Gov. Terry Branstad cooked up a decidedly upbeat Condition of the State speech today. It had plenty of homegrown Iowa ingredients — wrestling, ethanol, wind turbines and fertilizer. It had students building robots! A Marion Swamp Fox Festival shout-out! It wasn’t too long!
What more could we ask for? (Hold that thought.)
But at its heart, it was a mushy love letter to bipartisan cooperation, an ode to the creative friction of a politically split Statehouse. We’ve all come together to plant the seeds of the “Iowa Dream,” the Republican governor said. A bouquet for everyone.
Goodbye scolding grandfather of 2011. Hello Gov. Kumbaya.
If you were a legislative Republican sitting in the House Chamber, a Senate Republican especially, waiting patiently for the part about all the great GOP ideas those dastardly Senate Dems have scuttled, you’re still waiting. Sure, there’s plenty of time for campaigning, and this speech is supposed to be the stuff of statesmanship, but not even a morsel of red meat?
A small bone, guv? One thinly veiled punch? A hint of “liberal obstruction?”
Sorry. This is Des Moines, not D.C.
“The Federal government has been paralyzed by partisanship leading to cliffs, ceilings, sequesters and shutdown, Iowa leaders have done the opposite; we have come together to work on behalf of Iowans.” Branstad said.
“We put aside our political differences, to achieve common sense compromise in cutting taxes, improving education and modernizing health care in our state: All evidence that Iowa is working.
“We have worked together and invested in students, teachers and schools.
“We have worked together and invested in the health and well-being of our state.
“We have worked together and invested in middle-class families, main street businesses and our communities.
“I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish working together. The results of our work will have a positive impact in the lives of many Iowans. “
Make no mistake, Branstad is a partisan through and through. He’s more than willing to toss cooperation out of the nearest window if it suits one or more of the constituencies he cares about. If some bipartisan effort happens to benefit a constituency he doesn’t care about, out comes the veto pen. And Branstad’s brand of bipartisanship is usually compelled by political realities. He is a politician, after all.
And a better one than most when it comes to understanding political realities. In this case, a governor preparing to run for a sixth term this year clearly understands what voters want now. And that’s some concrete evidence that government can get past its entrenched differences and actually function. Republicans want it, Democrats want it, and, most importantly, independents want it. He knows how unpopular Congress and the president have become through dysfunction.
So what’s the condition of the state in Iowa? “Iowa is working,” the governor said. Like a charm. Like a Swiss watch. Just like he promised in 2010, the trains are running on time. Although don’t get him started on passenger rail.
And the 2014 agenda Branstad outlined today – an ambitious jobs and education program for veterans, expanded broadband Internet access, a tuition freeze aimed at slicing student debt, a renewed anti- bullying effort, expanded apprenticeships and new tax incentives for repurposing school buildings in small towns – is the sort of stuff designed to bring more bipartisan accord. Ironically, it may be Republicans worried about new spending, new regulations, etc., who are most wary.
“I think Senate Democrats can enthusiastically embrace all of these goals,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, on Iowa Public Television moments after the speech.
I thought Branstad was particularly strong and poignant as he called for a new effort to help schools fight bullying:
“Sadly, for some children in Iowa, the bully they face makes every day feel more like a nightmare.
“As they consider whether they can continue to take abuse from the bully, they don’t know where to turn. Even if they turn to school officials, our laws have tied their hands.
“Imagine being that child.
“Imagine being unable to escape, as the bully relentlessly pursues them online, in a form accessible 24/7. Imagine how bleak it must be. Imagine how lonely it must feel.
“This session, we can let our children know they are not alone. I call on both houses and both parties to support the Bully Free Iowa Act of 2014.
“We can take action to empower students and their parents.
“We can untie the hands of schools to allow them to better address cyberbullying.
“And we can get educators the training they need to respond effectively to bullying.
“As we take action to protect our children from bullies, let us also commit to honoring and better serving the men and women that protect our liberties and rights every day.”
Oddly, it was one of the few proposals floated by the governor that failed to draw applause from lawmakers.
But, unlike dreamy working Iowa, not everything in Branstad’s speech was working.
For example, Branstad couldn’t resist once again floating the fuzzy math that his administration has created 130,000 jobs in Iowa. If you also count jobs lost, net job creation is actually around 54,000.
And it turns out we could have asked for more.
The governor has done good work on bullying, but he didn’t mention the rising number of children in Iowa living in poverty, also a nightmare they can’t escape.
Counties struggling mightily to cover the cost of critically important mental health services were left out of the speech, not to mention big holes in the state’s mental health safety net.
The governor also steered around any mention of Iowa’s mounting need for more highway and bridge repair funding.
He said now is the time “to be bold.” But on these pressing issues, a governor with a huge campaign war chest, high job approval and no formidable challenger yet was surprisingly timid. When has an Iowa governor been in a better position to damn the politics and solve some stubborn problems? Why stop at property taxes?
Here’s a summary of the initiatives Branstad did outline:
The Home Base Iowa Act
• Would fully exempt military pensions from state income tax, putting Iowa on more equal footing with states such as Florida, Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
• Calls on Iowa Board of Education to create a uniform policy granting automatic in-state tuition to veterans, their spouses, and their dependents at Iowa’s community colleges similar to policies already in place at regents’ universities in Iowa.
• Directs each of Iowa’s occupational licensing boards to adopt rules allowing credit for military training and experience in the licensing process.
The Connect Every Iowan Act
• Contains a targeted, time-limited, and geographically-limited tax incentive to encourage build-out of ultra-high speed internet capabilities. Broadband equipment and infrastructure installed or constructed in unserved or underserved areas between the act’s effective date and Dec. 31, 2018, would be exempt from property tax under the bill.
• Moves toward ICN 2.0 by repurposing the Iowa Communications Network to allow private providers to purchase.
Reducing Student Debt
• In 2013, the Legislature passed and Branstad signed the first tuition freeze at regent universities in 30 years.
• This year, Branstad is calling on the Legislature to again freeze tuition at regent universities – something supported by majorities in both houses.
The Bully-Free Iowa Act of 2014
• Empowers parents by creating a parental notification requirement, directing schools to inform parents if their child is involved in a bullying incident.
• Gives schools the discretion to respond to bullying that takes place off of school grounds if two conditions are met.
The Iowa Apprenticeship and Job Training Act
• Allow students to earn money via apprenticeships while they learn, rather than taking on significant student debt as well as providing the apprentice with focused, hands-on training and a paycheck from day one.
• Nationwide, there are registered apprenticeships for more than 1,000 occupations, with programs impacting 250,000 employers and about 450,000 apprentices. In Iowa in FY13, there were 662 registered apprenticeship programs, and over 8,100 registered apprentices.
• With over $7.5 billion in capital investments incentivized by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, demand for a skilled workforce has increased all across Iowa.
• Branstad’s apprenticeship bill proposes to triple funding for apprenticeships under the existing 260F worker training program.
Source: Governor’s Office