Iowa lack of transparency

Doris Kelly, Guest Columnist

The vexing problem of Gov. Reynolds, GOP-controlled legislature and Iowa Agencies

Editor’s note: Doris Kelly is a former Iowa State Representative and served on on seveal government committees. She also served as vice-chair of the Administration and Regulation Appropriations Subcommittee.

When former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed executive order number 85 on March 24, 2014, he stated. “transparency provides Iowans the necessary access to information to hold our government accountable and our Open Records Act is essential of ensuring openness . . . our administration has maintained a steadfast commitment to a transparent government.”

Iowans are proud Branstad held weekly press briefings and being honest with his constituents; bravo. However, when Gov. Kim Reynolds and her GOP-driven Senate and House legislators took control of Iowa’s Capitol a few years ago, transparency went out the window . . . and with the baby. Easy access to government data has gone to hell in a handbasket.

Transparency is part of Iowa law, whereby any official of any organization that receives taxpayer funds must make it easy for the public to know the decision-making process and/or make data easily accessible when requested. “Ease” and “easily” are the key words; not burdensome . . . not in secrecy . . . and not hidden.

The lack of transparency examples by Reynolds, GOP legislators and agencies under Reynolds’ leadership seem to be unending. 

Gov. Reynolds has not revealed the reasoning behind her $55 million private school scholarship program (SF 2369) that only affects 2 percent of Iowa’s children and would drain $79 million per year from the coffers of Iowa’s public school districts (Fiscal Services Division). Is her pro-voucher decision politically motivated to appease her evangelical Christian base of voters (private schools already receive $100M/year) or does she have irrefutable evidence that private school educational outcomes exceed those provided by public schools? Why the secrecy?

In May of 2021, after the Iowa Workforce Development declined to answer questions from Iowa Capital Dispatch about claims that Director Beth Townsend made related to unemployment fraud, requests for information were filed. It was later determined the Iowa Workforce Development violated the Open Records Law. Iowa’s Open Records Law was enacted in 1967.

Journalists Laura Belin, Clark Kauffman and Randy Evans were plaintiffs who sued Gov. Kim Reynolds and some of her staff in Dec. of 2021 for ignoring five requests for open records information. A Polk County District Court rejected the state’s (and Gov. Reynolds) motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

I remain perplexed whenever Reynolds or any of her agencies try to hide legally accessible information from journalists. Such action also keeps Iowa’s 3.15 million citizens in the dark, a far cry from Reynolds, et al, oath of office to serve and protect.

During the past six legislative sessions controlled by Republicans, the Iowa Senate and House Government Oversight committees have rarely examined executive branch practices or questioned Gov. Kim Reynolds’ appointees.

Here are other examples of the GOP-controlled oversight committee’s negligence. NO meetings were held: 

1) related to Iowa’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, 

2) to inquire Iowa Department of Public Health officials on why they rejected federal offers to help test workers (COVID-19) at food processing facilities, 

3) to ask the Iowa Workforce Development leaders why many qualifying Iowans had to wait months for pandemic-related unemployment benefits or why hundreds of unemployed Iowans were asked to repay benefits they received, 

4) to discuss the 45 percent salary raise Dr. Caitlin Pedata, Iowa’s State Medical Director, received (a clear violation of state policy), 

5) to question why $448,449 in federal CARES Act funds was used to compensate 21 of Gov. Reynolds’ staffers, 

6) to scrutinize the no-bid contract to a Utah firm for COVID-19 testing, 

7) to inquire why Reynolds sent $95 million of COVID-19 testing funding back to the federal government instead of giving Iowa’s schools the option to use the money for COVID-19 testing protocols and 

8) to find out why a no-bid contract worth $50 million to purchase the Workday computer system for the entire state government at a time when Iowa State University had switched to Workday and were having a host of accounting problems with the new system.

The GOP-controlled Government Oversight committees should be retitled “Don’t Ask Why Nor Probe Committee.”

Kathie Obradovich, Editor-in-Chief, Iowa Capital Dispatch news service and a journalist for over 30 years said what I think best sums up Reynold’s administration: “In my years as a journalist in Iowa, I’ve covered five gubernatorial administrations. I can say without hesitation that Gov. Reynolds’ administration has been the absolute worst in terms of secrecy and outright denial of public access to information” (Iowa Capital Dispatch, Aug. 9, 2021).

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, will Iowans give Reynolds and her GOP peers a pass on their violation of Iowa’s open records law and transparency transgressions or will they hold her and them accountable for their gross dereliction of duty?

It is well known that past actions are the best predictor of future behavior. If Reynolds, et al, are re-elected, secrecy and non-disclosure will continue to endure into 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026.