I thought the often-repeated desire to weed out waste, fraud and abuse from government spending was something Republicans, Democrats, and independents could all agree on in Iowa.
Boy, am I naive.
A bit of recent Iowa government history illustrates this contradiction between our elected officials’ statements and their actions.
The Iowa Communities Assurance Pool was created in 1986 to offer liability and property insurance coverage to its member-owners, about 800 Iowa cities, counties, fairs, transit agencies and other so-called 28E multi-government entities.
The insurance pool’s only customers are various governments. The pool’s revenue comes from about $45 million in premiums these governments pay each year. Management of the pool is handled by a seven-member board of directors elected by the member-owners.
In 2019, the Associated Press disclosed that for many years, the board overseeing the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool had routinely held two of its six meetings each year at luxury out-of-state vacation resorts. The insurance pool paid the cost of the board members’ travel to these venues in Florida and Michigan, along with their lodging and meals for several days.
In August 2019, one month before the Associated Press report, the pool’s board of directors met over three days at The Boulevard Inn, a bluff-top hotel at the Lake Michigan resort community of St. Joseph, Michigan. Room rates there in August typically are about $400 per night.
Not surprisingly, the AP report caught the eye of State Auditor Rob Sand—just as it might if the Des Moines City Council or Iowa Board of Regents were meeting regularly at resorts in Florida every winter and in Michigan every summer.
Sand notified the insurance pool his staff wanted access to its records so his auditors could review the pool’s spending to determine whether the payments for the out-of-state trips and other reimbursements to board members had a legitimate public purpose and complied with state laws.
“We look forward to fighting for taxpayers’ right to know what is happening with their money,” Sand told the AP.
Months later, after providing some but not all of the documents Sand wanted, the insurance pool sued the auditor in an attempt to void his subpoena. The pool took the position Sand did not have legal authority to conduct such a review. In the view of the pool’s lawyers, the pool was established under a section of Iowa law that puts it outside of the state auditor’s scrutiny and on a legal footing that puts it outside the state open meetings and public records laws.
This month, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously the insurance pool is correct, that it is not subject to the state auditor’s oversight. The court’s decision said while it may be good policy to subject the government insurance pool to oversight by the auditor, the legislature has not chosen to do that.
That brings us to today.
If you thought state lawmakers might be working now to revise the statutes under which the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool and similar government insurance pools are organized—bringing them within the oversight of the state auditor in an attempt to guard against waste, fraud and abuse—you would be wrong.
Your mistake can be forgiven, though.
Yes, lawmakers are working to eliminate what they perceive to be waste, fraud, and abuse in government programs as diverse as unemployment insurance benefits, Medicaid, and food assistance for the poor. And, given lawmakers’ comments, you might logically think it would be on their radar, too, if a government board was routinely meeting at vacation destinations in other states, with taxpayer money paying the cost.
But instead of looking to change the law to allow the auditor to ferret out any such misuse of government money, lawmakers have used the Supreme Court’s recent decision to pounce on the auditor. It’s probably just a coincidence the state auditor is a Democrat and a majority of senators and representatives are Republicans.
The Iowa House last week amended and approved a controversial bill, Senate File 478, that would severely limit the ability of the auditor to review a state government agency.
Iowans who are concerned about waste, fraud, and abuse in their government should be troubled by the message this legislation sends.
The bill would prevent the state auditor from going to court to enforce a subpoena for a state agency’s records if the agency does not want to cooperate. The bill sets up an arbitration procedure where such disputes would be decided by a three-person panel, with the agency appointing one arbiter, the auditor appointing a second arbiter, and the governor appointing the third arbiter.
Sand said the legislation would allow a state government agency to keep records from the state auditor if the governor agrees.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported the National State Auditors Association, in a letter to Iowa officials, said the arbitration panel envisioned by the bill “presents a clear threat to the state auditor’s independence.”
The letter went on: “As comprised, it clearly favors the audited agency rather than having an objective third party decide the matter. Access to records necessary to conduct an independent audit is essential for the proper oversight of public funds.”
The House-passed version still needs approval by the Senate and Governor Kim Reynolds’ signature before it can become law. With adjournment of the 2023 session looming, Iowans having an opinion on the legislation should share it with their state senators this week.
There is an interesting footnote to this controversy:
The Iowa Communities Assurance Pool board members who traveled to those out-of-state meetings the Associated Press wrote about include Michael Bergan of the Winneshiek County town of Dorchester.
The same Michael Bergan, a Republican state representative, floor managed Senate File 478 when the House debated and approved it last week.
Top image of State Auditor Rob Sand is a screenshot from video of Sand’s April 20 news conference regarding Senate File 478.