Governor Reynolds. (RI file photo)

Governor Kim Reynolds is calling for an end to the legal limits in Iowa law on the pay for top state administrators. The salary ranges for state agency directors and other top administrators have not been changed since 2008.

The governor’s plan to shrink the number of state agencies to 16 includes a provision that would let Reynolds set the salaries for those 16 agency directors. Jacob Nicholson, the chief operating officer on the governor’s staff, says it’s a
recruitment and retention issue.

“It’s very difficult to go out on a national search for instance right now and say: ‘Hey, we need someone to run our Department of Health and Human Services that oversees 4000 people. It’s a significant enterprise effort,'” Nicholson says, “‘and by the way we can only advertise this position for $154,000 a year.'”

In some larger state agencies, there are 20 to 30 employees whose salaries are higher than the director who is their boss. The governor has provided bonuses to state agency directors in some of those situations. “She’s forced to do that in order to recruit top talent into the state, in order to retain top talent into the state, but that process is just not transparent enough for our current governor,” Nicholson says. “She would like to be able to set her agency (directors) salaries and have that transparent for all to see.”

Some Democrats like Representative Amy Nielson of North Liberty say they’re concerned the proposal removes all limits on the salaries of top agency directors. “The governor could just go out and offer somebody — let’s just throw out some numbers — $300,000 to be the director of the Department of Human Services,” Nielsen says.

That would be nearly twice the salary being paid to Iowa’s current HHS director. Nielsen says the salary guidelines for all state employees should be raised, “so we are recruiting the best and the brightest, the top of the crop in all areas of the government.”

Zach Goodrich, executive director and legal counsel for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, says the board has been asking lawmakers to raise the salary for the position for several years. “I am the third director in just a little over three years,” he says. “…I often joke that when I was hired, the salary played into the fact that the board ended up with a 25 year old as director, although I hope that’s not the only reason they ended up hiring me.”

A group of House members have started hosting public hearings this week on the government realignment plan Governor Reynolds submitted to the legislature. Their meeting today focused in large part on the governor’s proposal on state agency directors’ salaries.

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