- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Senate Government Oversight Committee on Tuesday voted to pass 18 recommendations to the Iowa Legislature for consideration next year including a ban on secret settlement agreements and expanded whistleblower protections.

The committee of three Democrats and two Republicans voted 3-2 on party lines Tuesday to accept the committee’s findings and recommendations after six months of meetings in which dozens of state workers and administrators were called to testify under oath.

The committee began in April looking into the practice of offering fired state workers settlement agreements which in some cases paid the workers to remain silent about their firing. After the hearings began, state workers began contacting committee members about many other issues including alleged improper hiring practices, the exertion of political influence over judges hearing unemployment cases and awarding of state construction contracts without taking bids.

The recommendations include a ban on secret settlement agreements, expanded protections for whistleblowers, requirements that all state jobs are publicly advertised and new policies that ensure workers placed on a do-not-hire list are afforded proper due process.

Other recommendations would require competitive bidding for state construction projects above $100,000, a requirement that major infrastructure changes be approved by the legislative committee that appropriated the money and changes that prohibit political appointees from supervising judges that decide unemployment cases.

Sen. Janet Petersen, the Des Moines Democrat who chairs the committee, said she also wants changes in the way unemployed Iowans call Iowa Workforce Development to claim unemployment benefits, a change that could cost millions of dollars and needs careful review by legislative budget committees.

She also said IWD Director Teresa Wahlert is unlikely to win confirmation from the Senate if Democrats maintain their thin majority in November’s election and Gov. Terry Branstad wins and reappoints Wahlert.

“I don’t see a clear path for her to get reappointed through the Iowa Senate,” Petersen said.

IWD spokeswoman said Wahlert is not focused on reappointment.

“The recommendations put forth for IWD are all items the department currently does,” said Kerry Koonce. “For example, there was a recommendation to update the claimant phone system. This has already been in process. Unemployment is a federally funded system and IWD has repeatedly sought out additional funding to promote the technology upgrades.”

Petersen said other Branstad appointees “might want to consider a different line of work.” She declined to name them.

Branstad’s spokesman, Jimmy Centers, said the governor signed an executive order after he learned of confidential settlement agreements to increase transparency, accountability and openness in state government. He said in an email message Senate Democrats “are more interested in partisan political attacks in an election year than they are in making progress to move Iowa forward and increase transparency in government.”

Committee member Julian Garrett, an Indianola Republican, said Democrats are playing political games.

“I’m voting no on the Senate Democrats’ recommendations today because they are nothing more than a campaign gimmick,” he said. “The truth is Iowa is being run exceptionally well by Gov. Branstad and Democrats are simply trying to tear him down for political gain.”

The committee has subpoena power until the end of this year and Petersen said further hearings are possible as she continues to hear about other issues not yet explored.

She said she hopes legislators look closely at the recommendations and seriously consider legislation that could correct some of the problems the committee uncovered.

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