Erin Murphy

Terry Branstad has served as Iowa’s governor for more than two decades, and his split tenure goes back to the early 1980s.

And yet the most lasting pieces of his legacy may well have been delivered in these past four months.

Branstad has been Iowa’s governor for roughly 23 years. That’s a long time to serve as a state’s chief executive --- as a matter of fact, it’s the longest such tenure in U.S. history.

It would be impossible to serve in such a role for so long and not make a significant impact on the state and its trajectory, and it is safe to say Branstad has made an impact on Iowa. He governed the state through the farm crisis of the 1980s and throughout both stints --- from 1983 to 1999 and from 2011 until the present --- he has overseen programs and policies that have attempted to foster business growth in the state.

But years from now, when the complete story of Gov. Terry Branstad is told, it is likely a significant portion of that picture will be painted by the events of the past four months and the myriad new laws he signed onto the books.

Soon Branstad will be confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China, so the 2017 legislative session in all likelihood was his last as governor.

The 2016 elections gave Republicans complete lawmaking control in Iowa --- majorities in both the Iowa House and Senate to go with a GOP governor --- for the first time in 20 years. The opportunity was not wasted; Republican legislators approved a stack of bills with significant conservative reforms.

Branstad approved each one of them.

Because of the dramatic changes they made, those bills signed into law by Branstad during this legislative session are likely to play a large role in how history judges Branstad. The success and perception of those new laws could have an outsized impact, relative to his other 22 years in office, on Branstad's legacy, for better or worse.

“When you look at it, this has been a very productive session, and a lot has been accomplished,” Branstad said Thursday as the session neared its conclusion. “When I look back at this session I think it’s going to go down as one of the most significant and productive sessions that I’ve had the honor of presiding over as governor.”

Among the significant changes made to Iowa law this session:

  • Public employees --- including teachers and state and local government workers --- no longer can collectively bargain for many benefits such as health insurance, vacation and other benefits and workplace policies.
  • Workers are limited in the damages they can seek in some worker’s compensation and medical malpractice lawsuits.
  • When they feel threatened, Iowans can use lethal force to protect themselves anywhere --- not just in their home or care --- and no longer have a duty to retreat before using lethal force.
  • Pregnant women may not have an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. When getting an abortion, they must first have an ultrasound and wait three days.
  • Drivers can be pulled over and ticketed for texting while driving.

Those are big changes to state law, and the effects will be felt for years to come. And all those changes literally have Gov. Branstad’s signature on them.

Within the past few years, Branstad used his executive authority to close two state-run mental health institutions and shift management of the state’s $5 billion low-income health care program to three private companies. Those decisions also will loom large when Branstad’s legacy is debated.

But no time period, especially one so short, will have more to say about that legacy than the past four months and the 2017 legislative session.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and state government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net.

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