Governor Kim Reynolds has appointed Emily Wharton to remain in charge at the Iowa Department for the Blind, effective July 1. Wharton has worked for the agency since 2013 and has served as its director since 2016.
NEW POWER FOR THE GOVERNOR
For generations, the Iowa Commission for the Blind (a three-member body appointed by the governor) had the authority to hire and fire the agency director. But Reynolds’ plan to restructure state government, which Republican lawmakers approved in March, gave that power to the governor.
The change was consistent with language giving Reynolds direct control over several other agency leaders not already serving “at the pleasure of the governor.” But that idea didn’t come from the outside consultant’s report on realigning Iowa government, commissioned by the Reynolds administration at a cost of $994,000. Blind Iowans turned out in large numbeers for state House and Senate subcommittee hearings on the bill and uniformly spoke against the proposal.
Staff for the governor acknowledged no one from Iowa’s blind community was consulted about the planned reorganization. Pressed by state lawmakers, Reynolds’ legislative liaison Molly Severn offered the following explanation: “If Iowans currently perceive a government official to be accountable to the governor, that official should be.” The governor’s staff did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about evidence suggesting Iowans had any such belief about the Department for the Blind director.
DEMOCRATS OBJECTED TO CHANGE
During legislative debates on Senate File 514, Democratic State Senator Tony Bisignano and State Representative Amy Nielsen offered amendments to remove the section covering the Department for the Blind. Bisignano and more than a half-dozen House Democrats spoke passionately in favor of letting blind Iowans serving on the state commission continue to select the head of the agency. (Debate over the relevant amendments begins at 5:51:30 of the Iowa Senate video from March 7, and at 1:30:20 of the Iowa House video from March 15.)
Though the chambers rejected the amendments, Republican State Senators Tom Shipley and Brad Zaun joined Democratic colleagues to support the effort, as did three GOP members of the House: Eddie Andrews, Mark Cisneros, and David Young.
State Representative Jane Bloomingdale, who floor-managed the reorganization plan in the House, addressed the controversy during her closing remarks. She said she had just received a message from the governor’s staff, assuring her nothing would change with the Department for the Blind. “The governor’s staff has committed to me that she will rehire or hire Director Wharton as soon as this bill becomes effective. So there will be no change,” Bloomingdale promised.
REYNOLDS LEFT WHARTON’S SALARY UNCHANGED
Wharton had gone off script during an Iowa Senate subcommittee meeting in February, predicting she would “most likely” not remain as director if the bill passed. She added, “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 was more circumspect when a House subcommittee heard public comments on the same section.
Reynolds signed Senate File 514 in early April. The division relating to the Department for the Blind took effect upon enactment, and required the governor to appoint a director “on or before July 1, 2023.”
The governor’s office provided Bleeding Heartland with a letter dated June 22, confirming Wharton’s appointment. It’s not clear whether Reynolds (who left Iowa for a two-week international trade mission on June 20) signed the letter before her departure, or whether staff used an auto-pen to affix her signature.
The letter sets Wharton’s annual salary at $97,460, which is the top of the allowable range for her position. Wharton has been at that level for the past four years. The realignment bill gave Reynolds the power to set unlimited salaries for the leaders of sixteen cabinet-level agencies. But it did not change the statutory salary range for other appointed positions, including leaders of departments that are no longer cabinet-level. (Those salary ranges have not increased for more than a decade.)
Wharton will manage a slightly larger agency; the fiscal year 2024 budget allocated an additional $150,000 and one more full-time equivalent position to the Department for the Blind. However, Republican appropriators did not approve the agency’s request for $500,000 to create an Instructional Materials Center and fund monthly purchases of braille and large-print materials. As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, that budgetary decision may leave blind or visually impaired students without access to high-quality materials in many K-12 school districts.
COMMISSION FOR THE BLIND STILL DOWN ONE MEMBER
After being without a quorum for several months, the Iowa Commission for the Blind can conduct official business, but lacks a full contingent.
One board member retired in August 2022, and another passed away in November, leaving only one of three positions filled. Reynolds finally appointed Amy Salger in time for the board’s scheduled quarterly meeting in March. She later appointed Michael Hoenig to serve, effective May 1. At this writing, one commissioner position remains unfilled. Salger and Hoenig are both registered Republicans, according to the state’s official website on boards and commissions.
Reynolds has pursued a similar strategy in other areas of state government, leaving vacancies on various boards where she would need to name non-Republicans to comply with Iowa’s law on political affiliations for appointed bodies. For example, the three-member Public Employment Relations Board operated with two Republicans and one vacancy for more than a year and a half. According to the state’s website, the ten-member Iowa Board of Medicine currently has five Republicans, three no-party voters, and two vacancies. The five-member Health Facilities Council has one Republican, two no-party voters, and two vacancies.
Top photo by Laura Belin: Iowa Department for the Blind Director Emily Wharton listens at a February 2023 Iowa Senate subcommittee on the state government reorganization plan.