Terry Branstad says he wants smaller, smarter state government. And his final Condition of the State address certainly was smallish.
Smart? In places, to be sure. But mostly it was underwhelming. Probably because I expected too much.
In my defense, I saw Tuesday’s moment as a big-stage farewell stanza presented by the longest serving governor in the history of America. That famous ‘stache, in the big room, one last time, two whole branches of government at his feet.
I hoped Branstad would mistily wax nostalgic, share a fascinating anecdote or three and reveal some of the many, many good and hard lessons he’s learned as governor for 22 years. Some stern, sage warnings about the future might be appropriate. A few bold prescriptions for those chronic conditions would be helpful as he prepares to leave us for the U.S. Embassy in China.
I saw him stump for Trump, so I know he can bring it.
But that didn’t happen.
Yes, the governor did look back to the farm crisis of the 1980s, when he did some of his best work on diversifying the state’s economy. He talked about progress in three communities hit hard by the downturn, Bloomfield, Waterloo and Woodbine. It was, for me, the strongest stretch of his remarks, melding into praise for Iowa’s current manufacturing and agriculture sectors.
But the rest largely was a series of swift brush strokes in fuzzy Branstadian beige.
His toughest budget cuts received no mention. His privatization of Iowa’s Medicaid program, perhaps the most sweeping and controversial decision of his tenure, rated four sentences. And it’s still going to save $110 million this year, Branstad said. But not one more sentence to explain, at long last, how.
He called for innovative ideas to remake government, and offered up a stale review of state boards and commissions.
Branstad pointed to a steep jump in traffic fatalities, but endorsed no concrete solutions.
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In another strong section, he talked emotionally about a note he received from parents whose daughter was killed on her bicycle by a texting driver.
“I ask that all Iowans join the Iowa law-enforcement community, first responders, the League of Cities, all the major cellphone carriers, the insurance industry, and the medical community in demanding real change in the laws for distracted and impaired drivers,” Branstad said. But what change does the governor actually favor? He didn’t say.
On water quality, where Branstad could have cemented a positive legacy with a bold, new approach to an stubborn problem, he simply called up an old bill number, House File 2541, from last year. “I believe our discussions should begin with the House-passed bill from last session,” he said.
I also figured Branstad would devote a healthy portion of his speech to extolling the virtues of Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who will be taking his place any month now. But she was only mentioned briefly. Maybe he’s saving it for her swearing-in ceremony.
So Branstad gave a Branstad speech, competent, but hardly compelling. He dashed my expectations, but for the last time.
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