By Lynn Campbell | IowaPolitics.com
AMES — A key Democratic lawmaker concerned about Republican Gov. Terry Branstad cutting the salary of the state’s workers’ compensation commissioner is calling for the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to review the matter.
State Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, is questioning whether the Iowa governor has the unilateral right to “change the direction” of the state workers’ compensation program given that its commissioner has a six-year, fixed term, established in state law.
“As ranking member of the House Rules and Administration Committee, I am troubled by the governor crossing the line and trying to monopolize a power that belongs equally to the General Assembly and that affects the lives of thousands of Iowans,” Isenhart said in an email to IowaPolitics.com. “The provision of health care to workers injured on the job is not a political question that gets re-opened with every election.”
But given that Republicans control the Iowa House, it was not clear Tuesday whether the joint House-Senate committee that continues to meet between legislative sessions would look at the issue. Calls to the committee’s chairmen were not immediately returned.
Branstad last week cut Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey’s annual salary from about $109,000 to $73,259, after he refused to resign. Godfrey’s new salary is the lowest level of his pay grade and is about $35,000 lower than the 12 deputies he supervises.
Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday defended Godfrey’s cut in pay. She said Branstad ran for governor to change the direction of government and needs to have confidence in his leadership team. Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht on Tuesday provided further reasons why the administration does not have confidence in Godfrey.
“The governor has heard from a number of Iowa’s small business owners who were extremely concerned with Mr. Godfrey’s job performance, particularly with regard to rising costs associated with worker’s compensation premiums,” Albrecht said. “In the last four years, Iowa has gone from the 45th least expensive in workers’ comp to 36th, so under Mr. Godfrey’s leadership, it’s actually gotten more expensive to do business at a time when we need to be more competitive. Workers’ comp claims have become too expensive for our job creators.”
But Isenhart said in the two years Reynolds served in the Iowa Senate, he was vice chairman of the joint Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee on which she served. He said he doesn’t recall Reynolds questioning the program’s effectiveness or the commissioner’s performance.
“So I, for one, am highly skeptical that the salary action taken by the governor is justified from a performance standpoint,” Isenhart said. “Rather, through this strong-arm tactic, the governor is staking claim to a political outcome, which he has no right to command.”
Isenhart said he’s encouraged state Rep. Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, and state Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington, chairmen of the Government Oversight Committee, “to bring clarity to this matter.” Over the years, the committee has investigated various scandals, including those relating to over-inflated salaries at the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium and Iowa Association of School Boards.
Isenhart also said he asked state Rep. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, chairman of the Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee, to address this situation during the 2012 legislative session if the Government Oversight Committee does not address it before then.
Hagenow, Courtney and Schultz did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment by IowaPolitics.com.
Albrecht said it’s common for a new governor to ask agency and department heads to resign, so the governor can replace them with people who share his vision. He said the Legislature sets the term of the commissioner, so Godfrey has the right to stay, despite Branstad’s request that he resign.
Godfrey was first appointed to be the workers’ compensation commissioner by former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2006 to replace then-Commissioner Mike Trier, who retired. However, the Iowa Senate rejected Godfrey’s appointment at that time. He was then re-appointed to the position by Democratic Gov. Chet Culver in 2007, and was re-confirmed in 2009. His current term ends April 2015.
Albrecht said the governor sets the commissioner’s salary — and he’s exercised that right.
“The Legislature said this particular position should have a fixed term. However, the Legislature also directed the governor to set the salary of this commissioner,” Albrecht said. “Mr. Godfrey is exercising his right, and governor is exercising his ability to set the pay, which was the last means we had to show our disapproval of the work being done by Godfrey. This is part of the checks and balances of state government.”