# Consumer Protection

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.

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Governor's plan would gut independence of Iowa Consumer Advocate

First in a series analyzing Governor Kim Reynolds’ plan to restructure state government.

Attorney General Brenna Bird would gain direct control over the office charged with representing Iowa consumers on issues related to utilities, under Governor Kim Reynolds’ proposed restructuring of state government.

House Study Bill 126, which lays out the governor’s plan over more than 1,500 pages, contains several provisions undermining the independence of the Office of Consumer Advocate. Iowa House State Government Committee chair Jane Bloomingdale introduced the legislation on February 1.

The Office of Consumer Advocate’s mission is to represent consumers on issues relating to gas and electric utilities and telecommunications services, “with the goal of maintaining safe, reliable, reasonably-priced, and nondiscriminatory utility services.” Much of the office’s work involves matters before the Iowa Utilities Board, which regulates the state’s investor-owned utilities, Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy.

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Iowa state treasurer: Use caution with gift cards

Shoppers in the U.S. spent an estimated $160 billion on gift cards in 2018, up from around $90 billion a decade earlier. The holiday season is the peak time for those purchases.

State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald has warned that much of the value will go to waste. Years ago, his office had a tool to help Iowans recoup the cost of unused gift cards. But state legislators had a different idea.

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Iowa governor's already denied ten AG requests to join national cases

Less than four months after persuading Attorney General Tom Miller to cede some of his power to her, Governor Kim Reynolds has already denied ten requests to sign Iowa on to multi-state legal actions related to federal or state policies on gun safety, immigration, environmental regulation, and reproductive or LGBTQ rights.

During the same time frame, Reynolds has approved five requests to join multi-state efforts on consumer protection, drug policy, or to help Iowa obtain a share of negotiated settlements.

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No rebates coming for Wellmark health insurance policy-holders

Iowans who buy health insurance through Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield won’t be getting premium rebates anytime soon. Wellmark has a near-monopoly on Iowa’s individual and employer health insurance market. After the company announced last summer that it would not participate in the state’s health insurance exchange during its first year of operation, Democratic State Senators Jack Hatch and Matt McCoy questioned why the company was holding about $1.3 billion in reserves. The senators argued that the Iowa Insurance Division had previously justified Wellmark’s large cash reserves on the grounds that the company would be selling policies through the health exchange created under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Hatch and McCoy asked Iowa Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart to study the issue, and in November, Gerhart retained Risk and Regulatory Consulting to investigate Wellmark’s reserve levels.

The consultants’ report, made public yesterday, concluded that Wellmark’s cash reserves are “reasonable and prudent.” Click through to read the full six-page report at the end of the article by Tony Leys of the Des Moines Register.

I’ve enclosed below a few excerpts from Leys’ report, Hatch’s letter to Gerhart last July, which provides background on the issue, and the joint statement Hatch and McCoy released yesterday. They noted that Wellmark “will be using its current reserves to protect them from risks that do not exist for them; namely, the Insurance Marketplace Exchange.” Hatch and McCoy added that the report “puts to rest the notion that the ACA could ever be the basis for a future premium increase by the company, at least in the next three years.”

After many years of double-digit percent increases in health insurance premiums, Wellmark did not raise premiums for many of its individual customers this year, presumably to deter them from shopping for a better deal on Iowa’s exchange. I predict Wellmark will cite the 2010 health care reform law as an excuse for raising premiums again before too long. Iowa individuals and families can purchase policies on the exchange from either Coventry or Co-Oportunity Health. Only Co-Oportunity is selling employer health insurance plans through Iowa’s exchange.

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