Education, Water Quality on Branstad Agenda

Jan 12, 2016

Governor Branstad Tuesday delivered his Condition of the State Address to a joint session of the Iowa House and Senate.   He also unveiled his more than seven-billion dollar state budget for next year. 

His initiatives are getting a cautious response from lawmakers. 

In his 22nd Condition of the State Address, Branstad touted job growth and capital investment during his tenure, in addition to increased education spending.   Under his budget, schools and health care get the lion’s share of all new revenue, including 145 million new dollars for K-12 schools.   Branstad says that’s realistic.

“We should not overpromise and underdeliver,” Branstad says.

Also, the Regents universities will get less than half of what they asked for. 

Education advocates are not pleased.  

The governor calls his plan a two-point-four-five percent increase for K-12 schools.  Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal says that’s misleading.

“It's less than one per-cent,” Gronstal says.  “It’s as bad or worse than last year.” 

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter listened to the governor’s speech from a House gallery.    He’s glad the governor wants a raise for the universities, but he’s hoping the legislature will do better.  

“We asked for 19 and ½ million dollars and  he included eight,” Rastetter says.   “This is a process and we'll work with the legislature and the governor to increase that number. 

The governor’s budget doesn’t allow any new money for raises for state workers,  so that will come out of agency budgets which could result in layoffs.

But the governor’s  speech was less about money details, and more about broad priorities,  including his new water quality plan.   Branstad says it’s become a divisive issue.

"Unfortunately, the issue of protecting our state’s water quality risks tearing apart the fabric of Iowa, pitting Des Moines against rural Iowa," Branstad says.

That’s a reference to the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three agricultural counties over nitrates in the water.  The governor wants to extend a state sales tax for schools, and capture some of the growth for water quality.   

Some Democrats refrained from applause for that one.     Republicans, too, have their doubts. 

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer questions extending the sales tax at all,  instead of letting it expire.

“Republicans aren't very interested in raising taxes,” Upmeyer says.  “You're right about that part.”

In other initiatives, the governor wants to mandate computer science classes in schools.   He’ll try again to toughen the state’s domestic violence laws.    And he wants the legislature to take on racial disparities in Iowa’s justice system.

“It’s time to take a fresh look at the criminal justice system to make sure we’re doing the right thing for all of our citizens,” Branstad said to applause.

Branstad praised the work of the state’s public defender to identify wrongful convictions.   He recognized the courts for working to make jury selection fairer for minorities.  And he wants some juvenile court records sealed.  

Representative Ako Abdul-Samad wishes he’d gone further.

“I wish he had said to the body we cannot be afraid d to take Iowa to the next level to criminal justice,” Abdul-Samaad says.   “I think he came very close to it,” he adds.

But  the Des Moines Democrat  says the governor was silent  on racial disparities  in marijuana sentencing in Iowa, and he did not  propose a new law banning racial profiling, a top priority for the NAACP.

As work starts now on the state budget, Republicans may not go along with the governor’s more than three per-cent increase  n spending next year.    New House Appropriations Chairman Republican Pat  Grassley says the budget situation  could be worse.

“We do have growth in revenue so it isn't like it’s a disaster,” Grassley says.

The governor’s aides say his budget preserves close to a billion dollars in reserve funds.    Democrats may argue that today is the rainy day when those funds should be tapped.