Bill limiting Iowa's state auditor would affect us all

Al Charlson is a north central Iowa farm kid, lifelong Iowan, and retired bank trust officer.

The Iowa legislature’s 2023 session has been a dismaying mix of noise and fireworks, combining “debate” over divisive social and cultural issues with fundamental changes in our governing structure that slide through without adequate review and examination. 

Senate File 478, a bill designed to “hog-tie” our state auditor, is a strange combination of both.

This bill appears to be a “we’ll show you” punch at Auditor Rob Sand, the only Democrat currently holding statewide office in Iowa. It’s not clear what action on Sand’s part this bill is trying to avenge, except that he is a Democrat. Regardless, the provisions of this bill are unreasonable and would cause long-lasting damage. 

Under Senate File 478, the auditor would be barred from obtaining access to individual tax returns (which are now accessible with strict protection of confidentiality). Obviously, tax information is important in following the trail of a public official’s possible financial fraud.

The strangest aspect of this bill is the restrictions it places on the auditor’s access to eight specifically defined classes of information which could logically be important in an effort to uncover a public official’s possible theft of taxpayer funds. Under this bill, the auditor could only access this information if (a) the auditor can demonstrate in advance to the agency (state department, city, school district, etc.) being audited that this information is necessary, (b) the agency agrees, and (c) any individual’s name is deleted from the information provided.

In addition, the auditor could not include anything from these eight classes of information in the final written report of the audit without the written consent of any individual identified in the report. The auditor also would not be able to go to court to enforce a subpoena.

Finally, after the audit, any information from these eight classes of information would have to be deleted from the auditor’s work papers. This would make a follow-up audit in response to a persistent problem much more difficult.

Senate File 478 was originally introduced as a simple “shell” bill (Senate Study Bill 1200) on February 28 and referred to the State Government Committee. The restrictive language was added in an amendment Senator Mike Bousselot of Ankeny (former chief of staff to Governor Terry Branstad) introduced on March 7. The full Senate passed the amended bill the same day. It would be interesting to know the backstory behind this effort.

The Iowa State Auditor’s office has an established track record of performing its responsibilities effectively and ethically. Senate File 478 would shift the balance from protecting the legitimate interests of Iowa taxpayers to protecting public officials who might abuse the trust we place in them. Sand has characterized the proposal as “the single most pro-corruption bill in Iowa history,” noting that government bodies facing an audit “could bury any document that they don’t want to be seen in the light of day.”

The bill would also hurt the overwhelming majority of state and local public servants, who faithfully work every day on our behalf. 

There is a significant practical concern as well: our state auditor would be so handicapped that Iowa would no longer meet the oversight standards required to receive federal funds, such as Department of Transportation funding for highway construction. (Editor’s note: See letters submitted by the National State Auditors Association, former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, and the American Institute of CPAs.)

The Iowa House should not support Senate File 478. At the very least, the bill should be tabled until the 2024 session to allow an opportunity for full and careful review and debate.

Top photo of Al Charlson provided by the author and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Al Charlson