reynolds has managed the pandemic could not be more different from how GOP lawmakers viewed the millions of federal dollars Governor Chet Culver’s administration spent following the 2008 floods.

During the 2009 legislative session, GOP State Representative Jeff Kaufmann thundered about supposedly bloated salaries in the Rebuild Iowa Office. When that office spent $19,000 in federal funds on carpet, it became a multi-week scandal. Republicans were still hammering on that carpet expenditure in 2016, when Kaufmann was the Iowa GOP’s state party chair.

Imagine how GOP legislators would have reacted if Culver had spent hundreds of thousands of flood relief dollars on his staff’s salaries, had used those funds to pay for a computer system purchased before the floods, had awarded no-bid contracts to political allies, had deployed the Iowa National Guard to help companies linked to his donors, or had returned tens of millions of dollars to the federal government, without giving local authorities the option to use the funds.

Like the bloggers used to say in the 2000s, IOKIYAR (it’s ok if you’re a Republican).

Top image: Governor Kim Reynolds speaks before signing a broadband bill in the capitol rotunda on April 28, 2021. Photo first published on the governor’s Facebook page.

  • Excellent report

    I especially like the exchange between the persuasive Bolkom and the incoherent Kraayenbrink. To think he is a financial advisor in his other job!

  • I appreciate that update information about pesticide drift

    Someday, Iowa may have a state government progressive enough to at least take an objective statewide look at patterns of pesticide drift damage to rowcrops, specialty crops, rural landscape plants, and natural areas. If and when that happens, the results will not be pretty.

    Illinois is starting to pay attention to drift damage to natural landscapes. Iowa, as it did with surface water pollution for decades, is taking the positions of the three famous monkeys, only it’s see no evil, hear no evil, accept campaign contributions from the evil.

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