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Some Iowa State Commissioners Frustrated By Policy Recommendation Process

The Iowa Capitol is lit up in front of a dark blue night sky.
John Pemble
IPR file
The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs was originally created as a governor's task force in 1974. Since then, it has changed names multiple times, but still plays a role in advising the governor on state policy.

Iowa’s Latino commission members work for hours every month to give the governor insight into their community. At the end of each year, they list multiple proposals to solve problems Latinos in the state face. But they say their recommendations seem to fall through the cracks of government.

Each of the seven offices within the Iowa Department of Human Rights has commissions to serve a specific underrepresented group in Iowa. The governor appoints each commissioner. Part of their job, according to Iowa law, is to make policy recommendations for lawmakers and state leadership.

“One of the biggest things that I feel like as commissioners that we do is that we advocate. We advocate for policy, we advocate for people and we connect people,” said Caleb Knutson, the commission chair for the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs.

Knutson has served as a commissioner for about 16 months. He said within that time, Gov. Kim Reynolds has not yet met with them, despite multiple requests. Vice Chair Marlú Abarca said the governor has replied to an invitation to speak one time within the four years she has served.

In 2019, the commission published two formal policy recommendations for Reynolds: increase the budget for the division of community advocacy and services within the state department of human services and give drivers’ licenses to all people living in Iowa, regardless of citizenship status.

Other than an $11 increase in the community advocacy budget, neither recommendation has been fully implemented. And the Commission of Latino Affairs has recommended statewide drivers’ licenses for the past four years.

Maria Alcivar Zuñiga works with a grassroots group called the Immigrant and Refugee coalition. The coalition was created with the help of some commissioners. She said sometimes it seems like the state does not see the commission or the coalition.

"Like if the governor doesn't really care, the legislators don't care about what’s going on, then these offices are just token offices,” Alcivar Zuñiga said.

Pat Garrett, the communications director for Gov. Reynolds, said in an email, “we review all the recommendations.” The qualifications for a recommendation worth passing are still unclear. Garrett said everything has the chance of going through the legislative process, but not everything is a priority for the governor.

Commissioner Abarca said this is disheartening because she serves as an adviser to the governor.

"We read that loud and clear. The way the community perceives it is that it's not just that certain policies aren't a priority to the governor, it’s that certain communities are not a priority to the governor," Abarca said.

The Immigrant and Refugee Coalition that Alcivar Zuñiga is a part of gives suggestions to state officials who attend some of the meetings. One of them is the deputy director of the Department of Human Rights, Monica Stone.

She said one of her roles is to publish the coalition’s recommendations and distribute it to policy makers. But it is hard to tell exactly where the policies are in the bureaucratic process. Sometimes the policy will be part of planning in the future.

Stone said patience plays a big role in implementing policies

"Things take a long time in government, and so it's really hard to say there's a policy recommendation and somebody did something or didn't do something because oftentimes it's a much longer game than that,” Stone said.

The coalition also makes suggestions for the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH).

Amy McCoy, the legislative liaison and policy adviser for IDPH, said the executive leadership discusses the input to decide if it can be addressed. She said IDPH and the governor’s office work closely with the Department of Human Rights to put “best policies in place.”

But the time it takes to implement a policy can confuse the people who planned the proposal, especially during a global pandemic. Coalition member Alcivar Zuñiga said the threat of COVID-19 is why it is so important to listen to the policy recommendations now.

“We just need to have folks at the table and leadership needs to really listen. Especially if you want to address the disparity," Alcivar Zuñiga said. "If you don't care, and that's literally what it seems like it is, they just don't care that there's this real disparity, this real disproportionality in the impact of COVID-19 with communities of color.”

The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs has special COVID-19 recommendations in which it suggests a representative from the commission be present at the governor’s State Emergency Operations Center to help address that disparity. Abarca, the commissioner appointed, said she was never invited.

One of the policies did pass through executive leadership. The commission recommended all COVID-19 information be translated to multiple languages. Most resources at this point are available in multiple languages.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines