Seven bad policies Iowa Republicans slipped into budget bills

Second in a series on under-covered stories from the Iowa legislature’s 2023 session.

During the seven years of the Iowa GOP trifecta, the majority party has often enacted significant public policy through eleventh-hour appropriations bills. Just before adjourning in 2019, Republicans amended spending bills to change the judicial selection process, restrict medical care for transgender Iowans on Medicaid, and block Planned Parenthood from receiving sex education grants.

A lengthy amendment to a budget bill approved in the closing hours of the 2020 session made it harder for Iowans to vote by mail and sought to restrict some companies from bidding on electric transmission lines projects.

The Iowa Supreme Court sent the legislature a message in March, blocking the 2020 provision on transmission lines, on the grounds that it was likely passed through unconstitutional “logrolling.”

Republican legislators weren’t pleased with the ruling known as LS Power, but seem to have adapted to it. This year’s “standings” appropriations bill was relatively short and focused on spending and code corrections—a far cry from the usual “Christmas tree” featuring unrelated policy items from lawmakers’ wish lists.

Nevertheless, many surprises lurked in other bills that allocated spending for fiscal year 2024, which begins on July 1.

This post focuses on seven provisions that appeared in budget bill amendments published shortly before Iowa House or Senate debate. Most of this policy language never appeared in a stand-alone bill, allowing Republicans to avoid the scrutiny that comes with subcommittee and committee discussions. Democratic legislators had little time to review the proposed budgets before votes on final passage, which mostly fell along party lines.


“I do believe that the omission of this language was intentional”

Democratic State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott flagged an alarming change in Senate File 561, the health and human services budget.

The bill lawmakers approved in 2022 included a line stating that the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, “shall include as many SNAP households as is allowed by federal law.”

The same paragraph in Senate File 561 calls on the department to determine eligibility for federal food assistance in accordance with Senate File 494, “if enacted.” That bill would establish an asset test for the SNAP program that is much stricter than federal guidelines. Republicans voted the bill out of the Senate in March and the House in April, but didn’t send the legislation to Governor Kim Reynolds until May. She is expected to sign it.

Trone Garriott tried to ask the Republican floor manager, State Senator Mark Costello, about the rewrite.

At first Costello refused to take her questions. Then he reluctantly agreed to answer.

Why was the sentence removed? “We are trying to clean up the language in the bills. We didn’t feel it was necessary,” Costello said.

If the change was incidental, Trone Garriott asked, would Republicans be open to an amendment to put that language back in the budget? Costello said no, members of the Senate and House had already agreed on this bill.

“I do believe that the omission of this language was intentional,” Trone Garriott said after Costello sat down. She reminded colleagues that many Iowans warned Senate File 494 would prevent Iowans from receiving federal food assistance for which they qualify.

Trone Garriott said 177,000 Iowa households with children will be at risk of losing access to food. So will people with disabilities, the working poor, and older Iowans. We know because “that’s exactly what happened in Pennsylvania” when Republicans enacted a similar asset test. About 4,000 households lost benefits because they had too many assets, but around 111,000 (“26 times as many”) lost benefits because they did not provide the right documentation. Pennsylvania ended the costly experiment after three years.

“If the intent is not to kick eligible people off of food assistance, then why delete the language that makes explicit federally allowed SNAP households shall be included?” Trone Garriott wondered aloud. “Because Iowans who qualify for food assistance will be kicked off, because they cannot complete the paperwork requirements of Senate File 494 […] and everyone in this room knows that will be the outcome.”

She wrapped up: “Iowans will be spending millions of dollars to prevent our Iowa neighbors from having the healthy food they need. And this budget makes that painfully, shamefully clear.”

I also believe Republicans knew exactly what they were doing when they deleted language that routinely appeared in the human services budget—not only last year, but also in 2017, 2018, 2019, and so on. A few words about policy may seem inconsequential in a lengthy appropriations bill. But assuming Reynolds signs Senate File 494, it matters whether state law directs an agency to “include as many SNAP households as is allowed by federal law.”

A lawsuit recently filed in federal court asserts that when Reynolds ended Iowa’s participation in pandemic-related unemployment programs in 2021, she violated a state law that requires Iowa Workforce Development to provide citizens with “all advantages available under the provisions of the Social Security Act that relate to unemployment compensation.”


“This meeting may not occur now”

When the House debated Senate File 561, Democratic State Representative John Forbes highlighted another problem. The legislature’s Health Policy Oversight Committee, formed in 2015 to oversee the state’s Medicaid program, would no longer have any required meetings. Current law states that this committee “shall meet at least two times, annually, during the legislative interim […].”

The FY2024 human resources budget would rewrite that code section as follows (emphasis added): “The legislative health policy oversight committee may meet annually to provide continuing oversight for Medicaid managed care, and to ensure effective and efficient administration of the program, address stakeholder concerns, monitor program costs and expenditures, and make recommendations.”

Forbes has served on the committee since its inception and told House members past meetings “have been very beneficial in allowing the public to come in and speak to us about the issues that are affecting them or their loved ones” after for-profit companies took over responsibility for Medicaid recipients.

Republicans who co-chaired this committee, including State Representative Joel Fry and State Senator Jeff Edler, previously sought to reduce its impact in other ways. The Health Policy Oversight Committee’s two annual meetings took place during different months from 2015 through 2019. But beginning in 2020, Republicans scheduled each year’s mandatory meetings on a single day in December: one in the morning, one in the afternoon. That excluded members of the public who couldn’t attend due to work or family obligations or other commitments during the busy holiday season.

I suspect Forbes was correct when he speculated that “this meeting may not occur” once state law does not require the oversight committee to convene.


“There are so many people who depend on having an effective higher education system”

Many House and Senate Democrats criticized Senate File 560, the bill outlining much of the education budget, for allocating too few resources to state universities, community colleges, and other government programs. But Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls focused his floor remarks on new policy language.

One provision added to the bill orders the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the three state universities, to “conduct a comprehensive study and review of the diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and efforts” of each institution. It also says that for the next fiscal year, the universities “shall cease all hiring related to the institution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.”

When Iowa House Republicans were considering a more expansive bill to ban all state university spending on such programs, Board of Regents President Michael Richards announced in March that the board would study the programs and halt any new initiatives while the “comprehensive” review was in progress.

Wahls asked GOP State Senator Jeff Taylor, the floor manager of the education budget, whether “diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts” are defined in Senate File 560 or anywhere else in Iowa Code. Taylor acknowledged those terms are not defined in the bill or by some other statute.

The Democrat observed that “diversity, equity, and inclusion is a fairly broad category.” If this bill passes, does that mean the University of Iowa can’t hire an outreach position to help veterans access higher education?

After pausing to confer with a Senate GOP staffer, Taylor said the hiring freeze would occur while the Regents are conducting the study they’ve already begun. “I’m sure the Regents have their own definitions in mind as well.”

Wahls sought to clarify whether the Regents would be able to define what is or isn’t covered by language in the budget. Taylor said the bill just reinforces in code the study that’s already happening.

Urging senators to oppose the education budget, Wahls noted that diversity, equity, and inclusion can take on many forms. “There are so many people who depend on having an effective higher education system, who have been left behind.” Those include first generation college students and people trying to figure out how to navigate federal benefits available to veterans or other underrepresented communities.

Both chambers approved Senate File 560 on party-line votes.


Language could affect pollution control rules in Linn County and Polk County

Republicans put several controversial funding decisions in the FY2024 agricultural and natural resources budget (Senate File 558). One that’s attracted substantial news coverage and commentary strikes a $500,000 appropriation for a water sensor network to monitor nitrate and phosphorus levels.

Two policy changes in the same bill received much less attention.

One section changes the Iowa Code chapter on local government air pollution control programs, to say ordinances, rules, and standards cannot be “more strict than” those imposed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. When the Iowa House debated the bill on May 2, Democratic State Representative Chuck Isenhart questioned the Republican floor manager, State Representative Norlin Mommsen, about that language.

Isenhart noted that this provision was not included in any other bill that received a public hearing through the normal subcommittee process. He asked about the reasoning behind the change.

Mommsen explained, “This is so that we have consistent policy concerning air quality across the state.” He referred to previous GOP laws eliminating local government authority to enact certain policies, like raising the minimum wage.

Isenhart tried to get back on track: “So you’re making a case for the language. I’m wondering why it is that we haven’t seen it before today. What’s so urgent about it?” Did some specific case inspire the change without a more thorough examination?

Mommsen was vague: “It was brought to my attention, and I felt the policy needed to be consistent.”

Isenhart mentioned that the governor recently declined to apply for a $3 million climate change planning grant from the federal government. Since Iowa won’t receive those federal funds, three of the state’s large metro areas (Polk County, Linn County, and Iowa City) are able to apply for $1 million each to help develop plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or other kinds of air pollution.

Polk and Linn are the only Iowa counties that have their own pollution control agencies, Isenhart added. Did that have anything to do with this language showing up in the bill? “Not at all,” Mommsen said.

Isenhart said those communities may need flexibility to adopt stronger standards. He called it “inappropriate” for the legislature to change the landscape while local governments are putting together climate pollution reduction plans.

Next, the Democrat wanted to know whether this part of the bill would affect the ability of local boards of public health to adopt reasonable air quality rules. “I don’t believe this will have any bearing on that,” Mommsen said.

Linn County has a public health ordinance related to open burning, Isenhart said. This won’t affect their ability to put those regulations in place? “Not to my knowledge,” Mommsen said.

Linn County’s deputy director of public health didn’t read the bill that way. He emailed Mommsen on the day of the House debate to point out that this part of Senate File 558 “would eliminate parts of the Linn County Public Health air quality program (permitting minor sources and open burning permitting for the county area),” and “could also impact the City of Cedar Rapids burn ban and possibly the Linn County Supervisors 0.5 mile buffer zone around Cedar Rapids.”


“Iowans want public land. They love their public land”

When the Senate debated the ag and natural resources budget last month, Trone Garriott zeroed in on a different policy change. The very last part of Senate File 558 would strike language from Iowa Code section 465A.1, which expresses a goal to have “a minimum of ten percent of the state’s land area be included under some form of public open space protection by the year 2000.”

Trone Garriott noted that Democrats had received the amendment showing spending plans the same day of Senate floor debate, so they were unable to “thoroughly reflect” on the proposal, nor did the public have “any opportunity to respond.”

Whenever the legislature has tried to undermine acquisition of public land, Trone Garriott said, Iowans have “turned out in force” in opposition to the bills. It happened again this year with a bill that cleared the Senate but stalled in an Iowa House committee.

“To sneak this into our budget work really robs our public of the opportunity to speak out against it,” Trone Garriott told colleagues. “Because we know that Iowans want public land. They love their public land. And they will speak out for their public land. And it’s wrong to take away their opportunity to be part of this conversation, and for that reason, I must vote no.”

The Senate floor manager, State Senator Dan Zumbach, defended this language in his closing remarks on Senate File 558. “We have a lot of land in public use that’s not getting taken care of the way that it could be,” he said, referring to parks that weren’t being properly maintained. He said the state’s parks would be more usable after Republicans put the Iowa Department of Natural Resources “in a position to take care of that property.”


Measure is retroactive to the beginning of the current fiscal year

When Iowa’s attorney general was a Democrat, the Republican majority threatened to cut his budget and restricted his authority to join multi-state legal actions.

Now that Republican Brenna Bird occupies the office, the majority party keeps increasing her power and resources. Thanks to the state government reorganization bill (Senate File 514), Bird can grab any criminal case from a county attorney, has exclusive authority to investigate and prosecute election-related crimes, and exercises direct control over the Office of Consumer Advocate.

While many state entities have to make do with status quo budgets for fiscal year 2024, the justice systems budget (Senate File 562) gave Bird substantially more money and staff to pursue her ambitions.

Last year’s legislature approved a general fund appropriation of $6,530,099 and 217 full-time equivalent positions for the Attorney General’s Office in FY2023. The same bill allowed the office to spend $300,000 from the Consumer Education and Litigation Fund for farm mediation services, and $2 million from the same fund to support work related to criminal prosecutions, criminal appeals, and state tort claims. (Ever since Republicans gained a trifecta in 2017, the justice systems budget has allocated part of the Consumer Education and Litigation Fund for those purposes.)

Bird requested a big budget hike. A plan submitted to lawmakers earlier this year made a case for an additional $1.6 million to hire six new criminal prosecutors plus five support staff, as well as $920,514 to hire four attorneys and two paralegals “to protect the State’s interests against federal overreach, protect Iowa farmers, and defend Iowa’s statutes.”

Republican lawmakers didn’t give Bird everything she asked for, but under Senate File 562, the Attorney General’s office will receive an appropriation of $7,749,860 and 228 full-time equivalent positions for FY2024. That’s a budget increase of roughly 18.7 percent. The allocations from the Consumer Education and Litigation Fund will stay the same: $300,000 for farm mediation services, and $2 million to support criminal case work and state tort claims.

But wait, there’s more!

Policy language in another part of the bill will give Bird access to even more resources this year and next. Her office can scoop “any moneys not otherwise appropriated” from the Antitrust Fund and the Consumer Education and Litigation Fund “for salaries, support, maintenance, and miscellaneous purposes” related to the attorney general’s duties.

Under current law, the office can use at most $500,000 each year from the Antitrust Fund, for enforcement of relevant laws and public education about antitrust matters. Now Bird will be able to use “any moneys not otherwise appropriated” from that fund to do anything her office needs.

Similarly, current law stipulates that Consumer Education and Litigation Fund proceeds can be used for public education and enforcement of relevant laws. As mentioned above, the GOP-controlled legislature authorized the previous attorney general to spend a certain amount of that money on farm mediation, criminal prosecutions, and tort claims. But Bird will be able to use “any moneys not otherwise appropriated” from the fund for any office expense.

Bill Brauch, who served as director of the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division from 1995 to 2015, told Bleeding Heartland after reviewing the FY2024 justice systems budget, “This appears to allow a raid on the Consumer Education/Litigation Fund, allowing the use of fund moneys well beyond the purposes stated in the court orders and settlements requiring the payments into the fund.” He further explained,

The court orders and settlement language requiring defendants to pay into the fund was never intended to fund the general expenses of the office of the AG—not to be a general fund supplement. This broad use of the funds raises big questions about the new AG’s stewardship of the funds appropriated through the general fund process.

Most appropriations bills are effective on July 1, the first day of the next fiscal year. However, this section of Senate File 562 “takes effect upon enactment” (that is, immediately after the governor signs the bill), and is retroactive to July 1, 2022 (the start of the current fiscal year).

I infer that the Attorney General’s office has been spending beyond its means since Bird was sworn in, and Republican lawmakers agreed to help her balance the books for FY2023. We’ll know more when monthly financial reports for the office are available later this year.

Side note: Bird didn’t ask the legislature for any extra victim assistance funding while she supposedly conducts a “top down, bottom up audit” of those programs. So GOP lawmakers allocated $5,016,708 for victim assistance grants for FY2024, exactly the same amount as they received for this year. On May 2, Senate Republicans voted down an amendment offered by Democratic State Senator Todd Taylor, which would have increased the victim assistance appropriation to $10 million.


“This is unsafe”

When the Senate and House debated the administration and regulation budget, Senate File 557, several Democrats slammed the decision to keep many agencies on status-quo budgets, while giving the governor’s office an increase of more than 20 percent—with no details on how the extra funds would be used.

State Representative Megan Srinivas also criticized the “irresponsible” budget hike for the governor’s office, then flagged another bit of policy the Senate “snuck in.”

The bill would give the director of the Department of Inspections, Appeals, and Licensing authority to “appoint and supervise” the full-time executive directors of the state Boards of Medicine, Pharmacy, Dentistry, and Nursing.

Srinivas said she understood the concept behind combining staff for those boards, in the hope that they can offset busy times of year for one another. But this bill would take power away from appointed board members, who have expertise in the relevant area. Instead, the staff would report only to the director of the Department of Inspections, Appeals, and Licensing, “who has no training in any of those fields.”

“It’s removing expertise from the boards that we look to for our rules and regulations that govern Iowans’ lives,” Srinivas said. “This is unsafe.”

While the current director of inspections and appeals might work with these boards, Srinivas worried that once this language is codified, a future director of the licensing agency might make important decisions without consulting subject matter experts.

While delivering his closing remarks on the administration and regulation budget, Republican State Representative Michael Bergan responded to the Democrat’s critique. He said that “for uniformity,” the legislature combined administrative staffs for boards that handled licensing and put them under the Department of Inspections, Appeals, and Licensing.

Bergan claimed the boards would maintain their own staff for investigations, but the change in Senate File 557 would produce a “uniform chain of command” involving the agency director in the hiring process and oversight, “so that we have consistency.” He said he expected those working for the medical boards would continue to serve “with the expertise that they bring to their job.”

Top photo of Iowa state capitol building by Paul Brady Photography, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • It’s actually worse

    SF 514 strips control from county attorneys (there is an opinion piece about this posted on Bleeding Heartland) by giving the attorney general the authority to take any criminal case away from a county. Also, any case involving a technical infraction by the county auditor (these provisions were made much more punitive in the 2021 legislative session, including giving the SOS authority to remove the county auditor), or any allegations regarding election misconduct by anyone (voter, election official, etc.) now go SOLELY to the attorney general. By bypassing the county attorney, if a Board of Supervisors refuses to certify an election (this happened in NM last cycle), the AG decides if that should be prosecuted. Scary stuff—the AG can unilaterally decide to undo the will of the people in any county from two different angles. None of this needs to be in the Code because of existing laws. The consolidation of power is nothing but rank authoritarianism.

    • yes, there were about 50 bad policies in the state government reorganization

      For this piece I was focusing on the budget bills passed right before they adjourned for the year.