# Nate Boulton



Exclusive: Labor relations board shifts staff, cases to other agency. Is it legal?

Iowa’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) is transferring most of its staff and caseload to the state Department of Inspections and Appeals.

Since the mid-1970s, PERB members and administrative law judges have adjudicated labor disputes within state and local government or school districts. Following the changes, administrative law judges now working for PERB will handle other matters, while other employees at Inspections and Appeals will hear cases that were previously in PERB’s jurisdiction.

State officials have not announced the changes, which are scheduled to take effect on September 30. It’s not clear who initiated or authorized the plan. Staff in the governor’s office and Department of Inspections and Appeals did not respond to any of Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries over the past three weeks. PERB members Erik Helland and Cheryl Arnold likewise did not reply to several emails.

State Senator Nate Boulton, a Democrat with extensive experience as a labor attorney, has asked Attorney General Tom Miller for an official opinion on whether “it is an illegal shift of an essential PERB duty” to assign its responsibilities “to an unrelated state agency.”

Boulton also asked Miller to weigh in on the legality of Governor Kim Reynolds’ recent appointments to PERB. As Bleeding Heartland previously reported, Reynolds has circumvented the Senate confirmation process by keeping one of the three PERB positions unfilled, so she can name her preferred candidates to a vacant slot while the legislature is not in session.

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Governor still playing musical chairs with employment board

For a second straight year, Governor Kim Reynolds has reappointed Erik Helland to Iowa’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) after Helland failed to win Iowa Senate confirmation. In an apparent effort to circumvent the legally required confirmation process, Reynolds appointed Helland to a different position on the three-member board, which adjudicates labor disputes within state and local government or school districts.

She used the same maneuver last summer to name Helland as PERB chair after the Iowa Senate did not confirm him during the 2021 legislative session.

The governor has not filled the now-vacant position of PERB chair, saying in a recent letter to the top Iowa Senate staffer that her administration “has initiated, but has not yet completed, the selection process.” That leaves the board with no quorum; Reynolds has kept one position unfilled since August 2020.

The long-running vacancy allows the governor’s preferred nominees to remain on the board, even if they don’t receive a two-thirds confirmation vote in the state Senate. Asked for comment on Helland’s reappointment, the Democratic senators who reviewed the PERB nominees accused the governor of “a partisan power grab” and “rigging the appointment process so she can get her way.”

Reynolds’ spokesperson Alex Murphy did not respond to eight inquiries about the PERB appointments between late May and July 28.

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Republicans reach deal on cutting Iowans' unemployment benefits

Iowa House and Senate Republicans have been at an impasse this month, as Senate Republicans refused to advance spending bills in an effort to pressure the House to approve a plan to divert more public education funds to private schools.

But in a sign of progress in backroom negotiations, GOP lawmakers finalized agreements on three bills April 26. The Senate approved the House version of a bill cutting unemployment benefits, while the House passed Senate versions of legislation on child care and an ethanol mandate for gasoline retailers.

Forthcoming Bleeding Heartland posts will cover the child care and ethanol bills.

Republicans in both chambers had agreed on most of the unemployment benefits package in March. The centerpiece of House File 2355 is a proposal Governor Kim Reynolds highlighted during her Condition of the State address in January: reduce the maximum unemployment benefits in one year from 26 weeks to sixteen weeks. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) estimated the shortened window would reduce payments to jobless Iowans by nearly $69.2 million during fiscal year 2023 and nearly $70.9 million the following year.

Most states provide up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, while only a few provide as little as Iowa will after Reynolds signs this bill into law.

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Iowa Republicans close to deal on cutting unemployment benefits

The Iowa House and Senate approved similar bills on March 23 that would substantially cut unemployment benefits for jobless Iowans. The legislation, a priority for Governor Kim Reynolds, had been stalled for weeks, raising questions about whether Republican leaders could find the votes to pass it in the House.

Both versions of the legislation include the centerpiece of the proposal Reynolds highlighted during her Condition of the State address in January: reduce the maximum unemployment benefits in one year from 26 weeks to sixteen weeks. Currently, most states provide up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits per year, while only a handful of states provide a maximum of sixteen weeks or fewer.

The revised bill, House File 2355, also includes provisions that would force Iowans to accept new jobs for lower pay sooner, and would make it easier for Iowans to be denied benefits entirely.

A House amendment offered by State Representative Mike Bousselot removed language that would have denied Iowans benefits the first week they were unemployed. Senate Republicans put the one-week waiting period back in the bill before approving it.

All House and Senate Democrats voted against the bills, as did two Republicans in each chamber: State Representatives Martin Graber and Charlie McClintock, and State Senators Zach Nunn and Jeff Reichman.

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Governor resumes public events; no word on follow-up test (updated)

Governor Kim Reynolds returned to the capitol on January 18, after canceling her public events on January 13 and 14. Announcing those cancellations, staff said in a statement that the governor “is not feeling well, but has tested negative for COVID-19.” Her spokesperson Alex Murphy did not respond to subsequent messages seeking to clarify whether Reynolds was tested again over the holiday weekend.

At least five individuals associated with the Iowa House or Senate have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, including Democratic State Senators Zach Wahls and Nate Boulton. (The legislature does not require lawmakers or staff to report coronavirus infections.) Reynolds, Wahls, and Boulton are all vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19.

The governor spent considerable time with her face uncovered around other unmasked people last week: at a crowded Iowa GOP breakfast on January 10, while delivering her Condition of the State address in the House chamber the following day, and while attending the Iowa Supreme Court chief justice’s report to lawmakers on January 12.

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2022

The Iowa Senate convened for its 2022 session on January 10 with 32 Republicans and eighteen Democrats. Twelve senators are women (seven Democrats and five Republicans), up from eleven women in the chamber prior to the 2020 election and double the six women senators who served prior to the 2018 election.

I enclose below details on the majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Iowa Senate committees. Where relevant, I’ve mentioned changes since last year’s legislative session. The biggest change: Republican Dave Rowley was elected in December to succeed Republican Zach Whiting, who resigned to take a job in Texas.

All current state senators are white. The only African American ever to serve in the Iowa Senate was Tom Mann, elected to two terms during the 1980s. No Latino has ever served in the chamber, and Iowa’s only Asian-American senator was Swati Dandekar, who resigned in 2011.

Some non-political trivia: the 50 Iowa senators include two Smiths, a Democrat and a Republican, and two Taylors, a Democrat and a Republican. As for first names, there are three Jeffs and two men each named Zach, Craig, Mark, Dan, Jim, and Tim.

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