A bill that’s sailing through the legislature would give lawmakers more authority over the rules state bureaucrats write.
Legislators pass bills and the governor signs those bills into law, but the guidelines for how those laws will be interpreted and enforced by state agencies are written by the people who work in those agencies.
Bureaucrats often use an “emergency” process for those rules, so a special legislative committee doesn’t have time to stop the rules from going into effect if they think the rules are not what legislators intended.
House Republican Leader Linda Upmeyer used to serve on the committee that reviews state agency rules and Upmeyer says she often saw bureaucrats “taking liberties” and going beyond the bounds of the laws legislators had passed.
“We had sort of a not very level playing field,” Upmeyer says, “that if the executive branch wanted to get something done without legislative approval, there were a number of ways they could do that.”
Representative Dave Jacoby, a Democrat from Coralville who sits on the legislative committee that reviews state agency rules, says the public doesn’t get a chance to weigh in when state agencies implement those “emergency” rules immediately.
“I think probably the biggest wrestling match we had in rules was over the smoking laws in Iowa,” Jacoby said. “We went over that quite a bit on what constitutes ‘no smoking’ and where and in what areas.”
Upmeyer remembers that well.
“It came down to a situation if you were standing at a tall table outside a bar or restaurant you could smoke, but if you were seated at a low table outside a bar or restaurant you could not because that was considered part of a cafe,” Upmeyer says, “and so it got into really unusual kind of permutations.”
A bill that passed the House unanimously and cleared a Senate Committee without a dissenting vote would prohibit state agencies from implementing new rules before the legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee gives the go ahead. Upmeyer’s thrilled.
“My only goal was to make sure the legislature’s powers were protected,” Upmeyer said. “That should be of interest to every legislator.”
Senator Jeff Danielson, a Democrat from Cedar Falls, is chairman of the senate committee that passed the bill late last week.
“There is no doubt it strengthens the legislature’s role in terms of checks and balances,” Danielson says.
There could be some exceptions, however, if a bill that passes the legislature specifically says a state agency can adopt rules immediately to implement the new law, without that legislative committee’s review.
In 2010 when he was campaigning for governor, Terry Branstad often criticized “excessive” state government regulations. Branstad said “when bureaucrats go too far” they are “killing” jobs.
“The Governor will review all legislation thoroughly and make a decision when the legislation comes to his desk,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht says of the bill awaiting Senate debate.
Since Branstad took office in 2011, there’s been a nearly 50 percent reduction in the number of times a state agency has used the “emergency” process to implement rules without legislative review and public input.