Iowa House Republicans passed a bill Thursday, with a vote of 55-41, severely restricting what the Iowa State Auditor’s office can do to watch over other government agencies by limiting what information the auditor can access.
Auditor Rob Sand is the only statewide Democrat left in office after last year’s election, and his job is to serve as a watchdog over state and local government to ensure tax dollars are being handled properly.
The bill restricts a variety of information the auditor’s office can access and it says the auditor may only access the information if the agency being audited agrees the information is necessary to an audit.
“Let’s be clear about this, this is the destruction of democratic norms,” Sand said. “The people of Iowa elected me and now they’re (the legislature) changing the rules for how this office operates because they didn’t like what I did in my first term.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds has accused Sand of acting in a partisan way and, at a May event last year, was captured on video saying she wants, “my own AG and a State Auditor who won’t sue me every time I turn around.”
Sand’s office has never sued her, but it has, in the past, released reports showing Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office misspent $450,000 in federal money.
“The entire idea behind checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution is that independent bodies of government can check abuses of power by other bodies of government, period,” Sand said in a press conference after the bill was debated. “To take the independently elected office that is in the Iowa Constitution and subject its work to the approval of the very same entity that it’s attempting to audit perverts checks and balances, plain and simple.”
Rep. Michael Bergan (R-Decorah), who led the bill, denied that the bill would allow for more fraud, and said instead it’s meant to respond to a 2021 Supreme Court ruling against one of the auditor’s subpoenas.
Sand said no one has talked to him or his office about that ruling in the two years since it came out.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said plainly that this bill would result in increased fraud because it removes the auditor’s ability to investigate it.
Konfrst also said it’s clear the bill is meant to target Rob Sand, who was re-elected to the auditor’s office in 2022.
“I’ve heard a lot of pronouns on this bill, ‘We don’t want him to be able to do that. We want to make sure he can’t do this,’” she said. “I thought we were talking about the State Auditor’s Office, not the state auditor.”
Konfrst also pointed out that the legislature this session has given Attorney General Brenna Bird, a Republican, more power over what she investigates and when. This is the first year in decades that a Republican has held the office after Bird defeated longtime incumbent Tom Miller in 2022.
“It’s hard to believe that since that person is now a Republican, that this is not a purely political move,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is one more way to give the executive branch more power and less accountability to the taxpayers.”
One of the biggest criticisms from Democrats was who would get to decide whether certain documents would be released, because the bill would take away the auditor’s ability to subpoena that information.
“They’ll be the only state office that has to sit on a panel made up of the agencies in question and a representative from the governor’s office,” said Rep. Sami Scheetz (D-Cedar Rapids). “Every single request for information from the auditor is now subject to a two to one veto from the entities that are being investigated.”
Amy Nielsen (D-North Liberty) made a similar point.
“The arbitration board is made up of people appointed by the governor and as we all know right now, we have a trifecta Republican House, Senate and governor,” she pointed out. “So I wonder how that Arbitration Committee is going to decide a dispute between the governor’s office and the auditor state.”
Konfrst also read statements from representatives of organizations such as the National State Auditor’s Association, the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the Association of Local Government Auditors opposing the bill and saying it basically strips all of the auditor’s authority.
“We shouldn’t be undoing the work of the auditor’s office because someone from a different party was elected,” Konfrst said. “This bill is infuriating. This bill is overreach. This bill is a power grab. This bill is politics at its worst and this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Americans hate politics.”
The bill’s next step is to go back to the Iowa Senate.
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