- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Senate Democrats said Tuesday they would ask tough questions about state hiring practices and whether the state has saved the money it forecast from turning over management of most construction projects to a private company as part of a reorganization ordered by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011.

“It’s going to be a long hot summer tracking down all these rat holes,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “This is a defining test of this Legislature. Are we a rubber stamp for Gov. Branstad or are we going to do our duty?”

He said hiring practices under Branstad have undermined years of government reform aimed at eliminating cronyism.

“We don’t live in an age where it’s appropriate to hire people in state government because it is part of a good old white boys’ network of personal friends and political supporters,” he said.

His comments launched the Senate into more than 45 minutes of arguments Tuesday morning about the Legislature’s oversight role. The debate erupted as Branstad is on the defensive over his administration’s hiring practices and why he wasn’t aware of confidential settlements with employees costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

State government under Branstad has reclassified hundreds of jobs from merit positions to an at-will classification, which has fewer job protections and may be filled without advertising.

“They can replace those people with their friends. They can replace those people with anybody they want to replace those people with. They don’t have to post their vacancies.” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines.

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, came to Branstad’s defense saying government reorganization appears to have saved millions of dollars in personnel costs and construction project expenses.

“My question is, were these capable people? I haven’t heard anybody say they weren’t capable of doing the job,” he said.

Branstad’s spokesman also has said that previous administrations including those under Democrats have hired hundreds of workers without advertising the jobs.

McCoy, who is a member of the Senate Oversight Committee, said he also is investigating whether the Iowa Department of Administrative Services has saved the tens of millions of dollars on construction projects.

A group of architects and engineers laid off in early 2011 managed construction projects valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of that work was put out for bid to a private contractor at a cost of more than $11 million, McCoy said.

“What we need to determine now is out of this $11 million spent on outsourcing of contract management whether that was a good value for the taxpayers’ dollar,” he said.

Republicans characterized much of the criticism of Branstad as political gamesmanship designed to help Democratic Sen. Jack Hatch in his run for governor against Branstad this year.

“I agree completely that this is distraction taking away from our primary job which should be good legislation,” said Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa.

A second day of questioning by lawmakers about confidential settlement agreements and government hiring practices was canceled Tuesday when one of the state officials asked to return said he had a schedule conflict.

Paul Carlson, a top official at DAS had a previously scheduled arbitration meeting and couldn’t appear, said Caleb Hunter, the agency’s spokesman.

The Government Oversight Committee questioned Carlson and Doug Woodley, DAS chief operating officer, for nearly two hours Monday. The committee leaders were working on scheduling another meeting for Wednesday.

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