Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Condition of the State

(Terry E. Branstad, Governor of Iowa, from iowa.gov)

Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad addressed the new session of the state legislature Tuesday, giving by my count his 19th Condition of the State address. (He's entering the final year of his fifth non-consecutive term, and is expected to announce his candidacy for re-election soon.)

The speech was matter-of-fact, honoring the state's traditions and making some non-controversial proposals. Branstad is not a dramatic person, Iowa is not a nation-state on the order of California or Texas, and Iowa culture doesn't seem to go for drama. To this blog's core question, what can we do to develop our common life, the answer seems to be: In Iowa we have a common life, and we prefer that no one messes it up. Even the Senate Democratic leader, Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, found little to quarrel with in a post-speech interview with Dean Borg of Iowa Public Television. Borg had to probe hard to get Gronstal to allow that he would have liked to have heard more from the governor about more predictable budgets for the state's public schools. A controversial proposal by legislative Democrats to raise the minimum wage went unmentioned by either side. For the record, so did passenger rail, which the governor steadfastly opposes. Metropolitan regional authorities and the environment aren't even on the radar screen.

As places go, Iowa has few urban areas: only Des Moines has a population greater than 150,000. We have a lot of small towns, of the sort that inspired the new urbanist theme of connection. As has been the case for decades, most of these towns have lost economic vitality and population to urban areas. Branstad raised an interesting proposal to provide tax incentives for businesses to repurpose abandoned civic buildings. Beyond that, there wasn't much addressing the realities people in Iowa and elsewhere now face. We'd like more engineers (hooray for STEM classes) and fewer bullies, but otherwise we want things to go on more or less as they have been (hooray for Watermelon Days).

Branstad's speech began by celebrating how Iowans work together with a "sense of community." Oddly, the first example he cited was getting wrestling restored to the line-up of Olympic sports. (The University of Iowa and Iowa State University have two of the country's top wrestling programs, and high school wrestling is pretty big here as well.) Then he suggested we turn this energy towards fighting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is fixing to back off its dubious mandate to include ethanol in motor fuels. He then launched his main theme, "Iowa is working," celebrating an improved economy and state budget as well as better health insurance coverage, and contrasting Iowa's seemingly consensus-based politics with the ongoing dysfunction in Washington. Included was the obligatory mention of "out-of-touch bureaucrats." Of course, the economy and state budget owe a lot to various national economic stimuli, and health insurance wouldn't have happened without a kick in the rear from the national government, either. The speech's invitation to self-congratulation was in sharp contrast to the City of Cedar Rapids, whose officials regularly credit the state and federal governments with vital assistance in rebuilding from the 2008 flood.

It begs the question of what exactly the government of a small state can or should do. A state is neither the national government, with all its resources and power, nor is it a metropolitan area where people could potentially feel a defined common destiny. And Iowa is a small state. Are we a place apart, like Camelot, with special people and soil and government? Or are we flotsam in a national economy, hanging on as well as we can? I suspect we're more the latter than the former, though with enough insulation from short-term trends that things are never as bad here when the national economy is bad, nor are they are good when the national economy is good. Someone in a poor section of town, or a town that is seeking to be stronger and more resilient, would find little encouragement in this speech. It may be that the state or any state has none to offer.

Governor Branstad's speech can be viewed on the state's website, https://governor.iowa.gov/2014/01/gov-branstad-delivers-2014-condition-of-the-state-iowa-is-working/. The Iowa Public Television site includes Dean Borg's interview with Senator Gronstal as well as clips from previous addresses at http://www.iptv.org/iowapress/story.cfm/full_program/11310/cos_20140114_condition_state_2014/video.

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