Iowa's tobacco use, student aid commissions play valuable role

Democratic State Senator Herman Quirmbach submitted the following written comments to members of the Boards and Commissions Review Committee. They are an extended version of remarks he delivered during the September 6 public hearing at the state capitol. You can view the committee's draft recommendations here.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Boards & Commissions Review Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on September 6. What follows is a review and extension of my remarks.

I offer the following observations as a member of the Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Commission (Tobacco Commission) and of the College Student Aid Commission (CSAC). I have served on both these commissions for approximately twenty years as an ex-officio non-voting member. Both commissions oversee the implementation and administration of critical state programs to protect the public health (Tobacco) and enhance educational opportunities and workforce development (CSAC). Beyond the functioning of existing programs, members of the commissions provide exceptionally valuable expertise to help guide the development of public policy for the future.

On the Tobacco Commission I have served with medical doctors, pharmacists, academic public health experts, frontline addiction recovery workers, youth service agency administrators, and youth representatives. The youth representation is especially important because the vast majority of tobacco addicts start as teenagers or before. If the state had to hire consultants to provide comparable expertise, it would cost many tens of thousands of dollars each year. Currently we get the profound benefit of such expertise for little more than carfare.

The proposed recommendation for the Tobacco Commission is “Consolidate/Merge.” Consolidate with whom? Merge with whom? No detail is provided. No rationale is offered. I have yet to find even a single member of the Tobacco Commission who has been consulted by your Review Committee.

[Editor's note from Laura Belin: At the August 29 meeting of the Boards and Commissions Review Committee, Nate Ristow (the Administrative Rules Coordinator for Governor Kim Reynolds) indicated that the Health and Human Services Council will be a "clearinghouse," and many health-related boards will be replaced by subcommittees of that council. The Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Advisory Council would be "rolled into the behavioral health subcommittee" of the HHS Council, Ristow said. The committee's draft recommendations did not include any of the explanations Ristow or other committee members provided orally during the August 29 meeting, nor were the planned changes for various boards and commissions circulated in any form prior to September 6. Quirmbach commented to Bleeding Heartland, "The public would have been far better equipped on Sept. 6 to provide useful input had those remarks been widely circulated in advance."]

The Tobacco Commission already consults and coordinates with many partner agencies. For the record, the Tobacco Commission by law has (non-voting) representatives from the Drug Policy Coordinator, the Attorney General’s office, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services and regularly works with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division. It is hard for me to imagine any agency that does a better job at working with other related elements of state government.

It is critical to the health of Iowa and especially of its youth that we not blur the focus on tobacco and tobacco-related products. Tobacco is and is likely to remain the single biggest preventable cause of death in Iowa and throughout the nation. The challenges of tobacco are dynamic (e.g., vaping), and the Tobacco Commission has shown a ready ability to adapt to new threats. Other public health problems certainly exist, but to bury the mission of the Tobacco Commission in a larger bureaucracy will inevitably cause that mission to lose emphasis in state priorities. That would be a tragic mistake, one with quite literally life and death consequences.

The College Student Aid Commission plays an equally valuable role in the area of education. Statutorily designated members have included presidents of private and community colleges, members of the Board of Regents, students and parents of students, and licensed K-12 teachers and administrators. All of these voices are crucial, and none should be eliminated. In addition, we have had financial management executives to provide guidance on financing of college expenses and related matters. If anything, we need more members, especially from the business community to advise on workforce development issues.

The tentative recommendation for CSAC is “Reorganize/Other Changes.” How to reorganize? What other changes? Again, no detail is provided and no rationale offered. Little if any consultation has been done with the board members.

[Editor's note: During the August 29 meeting, Ristow indicated that committee will recommend reducing the size of the College Student Aid Commission and include someone with a financial or fiduciary background, a parent, and a student. Representatives of state universities, private colleges, and community colleges would become ex officio non-voting members of the commission. As mentioned above, the committee did not circulate those ideas ahead of the September 6 public meeting.]

One thing I can tell you for sure is that the CSAC is and has been a highly adaptive and dynamic organization over many years and has been led by highly competent administrators. Its role in student loan administration has changed dramatically in response to major federal policy changes, and it has acted with great foresight in managing and ultimately divesting its student loan portfolio at great financial savings to the state. At the same time CSAC has undertaken the shaping and administration of a variety of workforce development programs, including the Future Ready Iowa initiatives, the Last Dollar Scholarship program, and several loan forgiveness and incentive programs designed to secure more health care professionals and teachers for the state, especially in rural areas. Based on its expertise, CSAC is currently providing critical guidance to the federal government regarding changes in the FAFSA procedure for determining student financial need. All of this is being done on top of administering the Iowa Tuition Grant, National Guard educational financial aid, and a variety of other educational scholarship and grant programs.

CSAC and its governing board have done an outstanding job in its areas of responsibility in higher education. I am very skeptical of any significant—and currently undefined—changes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And it sure ain’t broke.

Finally, I must offer some general comments on the current board and commission review process. Let me first acknowledge that the Board & Commission Review Committee has been given a gargantuan task with an impossibly short deadline. The fault for that lies not with you but with those who drafted the mandates in the Legislature. I appreciate your efforts, but the enterprise will of necessity ultimately fall short of what is needed and entails significant risk of great damage to the government and people of Iowa.

I am not opposed to reform. I am sure that there are some boards and commissions that have consistently fallen short of their intended goals and should be dropped and at the same time other boards and commissions that have achieved their specific goals and are no longer needed. Boards and commissions, as well as all other entities of state government, must adapt to the changing needs of the people of Iowa. Many have done that quite well—like the Tobacco Commission and the CSAC—but others may need some reorientation.

That said, the process of reform must proceed far more carefully and judiciously than the current legislative mandate allows. Within the examples given above, and as evidenced by much of the public testimony on September 6, there has been precious little consultation with commission members, staff, and constituency groups with regard to many of the boards and commissions affected. The “Recommendations” listed in the August 29 Subcommittee Recommendations document are often superficial in the extreme, and in no case is any evidence or rationale offered to justify the recommendation. That document provides no basis whatsoever for any legislation.

The superficiality of the analysis so far is no better illustrated than in the case of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. The recommendation is “Eliminate.” Just one problem: the State of Iowa has no power to do that! The Midwestern Higher Education Compact and the Commission it operates are created by an interstate agreement among twelve states in the Midwest region. The Iowa Legislature can’t abolish that group without the consent of the other eleven compacting states. The BCRC subcommittee making the recommendation apparently did so little investigation as even to learn that simple fact.

The Boards and Commissions authorized by the Code of Iowa play vital roles in implementing existing public programs and in advising the development of future public policies. They are some of the most important avenues by which residents of our state participate in the self-government of Iowa and express their hopes and desires for public policy. The expertise of the volunteers who serve is often irreplaceable and obtained at a de minimis cost. 

Any reform must proceed far more carefully than in the current process. I would humbly suggest that your final report not try to address all 259 of the boards in your laundry list. It would be far more helpful if you could pick out, say, a dozen of the most obvious cases for immediate sunset. (Do we have a Buggy Whip Commission?) Then your report could lay out and recommend to the Legislature a more systematic and judicious review process, picking out groups of, say, 15-20 related boards for review each year over the next decade. To do in-depth reviews of even that many in a year would be a substantial workload for a group such as yours but would result in much more thoughtful and useful recommendations than in the current document.

I recognize that there is a politically advantageous short-term reward for an elected official being able to tout a massive reduction in “bureaucracy” at election time. Good public policy, however, goes in a distinctly different direction. Please choose prudence over politics, pruning over clear-cutting.

Respectfully submitted,

Senator Herman C. Quirmbach

Top image: Senator Herman Quirmbach listens to testimony during a January 31 Iowa Senate subcommittee hearing. Photo by Laura Belin.

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