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Reynolds' effort to streamline government includes expanded powers for the attorney general

Brenna Bird is running as a Republican for Iowa attorney general against long-standing incumbent Democrat Tom Miller.
Natalie Krebs
Attorney General Brenna Bird's power would be expanded under the governor's government reorganization bill.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is proposing expanding the Iowa attorney general’s power to prosecute crimes. The measure is part of Reynolds’ approximately1,500-page billaimed at streamlining state government agencies.

Iowans recently elected Republican Brenna Bird as attorney general after Democrat Tom Miller served in the position for decades.

The bill would give the attorney general exclusive power to prosecute election-related crimes, removing that power from county attorneys, who are elected in each county to decide what crimes people will be charged with.

Assistant Attorney General Dan Breitbarth told lawmakers that would remove a potential conflict of interest with the county officials who oversee elections.

“There’s an existing issue right now with county attorneys being both the adviser to the [county] auditors, as well as the enforcer of potential misconduct for county auditors,” he said.

Breitbarth did not offer any examples of such issues in the state.

The bill also says the state attorney general may intervene in a county attorney’s prosecution of any crime even if they don’t request help. Currently, a county attorney asks the AG’s office to prosecutea case if the attorney has a conflict of interest or if a very serious or complicated case requires more resources.

Kelly Meyers, a lobbyist for the Iowa County Attorneys Association, said the group is opposed to that part of the bill.

“County attorneys are elected officials and they do answer to the constituents,” she said. “And we’ve heard a lot about prosecutorial discretion, and we believe that’s very important and that it remain with the county attorney.”

The AG’s office and governor’s office contend this is already the law, and that the bill would simply clarify that the AG can override a county attorney’s decisions.

Alyssa Brouillet, spokesperson for Bird’s office, said in a statement that Iowa law has given the AG statewide criminal jurisdiction since at least 1860.

“But clarification is needed because of confusion about that authority given the past practices of the office,” she said. “It’s better to have the issue resolved by the Legislature than a dispute in court. As a former county attorney, Attorney General Bird respects the important role of county attorneys and expects to continue closely cooperating with them on criminal cases.”

At a recent subcommittee hearing, Democratic and Republican lawmakers asked questions about the provision.

“Has there been some question of whether or not current law would allow this to happen anyway?” asked Rep. David Young, R-Van Meter, asked. “Where’d this come from? Did the attorney general’s office request this language? I’m kind of trying to find the point of what this language is for if it’s already in the code.”

Breitbarth said he could not answer the question of where the proposal came from.

Rep. Austin Baeth, D-Des Moines, asked if the intent of the bill is to allow the AG to usurp the authority of county attorneys.

“My concern here is that, there’s a reason why we have locally elected officials, and while perhaps our current attorney general doesn’t have particular concerns with the way that individual county attorneys handle crimes, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Baeth said. “Or we don’t know what will happen with the next attorney general.”

Assistant AG Dan Breitbarth said Bird isn’t looking to overstep local officials.

The bill including this provision was approved by a Senate committee in advance of the first legislative deadline of the 2023 session, and the House State Government Committee is expected to take up the bill this week.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter