First in a series analyzing Governor Kim Reynolds’ plan to restructure state government.
Attorney General Brenna Bird would gain direct control over the office charged with representing Iowa consumers on issues related to utilities, under Governor Kim Reynolds’ proposed restructuring of state government.
House Study Bill 126, which lays out the governor’s plan over more than 1,500 pages, contains several provisions undermining the independence of the Office of Consumer Advocate. Iowa House State Government Committee chair Jane Bloomingdale introduced the legislation on February 1.
The Office of Consumer Advocate’s mission is to represent consumers on issues relating to gas and electric utilities and telecommunications services, “with the goal of maintaining safe, reliable, reasonably-priced, and nondiscriminatory utility services.” Much of the office’s work involves matters before the Iowa Utilities Board, which regulates the state’s investor-owned utilities, Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy.
AG WOULD GAIN POWER OVER CONSUMER ADVOCATE AND STAFF
Under current law, Iowa’s attorney general appoints an attorney to serve as consumer advocate for a fixed term of four years, subject to Iowa Senate confirmation. The consumer advocate manages a small staff of attorneys and analysts, who are state employees with “merit” protection, meaning they can be “disciplined or discharged for just cause.”
The governor’s plan would remove the requirement that the consumer advocate be an attorney, as well as the fixed term for the position. The consumer advocate would serve “at the pleasure of the attorney general” for up to four years, subject to Iowa Senate confirmation. Bird could remove the person at any time, for any reason.
In addition, the attorney general (not the consumer advocate) would be responsible for hiring “attorneys, legal assistants, secretaries, clerks, and other employees” of the Consumer Advocate Division. Those staff would not have merit protection. Rather, they would be at-will employees and could be “disciplined or discharged for any lawful reason at any time without regard to cause or just cause.”
Staff for the Iowa Attorney General’s office and governor’s office did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about who requested the proposed changes to the Office of Consumer Advocate or how they would benefit Iowans. All provisions related to the Attorney General’s office would take effect immediately on enactment of the government reorganization bill, according to an explanation published following the bill text.
Many large corporations, including some utility companies, have donated to the Republican Attorneys General Association. That group contributed $2 million to Bird’s 2022 campaign—about two-thirds of all funds she raised.
Iowa’s utility companies have sometimes been at odds with the Office of Consumer Advocate. For instance, Miller’s appointee Mark Schuling criticized provisions of an energy bill Republicans enacted in 2018 as likely to result in higher rates for consumers. Backed by corporate interests, that legislation harmed Iowa’s energy efficiency programs.
Then State Senator Jake Chapman, a leading architect of the 2018 energy bill in his role as Senate Commerce Committee chair, proposed legislation the following year that would have gutted the Office of Consumer Advocate. However, his bill went nowhere.
Bird has not yet appointed a new consumer advocate. Former Attorney General Tom Miller appointed Schuling in 2011, 2015, and 2019. When Schuling retired in early 2020, Miller tapped Jennifer Easler, a longtime attorney with the office, for the consumer advocate position. She returned to a staff role following the 2022 election.
According to recent filings with the Iowa Utilities Board, Craig Graziano is now serving as acting consumer advocate. Like Easler, Graziano has more than two decades of experience as a utility attorney, state salary records show.
GROUPS EXPRESS CONCERN ABOUT POLITICAL INFLUENCE
The governor’s office and several state government agencies are currently the only entities with lobbyists registered in favor of House Study Bill 126, the massive reorganization plan. No group has registered its opposition. Many organizations are monitoring the bill.
Bleeding Heartland reached out to several organizations that (like the consumer advocate) are often involved with matters that come before the Iowa Utilities Board.
Wallace Taylor, conservation chair for the Sierra Club Iowa chapter, said he had been concerned “about how the OCA would continue to approach the carbon pipeline cases. So far the OCA has generally been on our side. I’m thinking that could now change.” Taylor wasn’t sure why the bill would remove the requirement for the consumer advocate to be an attorney. “I’m sure Brenna Bird could find an attorney to her liking for the job.”
Sierra Club Iowa chapter director Pam Mackey-Taylor told Bleeding Heartland,
I am concerned about the ability of the OCA to remain independent, able to protect consumer interests, and not a political department.
I also worry about the staff doing their jobs without worry about whether they are working against funders of the Attorney General’s campaign. They need to be independent of political funders.
The staff’s merit protections are being removed, which also causes concern about their ability to do their jobs without political influence.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement expressed broad concern about the proposed government reorganization: “Something this massive needs transparency, clear and simple explanations for what is being proposed and why it is needed, and a process for public input along the way.”
Noting several “red flags” in the bill that would concentrate power with the governor and attorney general, CCI said Iowans should be concerned. “Who does this bill really serve? Its true intent seems to be making government less responsive to the people, and more beholden to the governor and her corporate cronies.”
I will update this post as needed when Bird appoints a new consumer advocate, or if the governor’s or Attorney General’s offices provide further context surrounding the proposed changes.
UPDATE: Emma Schmit, senior organizer with Food & Water Watch, commented on the proposal.
HSB 126 guts the independence and effectiveness of the Office of Consumer Advocate, placing more power in the hands of the Attorney General and removing the requirement that the Consumer Advocate be an attorney. It also takes away civil service protections for the Office’s hardworking staff. The fact that Governor Reynolds’ administration is seeking to politicize the Office while the Iowa Utilities Board prepares to consider three proposed carbon pipelines is simply outrageous – and certainly not a coincidence.
One of Governor Reynolds’ key allies, Bruce Rastetter, is behind the Summit pipeline scheme, and the Office of Consumer Advocate plays a crucial role in advocating for the public interest in the Iowa Utilities Board’s proceedings. Board approval would greenlight hundreds of miles of dangerous carbon pipelines and enable private pipeline companies to exercise eminent domain over Iowa citizens’ property. The Office of Consumer Advocate must continue to serve the Iowans’ interests – not private corporations.
SECOND UPDATE: On February 5, the Sierra Club Iowa chapter became the first organization to register a lobbyist against the governor’s reorganization plan. A blog post outlining the group’s concerns mentioned plans for the Office of Consumer Advocate, among other provisions that will increase the power of the governor or attorney general.
A companion bill introduced in the Iowa Senate on February 2 is numbered Senate Study Bill 1123.