Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has always believed the best way to govern is to take your message directly to the people. That is the best way to make sure it is delivered without a filter. It also gives him a chance to listen to the concerns of the people he serves. Considering his long and untarnished electoral record, the method obviously works very well.
That is why Terry Branstad tours all 99 Iowa counties every year. That also explains why he delivers his “Condition of the State” speech more than once. After speaking about his goals to the Iowa General Assembly on January 15, Branstad took the speech on the road, providing voters in Dubuque, Bettendorf and Waterloo the chance to hear the speech in person.
Branstad provided a condensed version of the “Condition of the State” speech to a crowd of 65 at the Council Bluffs public library Thursday morning. While the address to the legislature is more scripted and rehearsed, Branstad ad-libbed much of his speech on Thursday, and included a few jokes about Illinois governors.
He once again highlighted the achievements of the past two years and focused on his three immediate goals: property tax relief, education reform and improving the quality of life for Iowans. Following the speech, Branstad took several questions from the audience. One of the topics on a lot of Iowans’ minds is the possibility of an increase in the state gas tax.
“Things are going good, but our roads and bridges need to be repaired and maintained and the fairest way to do that is to raise the gas tax,” one attendee said to the governor.
Branstad neither advocated for or against the increase, but made it clear that he has more immediate priorities. The gas tax is a thorny issue for Republicans. Conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity are organizing to try to prevent any increase.
“First and foremost, I want to reduce property taxes,” Branstad said. “I want to tell people they’re going to see a tax reduction. I don’t want to even consider any increase in motor fuel user fees until after that.”
Governor Branstad also said that any increase must also include electric and hybrid cars. He says the term “gas tax” increase would be a misnomer. If there is an increase, it needs to be considered a user fee for everyone who uses Iowa’s roads.
“Looking into the future, I hear what you’re saying. We do have a need,” Branstad told the attendee. “We need to be cognizant that the net result for taxpayers is a net reduction in taxes, not an increase. I think that’s the only way it has a chance and it’s going to have to be done on a bipartisan basis, but my top priority is getting property tax through first.”
Brent Siegrist, a Council Bluffs resident and former Republican Speaker of the Iowa House, attended the event on Thursday. He says the gas tax is an important issue to people in the area and many believe an increase is necessary for Iowa’s infrastructure.
“Obviously, he kind of tap danced around the gas tax, which I understand,” Siegrist said. “It is a big issue in Council Bluffs and southwest Iowa because we’ve got the two interstates here and we also see a ton of people. They talk about it being a user fee. Well, we’ve got all the semis coming through here so there’s a lot of support for the gas tax here.”
A local school superintendent concerned about budgeting for the next year asked Branstad when districts will know what kind of funding they will receive from the state. The Democrat-led Iowa Senate approved a 4 percent “allowable growth” increase.
Branstad said the House is scheduled to debate school funding on February 20. He wants the legislature to replace allowable growth as a property tax component, with supplemental state aid.
For Governor Branstad, the key is education reform, not partisan bickering over funding. He wants to return Iowa to number in the nation in student achievement.
“I’ve been around long enough to know, left to their own devices, the legislature will fight over money and we’ll never get the substantial reforms we need,” Branstad said. “I’ve been very patient, very understanding. I believe that we can get all of this done…by early March.”
Overall, the crowd was friendly to Branstad and his message was well received. Many of the attendees are Republican party activists.
“Being a former educator, I liked a lot of what he said. I would like to see more attention paid to the top 40 percent of students instead of focusing more on bringing that bottom 60 up,” said Naomi Leinen, co-chair of the Pottawattamie County GOP.
“I think we’re going the right direction,” said Bob Mundt, president and CEO of the Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce. “I think the state’s finances are going the right direction and we’re looking at investing those savings long term to make sure that we can continue on the economic path that we’re on.”
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