Gov. Reynolds says no to vaccine incentives, yes to running for reelection; State Auditor says she misused pandemic aid again

Video still from “Step Up, Stop the Spread,” featuring Gov. Kim Reynolds

“I am really happy with where we’re at,” Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters on Thursday, explaining that Iowa doesn’t need to follow the example of other states and create lotteries or other incentives to persuade people to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

In April, the governor announced a goal of having 65 percent of eligible Iowans vaccinated by the end of May. According to data available from the Iowa Department of Public Health, approximately 44 percent of eligible Iowans were vaccinated at the end of May.

Speaking after a bill-signing photo op at Black Hawk State Park in western Iowa on Wednesday, Reynolds pointed to pop-up clinics county health agencies have staged at minor league baseball games and some farmers markets as evidence that her administration is “still doing everything we can” to get people vaccinated.

“We’re just going to continue to look at ways that we can work with communities across the state, with our clinics, with our physicians,” Reynolds said at the park. “And so if we need to do something different, we can assess and do that. But, you know, I think they’re available to anyone who wants them.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch reported on Tuesday, the number of doses of vaccine administered in Iowa had declined by 32 percent from the previous week.

The governor has repeatedly said it is up to each person to decide if it is in their own individual interest to be vaccinated. At the same time, Reynolds has stoked vaccine-related fears by demanding the Iowa Legislature pass a bill banning “vaccine passports,” which the Biden administration had already announced it would not introduce. In practical terms, the bill Reynolds signed into law will punish private institutions or businesses, including ones where large numbers of people are in congregate settings, if they require proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, as Grinnell College was planning to do. Grinnell and other colleges already require students to provide proof of other vaccinations, and can continue to do so; the prohibition only applies to COVID-19 vaccines.

Actions like this, and other efforts by Reynolds to limit or eliminate mitigation measures by local governments in Iowa, have earned her praise for her handling of COVID-19 during two recent Fox News town hall-style interviews. During the most recent, Reynolds told Fox’s Sean Hannity that as far as the pandemic in Iowa is concerned, “the emergency is over.”

One of Reynolds’ higher-profile efforts to encourage Iowans to follow CDC-recommended mitigation measures before she decided the emergency is over was the subject of a special report released on Thursday morning by Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand.

In November, during the peak of the fall surge of COVID-19 in Iowa, Reynolds appeared in a PSA along with former Gov. Tom Vilsack, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran, former UI wrestling coach Dan Gable, Test Iowa nurse Katie Witt and Carson King, to encourage Iowans to wear face masks and take other basic precautions against the virus. The ad, called “Step Up, Stop the Spread,” appeared online, as well as on TV stations around the state.

In his report, Sand concluded the ad violated Iowa’s law against statewide elected officials using “public moneys under the control of the statewide elected official” for “any paid advertisement or promotion bearing the written name, likeness, or voice of the statewide elected official.”

Reynolds authorized the use of $152,585 in federal pandemic aid to pay for the placement of the ad.

“That violates Iowa Code Section 68A.405A, Iowa’s law prohibiting self-promotion with public moneys, which Governor Reynolds signed in 2018,” the auditor’s report states.

In a written statement issued on Thursday morning shortly after the auditor’s report was published, Reynolds said she was “proud of the ‘Step Up, Stop the Spread’ public service announcement.”

“I felt it was important for me and other leaders to address Iowans during the height of the pandemic,” she continued.

The statement goes on to accuse Sand of mischaracterizing the law, claiming the auditor “ignored” a provision in state code Reynolds signed in 2018 — a provision that allows a governor to waive the ban on public funds for ads in the case of public emergencies.

Sand maintains that the governor can only waive the ban if the waiver is included in a public disaster declaration, and since Reynolds never included the use of public funds for ads in any of the emergency health proclamations she has signed, the governor violated the law.

The relevant text in state code — Chapter 29C.6, paragraph 6 — appears to support Sand’s position.

[A governor may] Suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business, or the orders or rules, of any state agency, if strict compliance with the provisions of any statute, order or rule would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the emergency by stating in a proclamation such reasons.

Assuming Reynolds’ appearance in the video was a “necessary action in coping with the emergency” of COVID-19, the reasons for why it was necessary should have been stated in an emergency proclamation. In his report, Sand also notes the governor did not appear in the print ads that were part of the “Step Up, Stop the Spread” campaign. The print ads, he concluded, did not violate state law.

The auditor’s office has filed copies of its report with “the Polk County Attorney’s Office, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office,” the agencies that would be in charge of enforcing the law Sand believes Reynolds violated.

This is not the first time Sand has concluded Reynolds improperly used federal pandemic aid. In October, Sand issued a report stating the governor misappropriated $21 million of federal funds intended to help the state handle COVID-related expenses to make payments on a computer system the Reynolds administration purchased months before the virus was first discovered. Reynolds also responded to that report by claiming Sand was misstating the law, but the federal government agreed with the auditor and Reynolds was required to return the money to the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Supporters of the governor have accused Sand of attempting to make Reynolds look bad to further his own political ambitions. In an interview last month, Sand did say he was considering running for governor in 2022, but had not yet made up his mind. Reynolds, on the other hand, has made her decision about 2022.

The governor told the reporters at Black Hawk State Park she will seek another term.

“Listen, I will make a formal announcement later,” Reynolds said. “But I’m not done with what I want to do. I’ve got a lot of things I want to continue to work on.”

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