Exclusive: Iowa governor used CARES Act funds to pay staff salaries

Governor Kim Reynolds directed that nearly $450,000 in federal funding the state of Iowa received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act be used to cover salaries and benefits for staff working in her office.

According to documents Bleeding Heartland obtained from the Iowa Department of Management through public records requests, the funds will cover more than 60 percent of the compensation for 21 employees from March 14 through June 30, 2020.

Reynolds has not disclosed that she allocated funds for that purpose, and reports produced by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency have not mentioned any CARES Act funding received by the governor’s office. Nor do any such disbursements appear on a database showing thousands of state government expenditures under the CARES Act.

The governor’s communications director Pat Garrett did not respond to four requests for comment over a two-week period.

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Why was Jerry Foxhoven worried?

Jerry Foxhoven has shed more light on the disagreement that preceded his forced departure as Iowa Department of Human Services director last month. On July 24 he told David Pitt of the Associated Press “that he declined to approve paying the salary of Elizabeth Matney, who left DHS on May 17 to accept a job as Gov. Kim Reynolds’ adviser on health policy.”

Staff for Reynolds disputed Foxhoven’s account, saying he never raised concerns about covering Matney’s salary and wasn’t fired for that reason. They also noted that for many years, state agencies including DHS have occasionally paid employees working in the governor’s office.

Foxhoven’s aware of that precedent, having signed some of the relevant documents himself. So why would he question the legality of this arrangement? The former director’s comments to reporters and records obtained by Bleeding Heartland provide some clues.

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Jim Kurtenbach to lead Iowa's HR agency. What was Kim Reynolds thinking?

Governor Kim Reynolds announced last week that Jim Kurtenbach will be the new director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services (DAS), effective July 1. Paul Trombino has held that position on an interim basis for about a month, after the Iowa Senate did not confirm previous DAS Director Janet Phipps.

Tapping Kurtenbach for this job was a strange choice. The agency has broad responsibility for human resources, procurement, and accounting on behalf of the state. Sexual harassment or discrimination by senior officials has led to several lawsuits against the state and millions of dollars in settlements in recent years. Yet not only does Kurtenbach lack relevant experience in the HR field, his hiring and managerial decisions as Iowa State University’s vice president and chief information officer were far from a model for best practices.

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Iowa DOT insists that cities shut off some of their traffic cameras

The Iowa Department of Transportation is standing behind its ruling that limited the use of traffic cameras in several large Iowa cities. The DOT adopted new rules in late 2013 to limit local governments’ ability to install traffic cameras on or near highways. Those rules required cities to demonstrate that cameras were needed to address “critical safety issues,” which could not be resolved by other means. Studies have produced conflicting data on whether cameras reduce red light or speeding infractions or vehicle accidents.

In March of this year, DOT officials ordered officials in six cities to shut off ten out of 34 traffic cameras cities had defended on safety grounds. The city of Davenport opted to comply with the DOT ruling, but five other cities asked department officials to reconsider the decision. (Although a reversal was unlikely, exhausting administrative appeals typically precedes legal action challenging a state agency’s decision.)

This week, DOT Director Paul Trombino notified city officials in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, and Muscatine that the department was rejecting their appeals, because data did not demonstrate that the disputed cameras had improved safety or reduced crashes. Click through to read copies of the letters. The fifth city to appeal, Sioux City, filed a lawsuit last year challenging the DOT rules. A Woodbury County District Court is scheduled to hear that case soon. Des Moines officials plan to challenge the DOT in court as well. Cedar Rapids officials have not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit. After the jump I’ve enclosed excerpts from Kathy Bolten’s report for the Des Moines Register and Rick Smith’s for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Local governments are generally responsible for enforcing traffic laws. I’ll be interested to see whether Iowa courts back up the DOT’s efforts to restrict those powers on or near major highways. According to Trombino, the Iowa Code allows the DOT to enforce limits on cameras for traffic enforcement. Whatever the courts decide, the state’s multi-pronged assault on local control remains an under-reported story of Governor Terry Branstad’s fifth and sixth terms.

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