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Iowa House passes boards and commissions overhaul that opponents say will silence diverse voices

The entrance to the Iowa House chamber.
Madeleine Charis King
IPR file photo
Republicans in the Iowa House passed their own version of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ bill to eliminate, merge and change the duties of many state boards and commissions.

Republicans in the Iowa House passed their own version Tuesday of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ bill to eliminate, merge, and change the duties of many state boards and commissions, sending it back to the Senate, which previously passed a different proposal.

State boards and commissions have duties ranging from licensing medical providers to advising government officials on pesticide regulations to investigating civil rights violations. Reynolds proposed reducing the state’s 256 boards and commissions by about 40%, based on recommendations from a Boards and Commissions Review Committee that met last year.

Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Northwood, managed the bill’s passage. She said the most important part of the bill is the requirement for a committee to review a quarter of the boards and commissions each year, allowing lawmakers to reconsider what this bill does in the future.

“This isn’t complete. This isn’t final,” Bloomingdale said. “This is simply a work in progress. And this bill ensures that the work will continue year after year, long after we’re all gone.”

Rep. Adam Zabner, D-Iowa City, said it’s a bad bill that claims to eliminate boards by creating a new one.

“We had the opportunity to come together, get rid of some boards and commissions that were clearly unnecessary, and make a government that was more efficient and listens to Iowans,” he said. “What we ended up with was a power grab that takes away the rights of Iowans and the voices of Iowans in the process of government.”

It passed 54 to 42, with eight Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against it.

Democrats particularly criticized parts of the bill that would eliminate and change functions of commissions dealing with human rights and civil rights.

It would eliminate the Commission of Latino Affairs, the Commission on the Status of African Americans, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Commission of Persons with Disabilities, the Commission of Native American Affairs and the Commission of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.

Under current law, each of the commissions selects a voting member of the human rights board. The bill would shrink the human rights board, and members would appointed by the governor and “represent underrepresented populations in the state.”

Rep. Jerome Amos Jr., D-Waterloo said it’s not enough to have just one person from each population advising state government.

“You have to understand it’s going to silence numerous diverse voices in our state,” he said.

Bloomingdale disagreed.

“I think they will have a greater voice and they could possibly learn from each other,” she said. “And I do think that they’ll have a better voice.”

The bill would also reduce the power of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission by removing its authority to approve administrative rules and to decide which civil rights complaints to investigate. The commission was formed in 1965 to investigate and hold hearings on Iowans’ complaints of facing illegal discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, said the state should not give the commission’s power to the agency’s director.

“The commission is specifically empowered to investigate, to hold hearings, all pertaining to holding Iowans accountable to our civil rights law,” he said. “It’s one thing when looking at boards and commissions to look at efficiencies, whether it’s savings, or a board isn’t utilized. It’s another thing to take away the fundamental nature of a board or commission.”

Bloomingdale said she believes the commission will continue to hold hearings on cases.

“The director of the agency will now be in charge of her department and the 27 full-time employees instead of a volunteer board,” she said.

The Iowa-Nebraska NAACP opposed the civil rights commission changes. President Betty Andrews said in a statement the bill “would deliver a crushing blow to civil rights in Iowa and reduce the opportunity for diverse voices in state government.”

Rep. Charley Thomson, R-Charles City, was one of the Republicans who voted against the bill. He said he has a philosophical disagreement with the bill’s approach to government

“I think government is better when lots of people are participating in it,” Thomson said. “So reducing the number of people involved in boards and commissions, especially when they’re volunteering, seems to me antithetical to getting lots of voices into government.”

He said the civil rights commission changes could have been a separate bill to be considered next year. Thomson said civil rights laws were carefully constructed over many years, and he was disappointed that they’re being changed “in a rather hurried manner.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter