Proposal to eliminate Volunteer Iowa commission could result in $14 million loss of federal funds

By: - September 5, 2023 6:08 pm

Volunteer Iowa is among 69 boards or commissions recommended for elimination by a state panel. (Stock photo via Canva)

A state panel’s proposal to eliminate Iowa’s Commission on Volunteer Service could put more than $14 million in federal funding at risk, advocates said.

The Boards and Commissions Review Committee laid out preliminary recommendations in an August meeting to consolidate Iowa’s 256 existing boards and commissions. The action is part of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ state government reorganization plan, signed into law earlier in 2023. Recommendations included eliminating 69 of the boards and commissions and merging 52 into other existing entities, as well as reorganizing and changing the duties of 47 others.

Among the panels on the chopping block is Iowa’s Commission on Volunteer Service, also known as Volunteer Iowa. The commission, currently made up of 19 governor-appointed members, is in charge of overseeing federal funding through the AmeriCorps program in Iowa.

Federal statute requires states to have a state commission to remain eligible for these funds, which are distributed to address “critical community needs,” from construction of low-income housing to after-school programming to local disaster response.

In May 2023, the commission announced it was awarding $9.1 million to AmeriCorps State programs in Iowa, including Habitat for Humanity, Green Iowa, Disaster PrepWise at the University of Iowa and 4-H Outreach. The commission also announced $2.6 million in Segal Education Awards, which are given to former AmeriCorps members to pay back student loans or to pay for current education expenses. Those federal funds could be at risk if the commission is eliminated, Rachel Bruns, chief engagement officer of America’s Service Commissions, said.

Bruns said members of the review committee have not responded to her requests to speak with them. She said she has spoken with Volunteer Iowa board members and grant recipients who were caught off-guard by the recommendation to eliminate the commission. Volunteer Iowa has historically seen “strong bipartisan support and support from the governor’s office,” she said.

“What I’m hearing back from them is just like their similar kind of shock that this would even be on the table,” Bruns said. “And just a significant concern about what that would mean for their organization, their program and the services that they provide in their community.”

David Faith, deputy attorney general and subcommittee member of the review of Iowa’s human services boards and commissions, said during last month’s meeting the subcommittee’s recommendation came because members found that AmeriCorps grants could be distributed to Iowa organizations through other means.

Faith said the recommendation was proposed “following research,” where subcommittee members “discovered that this can be handled at the agency level. (An) alternate structure for applying for these grants can be created.”

Members of the review board have not responded to requests for comment on the recommendation.

Read more: Iowa College Aid commissioners await details on possible reorganization

Only one state lacks a commission to distribute Americorps funds

Bruns said it is possible for Iowa to apply for an “alternative administrative entity,” but that entity would need to be approved by the federal government and would still require a commission.

Only one state, South Dakota, currently does not have a state commission to distribute AmeriCorps funding. While individual organizations in Iowa could still apply for AmeriCorps funds if the commission were eliminated, she said, the state would automatically lose roughly $2.5 million in formula funding. It would also mean the Iowa organizations currently receiving AmeriCorps State funds would have to compete through the federal process, which means competing with national nonprofits and organizations.

It would also disqualify the agency overseeing the administrative entity from receiving AmeriCorps funding, Bruns said. If the alternate program fell under Iowa Department of Health and Human Services — HHS programs currently receiving grants could no longer receive funding or participate in those programs, as the federal statute prohibits the institution providing program grants from receiving the program grants.

A spokesperson with Iowa HHS said the department does not have additional details on the recommendations.

While 20 Iowa organizations are currently receiving AmeriCorps funding, she said, the state of South Dakota only receives one AmeriCorps grant through the federal program because there is no state commission.

“Currently, 90% of all AmeriCorps state and national programs flow through a state commission,” Bruns said. “So you can see how important it is — a commission is — in supporting local organizations and accessing these resources. And that’s really what the intent of the commissions are, in the original federal legislation, to have a local kind of that local voice through a bipartisan board of commissioners, to be providing that oversight of the commission versus it being a federal-heavy program.”

Public hearing is Wednesday

The Boards and Commissions Review Committee will hear public comments on the recommendations  Wednesday at noon, during a meeting at the Iowa State Capitol. People interested in speaking must email [email protected] with their request to speak. Written comments also can be emailed to that address. The committee is required to submit a final report to the governor and state lawmakers by Sept. 30.

Advocates with Volunteer Iowa and some groups receiving AmeriCorps funding have called for Iowans to speak against the suggested elimination. Other groups, like the Iowa Farmers Union, have called for opposition to the elimination of other boards and commissions, such as the Watershed Planning Advisory Council, Local Food and Farm Program Council, as well as the Commercial and Private Pesticide Applicator Peer Review Panels.

“This consolidation of power will diminish the voices of Iowa’s citizens and directly harm family agriculture and rural communities,” The Iowa Farmers Union wrote in an email asking supporters to speak at the committee public hearing.

Critics said the proposal would limit Iowans’ involvement in state government, in addition to giving more power to the executive branch. Recommendations also include removing rulemaking and policymaking authorities from some boards and commissions like the Soil Conservation and Water Quality Committee and Alcoholic Beverages Commission.

But the committee chairman, Kraig Paulsen, director of the Iowa Department of Management, said during last month’s meeting the review found the need for Iowa to establish a system for regularly reviewing Iowa’s boards and commissions — but he emphasized that the committee does not have direct authority to change or eliminate any of the bodies reviewed.

“I think the most important thing to take away from this is that this is the beginning of the conversation, all right?” Paulsen said. “And let’s also not overstate what the role of this particular committee is. Our role is that we get to pontificate, and then we get to make a recommendation. … So this, this is part of the conversation, we’ll do the public input, we’ll arrive at some sort of recommendation, that will go to the elected leadership state, and then they will make a decision.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.