Second in a series analyzing Governor Kim Reynolds’ plan to restructure state government.
Blind Iowans showed up in large numbers at the state capitol on February 13 to speak out against one part of Governor Kim Reynolds’ plan to reorganize state government.
A common thread running through the bill, numbered House Study Bill 126 and Senate Study Bill 1123, is giving the governor more power to hire and fire the few state government leadership positions that have some independence under existing law.
The relevant section would give Reynolds power to appoint the director of the Iowa Department for the Blind, a position that the Iowa Commission for the Blind has long filled. The director would serve at the pleasure of the governor, so Reynolds could fire the person at any time, for any reason.
PLAN DEVELOPED WITHOUT INPUT FROM BLIND IOWANS
Division XIII of the government reorganization plan was the first item on the agenda at an Iowa Senate State Government subcommittee that considered numerous aspects of the enormous bill on February 13.
The governor’s legislative liaison Molly Severn summarized the plan to make the department director appointed by the governor and subject to Iowa Senate confirmation. “If Iowans currently perceive a government official to be accountable to the governor, that official should be,” she explained.
Severn introduced Emily Wharton, whom the Commission for the Blind appointed as director in 2016. She had previously served for three years as the agency’s technology director.
State Senator Jason Schultz, who is leading discussions on the government reorganization plan, invited comments from the director. He might have expected to hear something positive; other senior agency officials who appeared before the subcommittee either said nothing or expressed support for the restructuring.
Wharton went off script, saying she would “most likely” not remain as director “if this legislation goes through.” She would prefer for that not to happen, “but I cannot say that this is good for blind Iowans. I cannot support that. I know that I’m not supposed to say that.”
Wharton noted that for almost 100 years, the commission has been able to appoint a director “who was knowledgeable about blindness and blindness-related issues.” The position “was not political” and the director could operate “without any political influence whatsoever.”
Later during the meeting, Mike Jones, a student in a Department for the Blind program, asked whether anyone writing this part of the bill was blind “or had any familiarity with the needs of blind people.” The governor’s staffers—Severn, Reynolds’ chief operating officer Jake Nicholson, and senior legal counsel Michael Boal—sat silently. Schultz said he didn’t know.
When other senators had a chance to weigh in, Democratic State Senator Tony Bisignano asked the governor’s representatives directly: Who had input on this part of the bill? Was anyone from the commission or any other blind person involved?
Nicholson answered that the recommendation was “centered more around the philosophical belief that for those government officials that the public perceives to be accountable to the governor, we believe that should be so.” He noted the bill would not change who is eligible to serve on the Commission for the Blind (a three-member board appointed by the governor). It “merely” makes the director an appointee of the governor, subject to Senate confirmation.
Bisignano questioned the use of the word “merely,” because naming a director “is pretty paramount.” Throughout the bill, there is a “consistent thread of taking power to the governor’s office” for various state positions where no problem has been identified.
“The director ought to be someone who has real experience and knowledge” with what blind Iowans are dealing with. But a political appointee of the governor “could be anybody,” Bisignano said. “And that’s not right.”
Bleeding Heartland reached out via email to Severn, Nicholson, and Boal. Did they have any evidence that Iowans currently perceive the director of the Department for the Blind as appointed by or accountable to the governor? Did they have evidence that more than a tiny fraction of sighted Iowans are even aware this agency exists?
Why wouldn’t the governor’s office seek input from blind Iowans about the plan? Is Reynolds unhappy with the current director or the department’s operations for some other reason, not expressed during the subcommittee meeting?
At this writing, none of the governor’s staff have replied.
UPDATE: KCRG-TV’s Ethan Stein reported in February 2022 that Wharton had expressed concerns about the Department of Education not promptly resolving concerns about student privacy. She eventually raised the issue with the governor’s office. Stein reported in August 2022 that the education agency had abruptly ended a long-running contract with the Department for the Blind. Wharton commented, “It feels retaliatory.”
“YOU’RE GOING TO LEAVE A WHOLE MINORITY GROUP OF IOWANS BEHIND”
Whereas lobbyists do much of the talking at some legislative subcommittees, the public comments on this proposal came uniformly from Iowans with firsthand experience.
Cindy Ray, first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind in Iowa, shared some of her life story to explain why she is “very deeply opposed” to the bill. During the 1960s, she received the agency’s services, which were a model for the country and received a citation from President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Upon moving to another state in 1968, Ray learned that “in other states, where sighted people ran commissions and agencies for the blind, people did for you what they thought was best for you, and it didn’t really matter what you felt.” She unsuccessfully searched for work for a few months, then returned to Iowa where she was able to be gainfully employed. Her takeaway: not everyone has allies “who believed in blind people.”
Eric Smiley, a student at the agency’s empowerment center, told legislators he has also lived in a state with inadequate services. Having been blind since birth, he can vouch for the quality of Iowa’s programs. “There’s a lot expected of us” at the center, whereas in other settings, expectations of blind children or adults are often “too low.”
Retired attorney Mary McGee described her career working in the insurance and banking industries, as well as running a private law practice for 25 years, having been blind her whole life. She described Senate Study Bill 1123 as “the worst piece of legislation I’ve read in a long time.” While realigning government is a good thing, “you’re going to leave a whole minority group of Iowans behind.”
The department’s training and counseling are valuable, but “the confidence it gives blind people” through that training and counseling are more important. “And we’re going to lose that if friends of the governor, or good political supporters or optometrists get on that board, and the consumers have no input like they do now.”
Helen Mejia agreed with previous speakers about the harmful aspects of the proposal. If the legislator is looking for the Department for the Blind to be more accountable, she said other approaches could be more helpful than changing the “in-depth process” now used when appointing the agency’s director.
Becky Young, president of the National Federation of the Blind Des Moines chapter, told lawmakers she’s been blind since birth but is relatively new to the state, having moved here three years ago. She’s familiar with services for the blind in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Iowa. She knows students at the agency are “excellent with their travel skills,” they are “prepared and confident blind people,” able to get jobs and live the lives they want.
Jones, who has been a student in two Department for the Blind programs, said the great teaching he’d received had allowed him to continue to work “in a field that feeds my passion.” He came to the center so “my blindness would not decide when I stopped working.” Pointing out that Governor Reynolds has often said “Iowans know what’s best for Iowans,” Jones suggested that would also be true for blind Iowans. It makes sense for experts on blindness to choose the department’s director.
Tasha Welsh said in a written comment to lawmakers that she’s gained confidence while using the agency’s services for the past two years due to a progressive eye condition. “The awareness, knowledge, and experience of training under successful blind staff gave me the skills and ability to advocate for myself and other blind individuals.” Welsh worries that putting the agency under the governor’s direct control “will cause undue hardship to an already disadvantaged part of the population.”
“THIS IS A BAD IDEA”
Neither Schultz nor the other Republicans on the subcommittee (State Senators Scott Webster and Mike Bousselot) indicated whether the public comments had influenced their thoughts on the governor’s proposal.
The Democrats made clear they won’t support this part of the reorganization. Bisignano scolded the governor’s staff: “When you go disrupt the lives of blind people because you want more power […] the only thing that that can bring you is one more job appointment.” Letting the governor appoint the director won’t fix anything. Blind Iowans are “happy with what’s going on” at the agency.
Democratic State Senator Nate Boulton agreed. “At some point we do have to start paying attention to the people that are impacted by these legislative decisions.” The people “who are most interested in the success of this program are telling us, without exception, that this is a bad idea. People who have experiences and knowledge in blindness and blindness-related issues should be steering this department.”
Why would we disrupt the success of the agency’s programming? “Philosophy,” according to the governor’s staff. For Boulton, “that’s not a good answer.” He alluded to the awkward silences during the meeting, when some Iowans who were ready to talk weren’t aware the staffer carrying the microphone around the room was standing in front of them.
“We struggled to recognize people to speak,” Boulton said, “because this committee isn’t experienced in making things accessible, and should be.”
That wasn’t the only accessibility problem.
DEAF IOWANS UNABLE TO SHARE FEEDBACK
After about a half-hour, the subcommittee moved on to discuss the section of the bill dealing with the Department of Education. One controversial element would involve moving the Iowa School for the Deaf to the education department, and removing code language that requires legislative approval to close the school. Katarina Sostaric reported on this angle for Iowa Public Radio on February 10.
Sarah Young Bear-Brown went to ISD as a child, and now, her 6-year-old daughter is a student there. She said the state provided a one-year plan to keep funding the school, but she’s scared about what will happen after that.
“I don’t want to see another school close,” she said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “I do not want to see that. We need to keep the Iowa School for the Deaf open.” […]
Young Bear-Brown said her daughter started out going to a regular public school with the help of an interpreter, but she was isolated, deprived of language, and she wouldn’t sign at home.
“Once she went to the Iowa School for the Deaf, oh man, she made such a big change,” Young Bear-Brown said. “She was happy. She was glowing. She was communicating, signing. I just see that big change in her life, and others don’t see that. I want that to happen for other deaf children in Iowa.”
The governor’s spokesperson told Sostaric “There are no plans to close the Iowa School for the Deaf or make operational changes.” Staff have said moving the K-12 school from the Iowa Board of Regents (which oversees state universities) to the agency responsible for K-12 education is logical. But no one pressed the issue during the subcommittee.
Young Bear-Brown was on Zoom, trying to be recognized to speak. However, Schultz decided not to allow any members of the public to comment remotely, following a disruption during a subcommittee last week.
Senators also made it impossible for Young Bear-Brown to follow the discussion. She posted on Twitter that she was “beyond PISSED OFF” because the legislature didn’t provide an ASL interpreter for those participating via Zoom. When someone joined the virtual meeting and offered to interpret, “The staffer said no.” (I was seated near the Zoom screen and could see a user labeled “ASL interpreter” was on the call.)
Boulton told his colleagues there should have been an American Sign Language interpreter on the Zoom. “It could have been done. It should have been done. And if we were good at this, it would have been our approach.”
UPDATE: Schultz convened another subcommittee on the bill on February 14. This time Young Bear-Brown and several other speakers representing the Deaf community were able to speak to legislators via Zoom, with ASL interpreters. After sharing their own experiences with the Iowa School for the Deaf or other deaf services, all conveyed the same message: preserve Iowa code language requiring legislative approval before the school could be closed. One speaker noted that Nebraska closed a similar school 25 years ago, and many in the Deaf community regret that the option isn’t available for Nebraska children.
Top photo by Laura Belin taken during the February 13 subcommittee. From left: Molly Severn, Jake Nicholson, Michael Boal, unidentified man, Cindy Ray, and Department for the Blind Director Emily Wharton.