In Iowa: Branstad's legacy of tenacity, irony and lost opportunity

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Gov. Terry Branstad soon will report for duty in China, a fitting end to Iowa’s one-governor policy.

He won Iowa’s top job when I was 12 and served, the first time around, until I was engaged to be married.

When he came back again in 2011, I had two kids and a minivan. He’s departing, this time for keeps, as I look ahead to my colonoscopy years.

Sure, we took a break during the aughts to see other governors. But the ‘stache has ruled Iowa for more than 22 years. It’s 13 percent of Iowa’s history since statehood. It’s the longest gubernatorial tenure in American history.

At times, it actually seemed longer.

Yes, I’ve been a nearly constant critic of this governor. No use pretending otherwise as he departs to become ambassador to China. Despite his admirable qualities — tenacity, political savvy, rich experience, remarkable knowledge of Iowa and a tireless commitment to serving it — his second act has been disappointing.

And yes, I was overly optimistic. I hoped Branstad would return as an elder statesman, bringing wisdom gained during Iowa’s more pragmatic political past to bear on a political present defined more and more by rigid ideology, declining cooperation and deepening animus. But instead of an anchor, he’s been a weather vane. The political winds blew and the governor followed them.

A governor who arrived on the heels of Bob Ray departs marching in lockstep with Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

Branstad returned in 2011 to save Iowa from the erratic management of Democrat Gov. Chet Culver. He now leaves office to take over an ambassadorship earned in no small part thanks to his full-throated support for the erratic management of President Donald Trump. Within the legacy, there are ironies.

A governor who derided Culver for high unemployment closed Workforce Development offices serving the unemployed. A governor who ran on creating “world class” schools sought, in his first comeback budget, to slash state funding for preschools. A governor who so admirably targeted school bullies tried to impress his business friends by hounding a well-regarded workers’ compensation commissioner out of his job, then slashed his pay when he resisted.

At times, it’s been like new Branstad never even met Branstad classic.

He signed a bill in the 1990s giving school districts a welcome 18-month heads up on state funding plans. This year, he signed a law scrapping it.

In 1989, Branstad classic signed a good law creating the Resource Enhancement and Protection program, or REAP, funding conservation initiatives statewide. But in 2014 he vetoed much of a bipartisan effort to fully fund REAP on its 25th anniversary.

When Bob Vander Plaats and his family leaders declared war on the courts and campaigned in 2010 to remove Supreme Court justices, including one the governor appointed, Branstad declared neutrality.

A governor who signed a minimum-wage increase in 1989 signed a bill in 2017 repealing minimum wage increases in a handful of Iowa counties, including Linn and Johnson. He refused to expend an ounce of political clout lobbying for a statewide increase, the first in a decade, which he professed to favor.

There were other lost opportunities.

Branstad largely ignored the state’s water quality problems, even vetoing a bipartisan boost in funding for ag pollution-fighting measures in 2014. After the Des Moines Water Works filed suit against rural counties over nitrate runoff, the governor floated a “bold” plan extending a sales tax for school infrastructure needs and diverting part to water programs.

The proposal, pitting schools against water, went nowhere. Branstad couldn’t bring himself to advocate for a sales tax increase to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation trust fund. It was approved by voters overwhelmingly on the same election night he won his fifth term in 2010. It received more votes than he did.

He could have led the charge for a real, substantive medical marijuana program, but settled for tepid steps that dashed the hopes of suffering Iowans.

He proposed cutting Iowa’s high corporate tax rates. But instead of offsetting the revenue loss by reining in economic development incentives and eliminating an array of costly corporate tax breaks, credits and exemptions, he proposed raising taxes on casinos. The plan stalled.

Branstad did sign a large, bipartisan package of commercial property tax breaks and credits. But four years later, the cost of backfilling lost local revenue and covering credits is gobbling up the lion’s share of new state tax revenues. Ironically, the resulting tight budget is hampering the new Republican majority’s drive to overhaul and reduce income taxes.

But I think his legacy 2.0 is more about the moves he made on his own. His decision to swiftly privatize the state’s entire $5 billion Medicaid program will be, hands down, the most impactful call he made as governor. He did it without legislative or stakeholder input. He ran for re-election in 2014 without mentioning his plans. His administration owns the consequences.

Branstad closed mental health facilities over the objections of lawmakers who pleaded for a more orderly transition. He abruptly shut down the juvenile home for girls in Toledo, without a solid plan in place to handle the aftermath.

So if you’re a commercial property owner, run a corporation, command a large agribusiness, work at the Lee County fertilizer plant, build homes on lots stripped of topsoil or enjoy lean, finely textured beef, the Branstad comeback has been very good for business. Public employees who teach kids and plow snow, health care providers and clients mired in Medicaid issues, local governments seeking power to solve local problems, workers toiling far outside the boardroom, families arriving at a beach closed by algae blooms and mourning doves have fared worse.

But, hey, school now starts later in August, thanks to the governor, and we get legal fireworks. That long lost 12-year-old with a Branstad sticker on his Trapper Keeper would heartily approve.

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At times, it’s been like new Branstad never even met Branstad classic.

- Todd Dorman

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