It was a mostly silent Legislature that took in Gov. Terry Branstad’s annual Condition of the State address Tuesday. Applause lines in the roughly 30-minute speech were rare, and lawmakers mostly ignored the cues to clap.
That doesn’t necessarily mean legislators were dismissive of what they heard. Republican leaders were appreciative of the focus on tax relief and job creation, even if they don’t entirely agree on how to deliver it. Democrats, while wary of the governor’s spending plans, praised his remarks about helping to train more Iowans in the skills needed in the workforce.
Branstad kept his remarks very focused on a narrow list of priorities. There was very little red meat — and not much poultry, for that matter. He skipped the rhetorical baloney, too, except for a repeated refrain about the days of opportunity facing the state. He reserved most of the public gallery space for his own guests, but mentioned only a few people by name.
There was no talk of public safety, gun violence or social issues like gay marriage and abortion. He laid out his priorities for property tax reform, but made no mention of income tax cuts. He also omitted mention of a gas tax increase. He outlined his education agenda, which focuses on teacher pay and performance. But he refrained from criticizing teachers and made a point of saying it’s the system that is failing, not teachers.
Branstad’s third priority, a “healthier Iowa,” was the source of the only real surprise in the speech. He called for medical malpractice reform, including a cap on non-economic damages. The GOP-controlled House has passed a certificate of merit process in the past, requiring a medical expert to review malpractice cases for merit before they can advance in court.
The Democrat-controlled Senate has resisted such measures, and there’s no reason to think that will change.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said he was surprised by Branstad’s failure to mention mental-health reform. Branstad’s budget includes $30 million for mental-health reform, however, which should indicate a commitment to seeing through the system redesign that lawmakers started last year.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, acknowledged that Republicans may have concerns about the 4.3 percent increase in general-fund spending. He said he doesn’t think the average Iowan’s household budget increased that much.
That 4.3 percent doesn’t even include an increase in per-pupil spending for schools. Democrats have said they are going to insist on a decision about basic school aid before they consider education reform. Branstad reiterated that he expects to debate reform first.
He said lawmakers must decide how much to invest in achievement-driven reform “before we spend one minute discussing additional resources to support our existing educational system.”
Branstad’s utilitarian speech and tightly focused priorities didn’t give legislators much to cheer about, but it did give them plenty of work to do.
If legislators unravel the property tax dilemma, they will have succeeded where legislators have failed for more than three decades. If they make strides toward school reform, it will affect Iowans for generations. If they help keep doctors in even a few small towns, it will enhance the quality of life in rural Iowa.
Those accomplishments really would be cause for celebration.