Iowa governor's legislative victories raise questions of oversight, overreach

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds had several legislative victories this year, including laws on school choice, gender identity and the structure of state government. File Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI
1 of 4 | Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds had several legislative victories this year, including laws on school choice, gender identity and the structure of state government. File Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI | License Photo

DES MOINES, Iowa, June 1 (UPI) -- Aiming to make Iowa the "Florida of the north," Gov. Kim Reynolds is basking in legislative victories on "parental rights" and slashing red tape. Critics say the new laws amount to a power grab.

The Republican governor, surrounded by a familiar cast of supporters, signed bill after bill with a smile after the Republican-controlled state House and Senate granted many of her wishes.


Reynolds, who has held the office since 2017 after serving as lieutenant governor and state senator, was among the first governors to sign a law banning transgender girls from participating in girls' sports. This year, lawmakers added a ban on gender-affirming care, a bathroom ban, prohibitions on discussing gender identity in schools and a number of book removals.

Florida's recent legislative session also produced anti-LGBTQ policies and restrictions on what can be taught in public classrooms. Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is bringing his new presidential campaign to Iowa this week.


"Iowa's national profile is rising, and Americans are taking notice as states around the country are looking to Iowa as a beacon for freedom and opportunity," Reynolds said in a statement on the legislative session.

Weakening watchdog

State auditor Rob Sand is the only Democrat to hold statewide office in Iowa. The 40-year-old was elected to office in 2018 and has earned the ire of the governor.

Sand's first big splash came as assistant attorney general to Tom Miller, when Sand unearthed one of the largest lottery schemes in history. A $16.5 million Hot Lotto ticket went unclaimed for nearly a year before an anonymous, off-shore company located in Belize attempted to claim the prize. During a subsequent investigation, Sand proved that a former Multi-State Lottery Association information security director based in the Des Moines area, Eddie Tipton, rigged the game. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.


The case allowed Sand to showcase his ability to sniff out a scam.

Sand emphasizes that he strives for "non-partisanship." He has come to the defense of his Republican governor, as well. When Reynolds was accused of directing the state health department to downplay positive tests early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the auditor's office showed that the data was being presented in as accurately and timely a way as possible due to testing backlogs from a third party.

It was also during the pandemic when Sand first irked Reynolds. He found that the governor had improperly used $21 million in CARES Act funds awarded in a contract with software company Workday to upgrade the state's information technology infrastructure. Workday happened to employ one of Reynolds' former chiefs of staff.

Sand also discovered that Reynolds used $500,000 of COVID-19 relief funds to pay staff, which was not an eligible use.

Iowa terminated its contract with Workday earlier this year.

During the 2023 legislative session, Iowa Republicans introduced a bill that limits the auditor's ability to subpoena for records. For the auditor to obtain records, they must go through arbitration with the entity that is being audited and the governor's team, which will decide if the request is granted.


Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Polk, said the purpose of the bill is to protect Iowans' private information. When he presented an amendment during a Senate session on April 26, Bousselot repeatedly chided Sand as the state's first "non-CPA auditor," saying that he has acted improperly in executing audits.

"So this bill -- gives clearly much needed guidance to the auditor of the state, who has been overreaching," Bousselot said.

Throughout the process of debating this bill, neither Sand nor any other member of the auditor's office staff were invited to speak in committee or on the floor.

"It's retaliation for uncovering a record amount of waste, fraud and abuse in my first term," Sand said in an interview with UPI. "There's a small group of government Republican insiders who want this because they don't want someone who is holding them accountable."

Republican David Walker, who served a U.S. comptroller general under President George W. Bush, was among prominent figures from across the country who warned that this bill could be harmful to the state.

"It would effectively undercut the independence of, and non-partisan approach needed for the Iowa state auditor's office to be fully effective," Walker wrote in a letter.


The bill passed the House and Senate and is awaiting Reynolds' signature.

School funding

Reynolds also checked off agenda items that provide public tax dollars to private schools and a government realignment that gives her greater ability to hire, fire and compensate top state officials without restrictions.

Dating back to last year, Reynolds has been a proponent of a law that creates "savings accounts" that can be used for tuition, books, fees and other non-consumable expenses for children to attend private schools.

There are about 240 private schools in Iowa. About half of them are Catholic and more than 40 are Christian.

Rep. John Wills, R-Dickinson, sponsored the Students First Act, which allows a family, regardless of income, to apply for a savings account of about $7,600 to be used for private school expenses.

During a Jan. 23 floor session, Wills said there is nothing in the bill restricting private schools from raising tuition. Since its passage, a handful of schools have done so.

Opponents of the bill have called it a "voucher" program that would de-fund public schools. Wills argued that is not the case.

"The bill is not about attacking public schools. This bill is about freedom for the family to make a decision," he said. "This bill is not about destroying public education. I have faith in our public schools. This bill is about putting parents in charge of their student's education."


Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Polk, pointed out that unlike public schools, private schools may refuse admission to any student. She said the bill also does not provide transparency for how public tax dollars are spent by private schools.

"This bill is not ready for prime time," she said. "I do not understand what the rush is. We don't work for Gov. Reynolds. We don't do what she tells us to do. The majority of Iowans don't want this program."

Reynolds signed the bill the next day.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called the program a "scheme to funnel taxpayers' money to the wealthy few."

"The governor of Iowa is risking real political damage by doing the bidding of Betsy DeVos," Weingarten said in a statement, referring to the former U.S. secretary of education.

"This program will syphon close to $1 billion in public money into private hands, while leaving communities holding the bag. Eighty percent of voters back improvement in public schools over privatization."

Reynolds said Weingarten was wrong about the law, "like she was wrong about locking our kids out of the classroom during the pandemic."

"In Iowa, we're funding students over systems and putting kids first. If the teacher's union started thinking that way, families would be better off," Reynolds said.


Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education is one of several organizations that supported the school choice plan. Executive Director Trish Wilger, who also works for the group's partner lobbying arm, said getting the bill passed was about a decade in the making. She credits Reynolds for getting it on the books this year.

"A large part of that was the governor and her resolve to get this done," Wilger said. "There will be a lot of families that will benefit from this. Families that didn't think they could afford a choice of a private school."

Moms For Liberty, an organization that was born from the conflict over masking schoolchildren, has prominently backed many of Reynolds' policies. Members could be seen at bill signings such as the ban on trans girls in girls' sports, to the point that some believed the organization had the governor's ear.

Jenn Turner, chair of the organization's Polk County chapter, said there is no relationship with Reynolds, though she and her organization align with many of her school policies.

"She is absolutely a champion," Turner said.

The organization has also been vocal against drag-related events and teaching concepts of race and gender in school without the permission of parents. Turner said their top priority is increasing transparency in schools so that parents are aware of what is being taught. She dismissed allegations that the group is anti-LGBTQ, arguing instead that children are being "oversexualized."


Consolidating power

Reynolds' next big win was the realignment of the state government. Senate File 514 shrinks Cabinet-level government agencies from 37 to 16, consolidating many departments. Under the realignment, Reynolds has the authority to hire top positions at will, or terminate them.

There is no ceiling on what the governor can offer for salaries under this law either. Opponents of the bill, including Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, have called it a "power grab," saying it puts some agencies at risk of yielding to political pressure.

Reynolds said the realignment will not come with layoffs. Rather, she said it is a cost-saving measure that will eliminate red tape and allow the government to serve the people in a streamlined fashion.

The fiscal notes on the bill, which Reynolds signed in April, say it will reduce department expenditures by about $6.4 million annually beginning in fiscal year 2024.

On April 26, Senate File 557, a bill relating to appropriations, was discussed on the senate floor less than 24 hours after being shared with Democrats. The bill included a $500,000 spending increase for the governor's office. It did not declare any purpose for the increased expense with no additional full-time equivalent employees being added.


Sen. Claire Celsi, D-Polk, noted that there had not been any budget subcommittee hearings during the session and the budget had previously been passed through committees with zeroes under many categories.

Following Celsi's statements, Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Polk, asked what the $500,000 spending increase was for.

"I'm not sure about that," sponsor Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Webster, replied. "I know they're not getting any [full-time equivalent employees] there but I think we asked the governor the same question. But I'm not positive what the answer was coming out of that."

Petersen asked if the money was for bonuses to staff and Kraayenbrink said he is "pretty sure that is not what this is for."

"It's really quite amazing. The governor's office asks for an extra half-million dollars and you give it to her, no questions asked," said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Story. "Well maybe you asked some questions. It was no questions answered, I guess. This is a heck of a way to run a railroad."

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