"It was a great day to hear from Iowans," Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen told reporters on September 6. He was speaking in his role as chair of Iowa's temporary Boards and Commissions Review Committee, after nearly 70 people had testified about proposed changes to more than 100 state boards and commissions.
The two-plus hour public hearing created the impression that affected Iowans had ample opportunities to provide feedback in person. The committee is also accepting comments submitted via email (BCRCcomments@iowa.gov) through September 17.
Although some testimony or written comments may prompt the committee to tweak its plans for certain boards, the reality is that in many ways, Paulsen and other committee members prevented Iowans from offering meaningful input on the proposed changes.
GOVERNOR CONTROLLED PROCESS
The board review committee grew out of Governor Kim Reynolds' plan to reorganize state government (Senate File 514), which she signed into law in April. The statute called for a committee to evaluate Iowa's state boards and commissions, with six voting members and four state legislators (two from each party) serving as ex officio, non-voting members. The committee's sole task is to
study the efficiency and effectiveness of each board, council, commission, committee, or other similar entity of the state established by the Code. The committee shall evaluate the extent to which the goals and objectives of those entities are currently being met and make recommendations for the continuation, elimination, consolidation, or reorganization of those entities as needed.
The law requires the committee to report its findings to the governor and state legislature by September 30, after which its work will cease.
Two of the six voting members work directly for Reynolds in the governor's office: Jacob Nicholson (chief operating officer) and Nate Ristow (administrative rules coordinator). Two others are Reynolds appointees whom she could fire at any time: Paulsen and Department of Inspections, Appeals, and Licensing Director Larry Johnson. Reynolds named Barbara Sloniker as the review committee's public member. The sixth voting member is Deputy Attorney General David Faith, whom Reynolds appointed on the recommendation of Attorney General Brenna Bird.
Michael Boal, the governor's former senior legal counsel, has been working temporarily at the Department of Management to help with this project.
Paulsen emphasized during and after an August 29 committee meeting that the panel is not empowered to change the structure of bodies established by Iowa Code. The state legislature would need to approve any changes.
Paulsen has also said he doesn't know whether restructuring state boards will be part of the governor's legislative agenda next year. But the governor's office wrote the bill that set this review in motion, so it's hard to imagine Reynolds won't seek to enact her hand-picked committee's findings.
Republican legislators rushed to pass the governor's realignment plan in only six weeks, making few changes to its 1,500+ pages. So Iowa House and Senate majorities will likely rubber-stamp whatever Reynolds proposes next year, perhaps with some token amendments.
REVIEW COMMITTEE OPERATED BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
The Boards and Commissions Review Committee is subject to Iowa's open meetings law (known as Chapter 21). But its most important work has happened in private.
Committee members elected Paulsen chair at their first meeting on June 26, which lasted only a few minutes. Paulsen assigned the voting members to two-person subcommittees to consider all the state boards in a certain area (such as education and workforce, agriculture and natural resources, or health and human services).
Because the subcommittees involved less than half the board's voting members, they did not have to provide public notice of their meetings or deliberate in a publicly accessible location. Speaking to reporters after the September 6 hearing, Paulsen characterized the subcommittees' mission as "go research this, come back with the recommendations."
Few Iowans knew anything about those recommendations until August 29, when the review committee met in public for the second time. Over the course of an hour, subcommittee members took turns reading through lists of boards that were recommended to undergo no changes, consolidation, reorganization, or elimination. No written version of their suggestions was available at the meeting.
Democratic State Senator Janice Weiner, one of the review committee's non-voting members, raised concern during the August 29 meeting about the lack of public participation in the subcommittee process. She speculated that many people would have wanted to weigh in if they'd known the state was thinking about getting rid of a board that is important to them. (I have heard from members of several appointed bodies who had no idea their board or commission was going to be on the chopping block.)
Asked about Weiner's comments, Paulsen denied the public was shut out, saying, "I had people reach out to me." He also characterized the draft as "the kickoff of the conversation." None of the committee members expect it "to be the word for word final proposal," he said. Iowans would be able to submit written comments, or speak at a public hearing scheduled for the following week.
PUBLIC HAD SHORT WINDOW TO WEIGH IN, AND FEW DETAILS
Shortly after the review committee adjourned on August 29, the governor's office sent out a news release titled "Gov. Reynolds calls for public input on boards and commissions, Review Committee to hold public meeting."
So Iowans had only a week—including a long holiday weekend—to sign up to speak at the September 6 hearing and prepare their comments.
The news release linked to the committee's draft recommendations, which included one page of general findings and ten pages of line items specific to each board or commission. The overall impact would be to reduce 256 state bodies to about 140.
Nothing in that document explains the rationale for any of the suggestions. How did the committee determine that the various bodies slated for elimination were not serving their intended purpose? Without that background, it's hard for Iowans to make a case for preserving any given board.
Dozens of boards and commissions are listed as "Consolidate/Merge," with no indication of which bodies will lumped in together or who will serve on the consolidated board. Several speakers at the September 6 hearing expressed concern about proposed mergers. If they'd known more details, they might have been able to refute some of the committee's assumptions, or explain why the plans were misguided.
From what I gathered by listening to the August 29 meeting, some of the merged boards may be able to cover the same ground as two or three bodies. In other cases, merger will be tantamount to elimination. For instance, every state commission representing a marginalized or disadvantaged community (such as African Americans, Latinos, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Deaf people, and women) will be combined into one Human Rights Council. Paulsen couldn't tell me how that council might be structured. Inevitably, the affected communities will have less representation in state government.
Quirmbach has served on the Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Commission for about 20 years and wrote in a comment submitted to the review committee,
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.
Based on my recording of the August 29 meeting, the concept seems to be that the behavioral health subcommittee of the Health and Human Services Council will take over the tobacco commission's work, along with the subject matter of several other boards in the public health arena. When I mentioned that to Quirmbach, he commented, "The public would have been far better equipped on Sept. 6 to provide useful input had those remarks been widely circulated in advance."
The draft document also provides no details on what might happen to boards listed for "Reorganize/Other changes." Review committee members touched on some of those plans during the August 29 meeting, but if you weren't there, you would have no idea.
Some of the reorganizations appear to be minor, such as reducing the size of some boards to seven or nine members, or paying a per diem to those who serve on boards with heavy workloads.
But some changes would be major downgrades, like transferring rulemaking authority from a board to a state agency, or (in the case of the Environmental Protection Commission and Natural Resource Commission) revoking the commission's power to approve an agency budget. Some boards would be appointed by agency directors, rather than by the governor—which means no Iowa Senate confirmation process.
Members of several boards reached out to me to ask if I knew what the plan was for their area. I was able to answer a few of their questions, only because I recorded the August 29 meeting. Even then, I couldn't guarantee the committee members' rapid-fire verbal descriptions covered all of the important changes.
I asked Paulsen on September 6 whether the review committee had tried to reach out to current board members for feedback. He said, "I know I did," adding that he "can't speak for the other subcommittees." He declined to specify which board members he had consulted.
It does make sense to consider whether Iowa's boards and commissions are functioning well and serving a useful purpose. Paulsen told reporters, "This is a great conversation" unlike anything he's previously experienced in state government.
However, the vast majority of Iowans can't be part of that conversation. They can send a comment to BCRCcomments@iowa.gov, but since they weren't able to listen to the deliberations and don't know how various boards will be combined or restructured, they can't make the strongest possible case.
The review committee may give a nod to public feedback, but its research hasn't involved a broad base of stakeholders. More likely, the final report from this group of Reynolds appointees will recommend what the governor already wanted to do with state boards.
Top image: Members of Iowa's Boards and Commissions Review Committee listen to public testimony during a September 6 meeting at the state capitol. Photo by Laura Belin.