Better rules through changes in rule-making? Don't rule it out.

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March 31, 2014 | 11:21 pm

Gov. Terry Branstad is changing the rules for making rules.

And anyone who deals with state government knows that rules rule everything. Most rules and regulations come from two sources: bills passed by the Legislature and signed by governor, or from federal mandates. They pass from the sometimes vague wisdom of our elected leaders to the cubicles of bureaucracy, where the details, and a few devils, are filled in.

After a public hearing, and once a panel of lawmakers from both parties takes a final look, most rules can begin ruling.

Branstad has added a new step. His Executive Order 80 directs state agencies to appoint “stakeholder rulemaking groups” to consider some proposed rules before they are submitted for final approval. By design, stakeholders are folks who will be affected by the proposed rules and regs. The groups would also receive public input.

Many rules won't be reviewed by stakeholders, including those filed under emergency procedures so they can take effect quickly. They make up about 15 to 20 percent of rules issued, according to Joe Royce, legal counsel for the Legislature's Administrative Rules Review Committee. So, for instance, emergency rules recently put in place by Secretary of State Matt Schultz for checking voter rolls against a federal citizenship database would not have been eligible for stakeholder review.

Then there are very specific, prescriptive state and federal statutes, which would leave little or no room for extra stakeholding. And some rules are so mundane that no one would bother.

Still, even with those limits, this could be a good thing, if agency heads appoint a truly broad spectrum of folks to these groups, if they’re not used to simply gum up the works, if the outcome is better rules and not political grandstanding and if stakeholder panels don’t become unelected tiny legislatures rewriting laws without authority. I know, many ifs.

But it’s worth a try. The bureaucracy acts in mysterious ways, and if these panels can clear some of the fog and untangle some unintended tangles before they ensnare innocent Iowans, great. More citizen participation is always welcome.

In fact, this is such a great idea that I say the governor should deploy similar stakeholder groups before he issues executive orders, signs a bill or issues vetoes. If the input of underrepresented citizens and unheard voices is important to rule-making, surely it’s critical to other big executive branch decisions.

For instance, the governor could have convened a panel including low-income, working adults without health coverage before he decided to flatly reject Medicaid expansion efforts. He might have consulted stakeholders before he vetoed an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit. Twice. I doubt he’ll do it.

Altering the rules process is good, but it’s not the real, meaty regulatory issue. And that’s exactly which regulations will get the heave-ho if Republicans rule the Statehouse. GOP leaders talk often of cutting burdensome red tape, but rarely say where the sharp scissors will be deployed. It seems like it’s always “details will come later.”

It's getting later all the time. And voters deserve to know the plan beyond the platitudes. I know, getting specific is scary in an election year. Just think of the electorate as a big stakeholder group.

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