Governor Terry Branstad is resisting the U.S. Department of Labor’s advisory about the job classification as well as the qualifications for a key state government employee.
“I think the responsibilities of that position have changed,” Branstad told reporters Monday.
According to the Labor Department, the chief in charge of Iowa administrative law judges who rule on disputed unemployment claims should be a merit employee, meaning someone hired based on their qualifications and who has the right to appeal his or her firing. Branstad has made the chief an “at will” political appointment, so the chief judge can hired and fired for any reason. Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo who asked for the Labor Department review, said making it a political appointment doesn’t make sense.
“The only reason I can see why you would fight so hard to have political appointees there — you’re really trying to influence this stuff,” Dotzler said.
Branstad said the chief no longer decides cases, but merely oversees the judges who do and makes case assignments.
“So it’s more an administrative position today,” Branstad said. “They’re not making decisions based on contested cases.”
But Senator Dotzler said the chief can certainly “boss” the judges to rule a certain way.
“That’s political influence,” Dotzler said. “…I would think that the governor would want to be one step removed from that so he doesn’t get accused of this being bought.”
The agency director who resigned abruptly in early January told The Des Moines Register she tried to heed the U.S. Department of Labor’s directive to change the chief administrative law judge to a merit employee, but was overruled by Branstad’s top aides. Branstad told reporters on Monday he doesn’t “micromanage” and won’t discuss this personnel decision.