DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad used his final Condition of the State speech Tuesday to urge the GOP-run Legislature to “seize the opportunities” to reshape government in ways that “challenge the status quo” to improve education, public safety, health care and water quality.
“This new General Assembly brings new dynamics, new expectations and new opportunities to deliver positive results for Iowans,” Branstad said in delivering remarks to a joint legislative session for the 22nd time in his run as the longest-serving governor in U.S. history.
Branstad, who likely will leave office later this year to become U.S. ambassador to China, spoke of past challenges and successes the state has seen while charting a new budget and future expectations for a smaller, smarter government. The speech was televised to a statewide audience and a Legislature where Republicans control the Senate 29-20-1 and the House 59-40.
“Today, America and Iowa exist in a challenging world,” he said. “But we must seize the opportunity to make it a better place.”
Reaction to the governor’s 3,231-word speech predictably fell along partisan lines, with majority Republicans praising Branstad for what he said, if not for what he didn’t say.
They agreed with the need to move quickly to deal with a $110 million budget shortfall but wished Branstad had included tax cuts in his plan.
They are open to his proposal to change the state’s “antiquated” collective bargaining system by establishing a single comprehensive statewide health care contract for public employees at the state and local level to “spread the risk and dramatically reduce costs.”
They were disappointed, however, that he didn’t propose a major collective bargaining law overhaul similar to that undertaken in Wisconsin.
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said House Republicans will like Branstad’s “vision to grow good jobs and careers and … share the governor’s commitment to making education a priority.”
Democrats agree lawmakers should work together to support Iowa's working families “and make sure every family gets a fair shot,” said House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown. But Branstad didn’t mention raising the middle class or raising the minimum wage, providing time off for parents with new children and making child care more affordable or making higher education more affordable.
“There are some things in there we will be able to work with the governor on,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said, but like Smith, he wished there had been a plan to raise the minimum wage, which was raised in 2007 when Democrats controlled the Legislature and governor’s office.
Differences are to be expected, said Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, who is in his 45th year as a legislator.
“He has a Republican philosophy, and there’s another one called Democrat, and they collide once in a while, and they’re going to in this session,” he said.
Hogg also questioned Branstad’s claim that under his administration Iowa’s government is smaller and smarter.
If that’s the case, “why do we have this $113 million budget hole?” Hogg asked. “It’s because the economy is not performing the way that Gov. Branstad thinks it is, family incomes have not been going up, and under his leadership, we’re falling behind other states.”
State revenues have been falling behind projections, so Branstad said lawmakers’ first job will be erasing a $110 million shortfall yet this fiscal year. That must happen before the Legislature tackles his two-year spending plan that included a $78.8 million increase in state aid to K-12 in fiscal 2018 and $63.5 million the following year.
“It prioritizes education, health care, economic development and public safety,” Branstad said of his two-year budget blueprint, “and it redirects family planning money to organizations that focus on providing health care for women and eliminates taxpayer funding for organizations that perform abortions.”
He said this year’s budget process should include a commitment to examine every dollar of revenue and expenditure in order to maximize efficiency and respect hard-working taxpayers with an eye on downsizing and streamlining government.
To that end, he is asking the Legislature to review state boards and commissions to address unnecessary barriers that prevent competition and raise costs.
Branstad said he hoped 2017 would be the year to approve a bipartisan water-quality improvement plan that would provide funding for community conservation practices and improvements to wastewater and drinking water facilities via a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue.
Branstad said a starting point of this year’s discussion could be a plan that won bipartisan support in the Iowa House last session that proposed to shift $478 million over 13 years to water-quality projects from a water-metering tax and the gambling-funded state infrastructure account. Then-majority Senate Democrats balked at that plan fearing it would shift money from other priorities, such as education.
During his remarks, Branstad called the rise in traffic deaths from 315 in 2015 to 402 in 2016 “unacceptable” in urging legislators to consider recommendations from public safety officials on ways to reverse “a troubling trend.”
“Modern technologies should come with new responsibilities,” he said.
Branstad wants to limit drivers to using hands-free communication devices.
“I ask that all Iowans join the Iowa law-enforcement community, first responders, the League of Cities, all the major cellphone carriers, the insurance industry, and the medical community in demanding real change in the laws for distracted and impaired drivers,” he said.
That sat well with Hogg, but not with some Republicans.
“I appreciate him raising it. I’d like to make more progress than what he’s proposing,” said Hogg, who would like texting while driving to be a primary offense. Under current law, law enforcement cannot stop a motorist for texting.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, did not share that viewpoint. Texting while driving is “very dangerous,” Zaun said, but so are looking at a GPS device, putting on makeup and eating while driving.
“How many more laws do we have to pass to protect people from their stupidity?” Zaun asked.
To highlight past challenges the state has overcome, Branstad pointed to successes in Bloomfield, Woodbine and Waterloo and saluted leaders of those communities who were on hand in the House galleries for the governor’s speech.
Similarly, Branstad recognized students from Des Moines, Bondurant-Farrar and Waukee who were on hand for his speech to emphasize the need for STEM and comprehensive computer science initiatives, work-based learning programs and the administration’s Future Ready Iowa effort that seeks to have 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce with education or training beyond high school by 2025.
Branstad also paid tribute to his wife, Chris, for her patience and volunteer work, as well as his family for their sacrifices during his years of public service and the prayers and encouragement of friends he has made in Iowa’s 99 counties during his years in elective office.
“I’ve been so blessed to serve as your governor, leading the state I love, for 22 years," he said. "I am confident Iowa will continue to move forward because Iowans care deeply about their neighbors, their communities and creating an even better future.
“As I approach the U.S. Senate confirmation process my main priority is to continue serving the people of Iowa with the same energy and passion that I have brought to this office each and every day.”