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Iowa Senate passes Reynolds' 1,500-page government reorganization bill

Iowa's Capitol during a rainy spring evening.
John Pemble
The Iowa Senate passed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ bill to merge state agencies and cut vacant positions.

The Iowa Senate passed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ plan Tuesday that would cut the number of cabinet-level state agencies from 37 to 16 and expand the authority of the governor and the attorney general.

The more than 1,500-page bill proposes merging several state agencies and eliminating more than 500 vacant state government positions over the next four years. Reynolds’ staff has said there will be no layoffs as a result.

The Senate passed the bill 34-15, with one Democrat joining all Republicans in support of the bill, and the rest of the Democrats opposing it.

Reynolds said in a statement Tuesday evening that the bill would improve the function of the executive branch, elevate services for Iowans, and save taxpayers money.

“For too long, politicians have only promised to reduce the size and cost of government, but today the Iowa Senate took an important step forward to making it a reality,” she said. “I look forward to getting this bill across the finish line in the House and to my desk.”

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said the bill removes merit protections for too many state officials and would give the governor more power to fire them for any reason. Jochum said overall, she believes the bill would make state government less responsive to everyday Iowans.

“You can sugarcoat this all you want tonight and call it streamlining, government reorganization, but it is a power grab,” she said. “It is a power grab. And in my opinion, it is threatening our liberty and our democracy by undermining the balance of power.”

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said the bill is a victory for Iowa.

“This is not a power grab,” he said. “It’s her [executive] branch. It is the next governor’s branch. They’re going to have the ability to control, to answer for, and to report to the people of Iowa what they’re doing in a more consistent, even-handed, accountable manner.”

In about a dozen hours of subcommittee hearings over the past several weeks, Iowans expressed concerns about various parts of the bill.

Blind Iowans said having the Department of the Blind director appointed by the governor instead of a commission could lead to a reduction in services they need to live independently.

Child advocates said putting the Iowa Child Advocacy Board under the Department of Health and Human Services could undermine their ability to make independent recommendations to judges in child welfare cases. And a representative for Iowa’s 99 county attorneys expressed concerns that the bill would expand the attorney general’s powerin a way that could usurp county attorneys’ authority to prosecute crimes.

Democrats offered several amendments to remove the more controversial parts of the bill, but Republicans rejected them all. Schultz said he initially shared many of the same concerns, but after looking into them, he concluded that Reynolds got everything in the bill right.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Waukee, said senators were elected to represent their districts and serve Iowans, not to be tools of the governor.

“But if this session has a theme, it seems to be anything the governor wants, no matter what,” she said. “No matter how many Iowans oppose it, no matter how it could hurt Iowans, no matter how the legislators in the room might actually personally feel about it.”

The governor’s office estimates the changes in the bill combined with other efforts, like selling state-owned farmland, would save the state and federal government a total of $73.5 million next fiscal year.

That would include $18.6 million in state and federal savings just from eliminating vacant positions in state government. But a fiscal analysis released Tuesday by the nonpartisanLegislative Services Agency estimates $12.4 million in savings in the first year from eliminating vacant positions.

Reynolds said the bill and efforts to consolidate state government technology and offices would save about $215 million in state and federal funding over the next four years. But LSA only supplied an estimate for the first year of implementation, so it’s not clear if a nonpartisan analysis would come up with the same number.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it may be amended.

Editor's Note: The original version of this story said lawmakers had kept part of the governor’s bill that would have allowed the Iowa School for the Deaf to be closed without legislative approval. The bill was, in fact, amended in committee to require legislative approval before the school could be closed. We’ve now removed that from the list of unchanged items in the governor’s bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter