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Condition of the State 2014 - Iowa Press Analysis

posted on January 14, 2014

Borg: Well, from that reflection we're going to do some up-to-date reflection on today's Condition of the State Address and we have convened three Iowa political reporters.  Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.  Kathie Obradovich, Political Columnist for the Des Moines Register.  And James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids.  I won't call on any one of you specifically for this but I'll tell you that just a few minutes ago I was talking with Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal about his reactions.  And typically after, I think after every one of those speeches that you have just seen on Iowa Public Television back over the last 40 some years, I have never spoken with an opposition leader after the speech in which that person could completely agree with the speech.  But yet, he did.  So what are the implications politically for the length of this session, for Iowans overall and for the coming election in that? Kathie?

Obradovich: Well, I think that not everyone universally agreed with everything the Governor said.  We heard from one of his likely opponents, Senator Jack Hatch, who is running on the democratic ticket for Governor, who had quite a few things to say.  He disagreed in general with the scope of the Governor's speech, not necessarily a lot of the individual programs.  But he said it was timid, it was lackluster, it showed that the Governor had been there too long.  So I think there is some criticism.  But the Governor set out to deliver a bipartisan agenda and judging from the reaction that I heard from lawmakers on the floor here he did that.

Henderson: This was a speech in which he addressed political reality.  It's a careful agenda.  Everything he mentioned does have broad support.  There are some details that may run into problems in the legislature.  For instance, with his anti-bullying proposal, some of those details are troublesome to First Amendment advocates.  There are other parts of the proposal, for instance, in regards to veterans, in regards to the tax issue forgiving state income taxes on military pensions.  But overall I think this was a veteran governor giving his 19th Condition of the State message addressing political reality.  It's a split control legislature and he didn't want to propose anything that's just going to get shot down in a year when he is going to be going out to Iowans and saying, look, I can govern.

Borg: Did you say it was a careful agenda?

Henderson: Correct.

Lynch: I think it reflects the generally low expectations for this session.  He threw out some agenda items that are -- we agree that both parties can work with.  I mean, who can be against helping veterans?  Who can be against broadband access?  Freezing tuition?  The only really sticking point here may be his anti-bullying legislation.  But these are things that both parties can agree to for the most part and get through this unhurt, without either party getting hurt.  Get in, get out, get re-elected.

Obradovich: I think it was a little too careful.  Governor Branstad presumably is going to be going out on the campaign trail in 2014 and making the case to Iowans that not only should they send him back but they should send him back a republican legislature.  What I heard in this speech was him making the case over and over again about how well they work together as a divided legislature.  He did not throw some things out there to say, here is what I could accomplish if you give me more republicans to work with.

Borg: You said, Jim, that the anti-bullying legislation may find some controversy.

Lynch: Right.  He has proposed this before and it hasn't passed the legislature and there have been a number of objections.  There are some civil liberty concerns, free speech concerns.  There are some concerns from his own party about limits, how it would affect faith-based groups and those sorts of things.  So there's some concerns out there about -- it's a sticky subject to deal with because you're saying in some ways you're limiting speech, you're limiting comment so that raises a lot of objections.

Henderson: And republicans by and large want parents to be in control and this gives school officials a great deal of latitude in being, if you will, the disciplinarian and I think that is where he's going to run into problems with some of his core constituency republicans.

Borg: I know we're gathered here to critique and observe on the current speech that we just heard.  But let's just say that Terry Branstad is re-elected and he is back on the podium at that lectern next year at this time.  Would you expect, Kathie, a completely different type of speech?  That is, was he just kind of setting the stage?  Or not even setting the stage, waiting for something bigger?

Obradovich: Well, presumably he will come through the campaign, if he is re-elected, with an agenda for the next 4 years and I would expect that his speech next year, if he is re-elected, will be laying out that agenda as he did in 2010.  I think what he would be able to accomplish though depends a lot on what kind of legislature gets elected with him.  He benefits in some ways politically from having a divided legislature because he is not being pushed by the extremes of his party to do things that the majority of the electorate may not like.  He has been very good at playing the democrats and republicans off of each other so he can be the consensus builder in the middle.  That may not be the case next year.

Lynch: This was sort of a half and half speech in terms of being political.  I don't see the Home Base program for veterans is something you really take out on the campaign trail to get re-elected on or broadband connectivity.  But he talked about Iowa is working, he talked about the successes that he can use that as he goes out onto the campaign trail.  And if he is re-elected I would expect a much bolder agenda and sort of a more triumphant agenda.

Henderson: Well, we have already heard him say in early December that he would like the state to have a flat tax because it would be competitive with surrounding states, it would lower the way Iowa's taxes look when compared to Illinois and Nebraska and Missouri and Minnesota.  So I expect the man to go out and promise Iowans that he'll cut their income taxes and make that a key part of his theme for re-election and bring republican legislators on board with that.

Borg: And this isn't an agenda, is it, that's going to cost the state a lot of money, Kathie?

Obradovich: No, the Governor made it very clear that he has -- he and the legislature spent most of the money last year with the major property tax reform, which gives state money back to local governments, major education reform, which has not been fully implemented yet.  And if you look at his chart over the next five years the state's big ending balance is big, ballooning surplus that we have dwindles down to very little at the end of five years.  So he is saying that we have a discreet agenda here and we're going to make sure to keep the budget in balance.

Borg: And that balloon that we're talking about here that Kathie has just described is the fact that things that were enacted last year are going to be costing money and dwindling down that state surplus through the next four or five years.

Henderson: I'll use the same word that I used earlier, careful.  There were some careful statements and reaction from republican legislators who are loath to spend a lot in the state budget because the budget plan that Branstad delivered these people today calls for a 7.8% increase in overall spending and that's going to be tough for republicans to swallow, especially in an election year.

Borg: The Governor called this Home Base Iowa, the plan for education credits for veterans and the big one is that $10 million that it's going to cost the state treasury if we forgive military veterans their pensions in paying state income tax, and he called it the centerpiece of his agenda, the very centerpiece of all he wants to do.  If you're looking ahead, crystal ball, would you say, Kathie, that is the way we're going to view this legislative session when it's all over, that this would be the centerpiece of all that happens this session?

Obradovich: It's entirely possible.  When you're betting on the legislature, betting on them doing as little as possible would be I think the smart money.  And I do think that when he is setting up a very careful, limited agenda, the risk he runs is that legislators might decide not even to do that much. So if you go beyond what legislators are willing to do, you can take something into the next election.  But in this case you take an agenda that is very bipartisan, that everyone agrees with going in and then if you can't get that part accomplished then it kind of raises questions for voters.

Lynch: What I thought was interesting is that he was halfway or better through his address before he got to his centerpiece.  It was like it was buried.

Borg: Three-quarters of the way as I gauged it, yes.

Henderson: It was interesting to me that he began the speech by talking about wrestling and saving wrestling in the Olympics and I think it was an intentional placement on the part of Branstad and his staff because they wanted to condition all legislators to stand up at the same time and clap.  This was a remarkable speech in that you saw bipartisan applause for most of the items that he was proposing whereas in the past some things got republicans to stand up and cheer and other things got democrats to stand up and cheer.

Borg: You know, in all the years that I have been covering conditions of the state and briefings on the state budget and so on, I don't believe I ever heard a reference to corn and soybean prices and the implications for the state budget.

Obradovich: You know, the most partisan thing he did in this speech was to say that the federal government run by a democratic administration is failing the country.  Very pointed and he is very passionate about trying to get Iowans together to try to save the renewable fuel standard, which could have a big impact on Iowa's ethanol industry.  He's trying to rally the people of Iowa in a bipartisan fashion to say the democratic administration in Washington is messing up.

Borg: Kay, go ahead.

Henderson: The corn and soybean reference is interesting in that if the ag economy tanks, the ag economy has been booming in Iowa, if it tanks that is going to be a problem for Terry Branstad heading into an election.  What happens if he has to do an across-the-board cut in the state budget?  That really will be a thorn in his eye if he turns around later and the economy has gone south and he has to make some incredible budget decisions.

Borg: Final question, are there winners and losers in what we heard today in the condition of the state?

Lynch: Winners, working Iowans who pay taxes I guess probably are winners.  I would say the losers are the people who work for minimum wage or low wages, no mention of that.  Mental health, people who need mental health assistance.

Obradovich: I would also say road builders, no mention of raising the gas tax or any other increased revenue to help build Iowa roads.

Henderson: I agree with all that analysis.

Borg: In future Iowa Press programs we're going to be asking you back as we analyze what happens here at the state legislature.  This concludes Iowa Public Television's coverage of Governor Terry Branstad's Condition of the State Address to this 2014 session of the Iowa General Assembly.  We'll be following, of course, this legislative session on our weekly Iowa Press program.  And on Iowa Press, in fact, this Friday we're questioning House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal.  We'll see you back here this weekend for Iowa Press.  And for our entire Iowa Public Television production crew at the Statehouse in Des Moines, I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: analysis Condition of the State Des Moines government governors Iowa Iowa capitol James Lynch Kathie Obradovich Kay Henderson livestream news politics speeches statehouse Terry Branstad