DES MOINES — A more than 1,500-page proposal by Gov. Kim Reynolds to reorganize state government that would cut the number of cabinet-level state agencies from 37 to 16 and eliminate hundreds of vacant positions is headed for her signature without any significant amendment, despite efforts by Democrats.
“For decades, Iowans have seen state government grow beyond its means,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Today, the Iowa House joined me and the Iowa Senate to declare an end to bloated bureaucracy. We are making government smaller, more efficient and more effective. We are saving taxpayer dollars and putting Iowans' needs first.”
Senate File 514 passed the House, 58-39, with five Republicans joining Democrats in voting no.
Democrats called the bill a “power grab” by the governor, arguing the bill will reduce government oversight and hurt the quality of government services for some Iowans.
People are also reading…
“The governor is calling this a realignment bill. It is frankly a power grab that gives the governor control over currently independent offices and agencies, and gives her more power to appoint friends who are not required to have experience or expertise,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said. “It allows the governor to set up salary deals for cabinet-level directors while at the same time eliminating certain workplace and retirement protections for rank-and-file employees.”
Konfrst said the bill also removes local control in some instances and “puts more power in Des Moines.“
“Iowans deserve a government that works for them and not just special interests,” she said. “ … We are not a rubber stamp. Our job is to be independent.”
The bill, among other provisions, would create more agency leaders who are appointed by the governor and subject to Iowa Senate confirmation, rather than being elected by state boards or commissions.
“Twenty-five directors currently serve at the pleasure of the governor and are appointed by the governor,” said Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Northwood, the bill’s floor manager. “We’re adding six. This governor is not going to pick cronies, (or) hire someone that can’t do the job. She’s going to hire the best people she can find. … And if they don’t do the job, they lose the job.”
The proposal also would give the governor more leeway to pay directors higher salaries, which Reynolds has said is needed to recruit and retain top talent and streamline higher salaries by eliminating the need for bonuses.
Bloomingdale said the salary scale has not increased in 15 years and that lawmakers still have oversight insofar as the salaries awarded still must fit within the budget approved by the Legislature.
Democrats as well argued state employees could lose salary, benefits and accrued years of service if transferred, and makes changes to employment protections of some state employees.
The bill would also explicitly state that the state attorney general has the authority to prosecute cases without first consulting with the county attorney; and would give the state Attorney General’s Office exclusive jurisdiction over elections-related cases. While the proposal restates existing law, county attorneys worry it could enable the Iowa Attorney General to undermine their work.
House Democrats presented amendments to the bill that were voted down to strike some of the proposed changes and keep a state agency where it currently resides within state government.
For example, Democrats proposed eliminating the attorney general jurisdiction language, keeping community-based corrections programs more independent of the state, and striking changes to the state consumer advocate’s office, the Department of the Blind and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
Reynolds and Republican lawmakers have said the mergers will happen without laying off any state employees, and that savings will come from eliminating more than 500 unfilled positions.
An new analysis of the bill published Wednesday from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates that the reorganization would result in the elimination of 205 funded full-time equivalent positions (nine fewer than an original estimate) and result in $12.6 million less in spending per year. Of that, $6.6 million would be from the state's general fund, while $4.4 million of the reduction would come from federal funds and $1.6 million from other funds, according to the analysis.
An earlier estimate from Reynolds’ office predicted the bill would eliminate 513 currently vacant positions, both funded and unfunded, and save $18.6 million this year through personnel realignment. About $3 million of which would come from the state's general fund.
Reynolds’ office did not clarify the discrepancy between the LSA analysis and estimates provided by her office and included in recommendations made in a 68-page report produced by a Virginia-based consulting firm. Guidehouse was paid nearly $1 million by the state, which used federal pandemic relief funds.
“There continues to be inconsistencies with LSA’s fiscal note. Our estimate is that this bill will save $215M over four years while at the same time making government more efficient and effective for Iowans,” Kollin Crompton, Reynolds’ deputy communications director, said in a statement responding to questions by The Gazette.
Blind Iowans have expressed their concern with how the proposed realignment of state government will impact them and the state services that help them.
Under the proposal, the director of Iowa’s Department of the Blind would be appointed by the governor. The bill also would eliminate the authority of the Commission for the Blind to appoint officers for the commission. Multiple blind Iowans spoke against the legislation during subcommittee meetings, saying the moves would politicize the department.
Bloomingdale said Gov. Reynolds has no intention of making changes to the Department of Blind and plans to retain current director Emily Wharton “as soon as this bill becomes effective.”
“We have a gold standard, and we will maintain that,” Bloomingdale said.
While Reynolds may have no intentions to make changes, “What about the next governor? What about the next attorney general?” said Rep. Eric Gjerde, D-Cedar Rapids. “We can do better than this.”
Iowa Democrats and state employees have also said service delivery to Iowans with disabilities could be reduced under the bill, which would eliminate 25 full-time equivalent positions from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, reducing spending by $1.2 million. The state agency assists Iowans with disabilities find and keep a job, explore college and vocational training, access economic support via Social Security disability benefits, and to live independently in their homes.
Bloomingdale said the legislation is long overdue and will streamline operations.
“Is this a perfect bill? No,“ she said. ” … Let’s not let perfect get in the way of a good bill.”