Iowa governor wrongly claims credit for large budget surplus

Tax and budget policy expert Randy Bauer was Governor Tom Vilsack’s budget director for six and a half years and has evaluated tax and revenue policies for many state and local governments.

In late September, Governor Kim Reynolds announced that the State of Iowa had a $1.24 billion surplus for fiscal year 2021, which ended on June 30. In a news release, she and the state’s interim budget director credited their own fiscal management for the surplus. Top Iowa Republican lawmakers have echoed that message.

Was it really all that praiseworthy? I’d suggest not. Here’s why this record surplus was not the big deal Reynolds and her minions made it out to be.

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Governor taps American Rescue Plan for IT project predating pandemic

Governor Kim Reynolds has allocated $13 million from the state’s American Rescue Plan funds for a data project that has been in the works since 2019.

Last year, the governor approved a request from the state’s Office of Chief Information Officer (OCIO) to pay for the Master Data Management Program with $13 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But those funds were never spent, according to pandemic spending reports and documents obtained through public records requests.

OCIO recently transferred the $13 million earmarked for the data management project back to the agency that administers Iowa’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, spokesperson Cayanna Reinier told Bleeding Heartland on September 29. She added that OCIO is “in the process of restarting” the project and “looking forward to moving ahead” with it, now that the governor’s office has approved the use of American Rescue Plan funds.

It’s far from clear this program is an eligible expense under the latest federal relief package.

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Governor brags about hoarding public money during pandemic

The state of Iowa ended fiscal year 2021 with the largest surplus ever recorded: nearly $1.24 billion. That’s four times higher than the general fund’s ending balance of $305 million when the books closed on the previous fiscal year, and it doesn’t include an estimated $801 million in Iowa’s cash reserves and economic emergency funds.

Governor Kim Reynolds declared in a news release, “Iowa is in a very strong financial position due to our fiscal responsibility.” Her staffer Joel Anderson, who is temporarily running the state’s budget agency, commended the governor “on recognizing the importance and need for a healthy and strong balanced budget.”

But an enormous surplus is not a sign of a healthy budget or responsible decisions. On the contrary, it suggests state government should have spent more on the public services Iowans need.

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Kraig Paulsen to lead Iowa budget agency (updated)

Governor Kim Reynolds has decided to appoint Kraig Paulsen to lead the Iowa Department of Management, according to a document posted on the state budget agency’s website September 27. The governor’s office has not yet announced the decision, but the agenda for the October 4 meeting of the State Appeal Board indicates that Paulsen will be introduced as “Director of the Department of Management.”

The State Appeal Board meets monthly to approve or reject claims against the state or a state employee. Its three members are the Department of Management director, the state treasurer, and the state auditor.

Paulsen has served as Iowa Department of Revenue director since February 2019. He previously led a supply chain initiative at Iowa State University, a position that was created for him on a fast track, bypassing the university’s usual open search process. Before working at ISU, Paulsen represented part of Linn County in the Iowa House for fourteen years, serving as House speaker from 2011 to 2015.

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Exclusive: Other agencies covered $900K in governor's office costs

Governor Kim Reynolds’ office was able to spend nearly 40 percent more than its $2.3 million budget appropriation during the last fiscal year, mostly by shifting personnel costs onto other state agencies.

Documents Bleeding Heartland obtained through public records requests show that eight state agencies covered $812,420.83 in salaries and benefits for nine employees in the governor’s office from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021. In addition, the Office for State-Federal Relations in Washington, DC remained understaffed, as it has been throughout Reynolds’ tenure. The vacant position should allow roughly $85,000 in unspent funds to be used to balance the rest of the governor’s office budget, as happened last year.

The governor’s communications director Pat Garrett did not respond to four inquiries over the past two weeks related to the office budget. But records indicate that unlike in 2020, federal COVID-19 relief funds will not be tapped to cover salaries for Reynolds’ permanent staffers in fiscal year 2021.

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Exclusive: Governor approved CARES Act spending on office tech upgrades

Governor Kim Reynolds approved plans last year to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds to upgrade the technology in her conference room, state records show.

The Office of Chief Information Officer (OCIO) paid vendor AVI Systems $67,543.48 in December for unspecified “IT Equipment and Software” and “IT Outside Services.” Published reports and searchable databases do not reveal that those purchases benefited the governor’s office. But documents Bleeding Heartland obtained through public records requests indicate that the spending covered new audio and video equipment installed in the Robert Ray Conference Room, which is part of the governor’s office suite.

Records also show the payments were supposed to come out of Iowa’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, a pot of federal money established under the March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

OCIO may have tapped a different funding source later to cover the conference room upgrade, as happened with a $39,512 project to migrate the governor’s office computers from Google suite to Microsoft Office 365 last year. Entries on the state’s online checkbook, totaling $67,543.48 to AVI Systems on the same December dates, do not mention the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

The governor’s spokesperson Pat Garrett ignored six inquiries over a two-week period. OCIO’s public information officer Gloria Van Rees also did not respond to eight messages during the same time frame seeking to clarify what funding stream paid for the conference room upgrades, and whether the governor’s office reimbursed OCIO for the payments to AVI Systems, as happened following the Office 365 migration.

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