DES MOINES, Iowa – In his 19th Condition of the State speech, Gov. Terry Branstad struck a bipartisan tone in calling for lawmakers to join him in “working hard, working together and working to make things better than we found them.”
He asked members of the split-control Legislature to put aside differences to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of Iowans seeking the Iowa Dream “of opportunity and prosperity which can become a reality for every Iowan willing to work for it.”
His dream – his agenda – included a plan to attract military veterans to Iowa by offering them in-state tuition, already available at regents’ universities, exempting military pensions from state income tax and recognizing military training and experience in the occupational licensing process.
Branstad, who is expected to seek a sixth term this fall, also called for limited, targeted tax incentives to encourage the build-out of ultra-high speed Internet capacity, and developing ICN 2.0, a re-purposed Iowa Communications Network to partner with the private sector to provide Internet connectivity in under-served areas of Iowa.
He wants to empower parents in the fight against bullying by directing schools to inform parents if their child is involved in a bullying incident and giving schools discretion to respond — under certain conditions — to bullying that occurs off school grounds.
And he wants to increase career training and educational opportunities while freezing tuition and lowering the cost of getting an education.
Legislative leaders from both parties said the agenda doesn’t have to be a dream, but Democrats challenged the governor to dream even bigger.
Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said, can “enthusiastically embrace” the governor’s agenda.
“I think it’s a good, solid agenda,” Gronstal said. “We are positive about it. Did I see anything I disagreed with, I’d say no. All of the things that he identified as priorities are priorities that Democrats share.”
“There was nothing in his recommendations that we can’t work with,” added Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque.
Branstad seemed to be building on efforts Democrats made when they were in the majority, said House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown. However, the governor didn’t raise any red flags in his mind.
Branstad might have raised red flags in the minds of his own party members who have been reluctant to pass the governor’s anti-bullying agenda, Smith said.
“That’s something my caucus has called for a long time,” Smith added. “He hit some themes I’m very interested in.”
Republican leaders wholeheartedly endorsed the Branstad agenda.
“I thought it was a great speech. I think the substance of it is quite profound,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “Clearly, we have a governor who wants to continue to move the state forward. I’m excited to be part of that.”
Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, endorsed the governor’s vision to ease higher education costs and open the information superhighway to all Iowans.
“Senate Republicans,” he said, “want to work with the governor to pass these initiatives so every Iowan can pursue their dreams.”
Democrats were critical of what wasn’t mentioned: mental health funding and services; universal preschool; raising the minimum wage; more career skills programs; and how the state will meet the backlog of critical transportation issues.
“If we really want to take care of the middle class we could look at the minimum wage,” Rep. Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, said. “He used the words ‘middle class’ a couple of times, but he never talked directly about that.”
Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial candidate, dismissed Branstad’s speech as “a timid, lukewarm retread of the past.”
“This is the same speech Iowans have heard before, dating back to the early 1980s,” Hatch said. “It’s too bad, really, that this governor is focused more on his record for longevity than on Iowa’s future.”
Democrats weren’t alone in their criticism. More than 200 members of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and their allies lined the Capitol halls from the governor’s office to the House chamber to protest Branstad’s “pro-corporate agenda.”
The CCI Action Fund highlighted findings by the Iowa Policy Project showing an initial $88.8 million shortfall in fiscal 2015 that will have to be covered by dipping into Iowa’s surplus funds in order to pay for the start-up costs of property tax cuts approved by the Legislature last year. The cost will be $135.9 million initially but is scheduled to grow to $277 million next year and eventually peak at $380 million per year.
Inside the chamber, his half-hour speech was punctuated with frequent applause and, unofficially, 21 standing ovations.
He also won the applause of Iowa Communications Alliance and Connect Iowa for his plans to promote greater broadband access, adoption, and use across the state and to fast-track Iowa’s goal of becoming the most connected state in the Midwest.
The Iowa Chamber Alliance also endorsed the broadband plan as well as Branstad’s workforce proposals. The Home Base plan to attract veterans and apprenticeship programs “represent positive new ways to help close Iowa’s skills gap,” he said.
On the other hand, Progress Iowa accused Branstad of using “fuzzy math to deceive Iowans and inflate job growth” in claiming to have created 130,000 jobs.
“Any discussion about improving Iowa’s economy must include an honest assessment of our current condition,” Progress Iowa’s Matt Sinovic said. “Unfortunately, the governor seems incapable of honesty on this issue.”
Still, the overall mood was positive.
“This is the fourth time I’ve heard Gov. Branstad … and his fourth speech was his best that I’ve heard,” said Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville. “A number of his items I’m actually excited about.”
There were limits to the bipartisan spirit, however.
“I wish him well,” Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, said, “but I hope this is his last year.”
Des Moines Bureau Chief Rod Boshart contributed to this report