Branstad Looks to the Past, Prepares for the Future
By Mary Branham
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad first served as the state’s chief executive from 1983 to 1999. He took office again in January expecting many challenges coming with the state’s fiscal situation. But Branstad believes his earlier tenure in the governor’s office will aid him as he addresses the rural state’s challenges.
1) When you served before, you were Iowa’s youngest chief executive and your children were very young. Now you have grandchildren—the first governor in 50 years with grandchildren. How different will it be for you serving as governor this time around?
I feel older and wiser. I learned a lot from my previous experience as governor, as well as my experience as president of Des Moines University, and that has allowed me to hit the ground running. We have some challenges we are facing now to get the state’s financial house in order and to focus on jobs. I think my background and experience prepares me well to again govern. I don’t have a long learning curve thanks to my previous experience.
2) What do you foresee as the biggest challenge facing you as governor?
We have a split legislature, so it is a challenge getting everyone to work together to focus on jobs, and reducing the tax and regulatory burden to put Iowa in a stronger position. Additionally, I have asked the legislature to pass a two-year budget in order to provide predictability and sustainability in managing state resources.
3) The nation is just now coming out of recession and states often lag in the economic recovery. What can you do as governor to ease the financial hardships your state faces?
I think facing up to the financial realities now, and making the tough decisions to reduce the size and cost of government will ease financial hardships. We must also find more efficient delivery methods using updated technology, which will position ourselves for the future and make certain that as the economy grows, we are still able to manage and control costs. This will enable us to reduce our tax burden and make the state more attractive for investments and for businesses to create jobs.
4) You have proposed transforming the Iowa Department of Economic Development into a public-private partnership. What do you see as the benefits in making that change?
You get both the knowledge and involvement of the private sector working with the public sector. Private sector individuals have already been successful in creating jobs within the state and they are the best salespeople to convince other businesses that Iowa is the best place to locate. This approach is designed to give us a more nimble and agile marketing approach to economic development, and will help us—along with the other tax and regulatory changes I’m proposing—to attract the jobs we need.
5) What do you see as the major issues facing rural states such as Iowa?
I was governor during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, so this is a much better time for rural America. Many of the rural states, including Iowa, have lost population or have grown at a slower rate. We need to look at ways that we can attract more business, jobs and people to rural Iowa and rural America.
I think there are some great opportunities within agriculture, which is the strongest part of the Iowa economy right now. We need to look at more ways to add value to agriculture. The commodities we produce should not only be used for feeding livestock, but also make new products through biotechnology. These opportunities will allow us to replace more petroleum-based products with bio-based products. This has the potential to create a lot of jobs and can help us revitalize our rural communities.
Another successful effort has been our Main Street program, which is very helpful to our rural Main Streets. Reducing the commercial property tax is another tool that can be very helpful to our small towns.
6) What positives do rural states such as Iowa have that more urban states do not?
The biotechnology sector is poised for huge growth and I believe a rural state like Iowa is in a great position to take advantage of this.
7) Iowa is a leader in ethanol production. What is the future for that energy source and its benefits/challenges for your state and the nation?
I think we all know the problems going on in the Middle East and the dangers of being dependent on its oil. This is why we need to continue to move aggressively to use alternative fuel sources such as ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy to help reduce our dependency on foreign oil.
Iowa is a leader in alternative energy, ranking number one in both ethanol and biodiesel, and ranking second in wind energy. We need to look at additional tools, such as moving from E10 to E15 (percentage in ethanol to gasoline mix), and the use of more renewable-fueled vehicles that allow us to use higher blends of ethanol. There are a lot of challenges, but the use of these fuels is good for the environment, good for the Iowa economy and I believe it will continue to make significant improvements to Iowa’s agricultural economy.
8) What about your last tenure as governor will help you the most in leading the state now?
I’m helped most by the fact that I have been through the Farm Crisis of the ‘80s, and I know to focus my time and energy on the things that are important, like creating jobs and providing hands-on leadership. I also have the fiscal discipline to make the tough decisions in balancing the budget. Also, I understand the need for a long-range budget plan, and am not only insisting on a two-year budget plan, but also a five-year budget projection, where each year we spend less than we take in. This will put us in a position for sustainability and growth in the future.
9) You’ve been out of office for 12 years. What are the biggest changes in politics since your last governorship?
Politics continues to get more partisan, so it’s more challenging from that perspective. I still think personal contact with people is important. One big change is communicating with people through social media in addition to other, more traditional sources of communication. Ultimately, personal contact is still very important, which is why I travel to all of Iowa’s 99 counties every year. We need to have more transparency in government and we’re continuing to work on that in an effort to ensure citizens are more knowledgeable and can ask the tough questions of those who are in positions of authority.
10) What do you expect to be the biggest changes in governing since your last term?
We inherited a big financial mess, where a lot of one-time money was used for ongoing expenses and there was a lack of oversight and accountability. It will be a challenge trying to restore a commitment to accountability and sustainability, and recognizing we have to find more efficient ways to deliver services using the technology of today. We must find ways to do so with fewer employees, just as the private sector has done.
11) During the 12 years you were out of office, you served as president of Des Moines University. How will serving such a role in higher education help you as governor?
I learned a lot about higher education and health care, because we trained doctors and health care professionals. One of the big challenges and costs in government today is health care. I want to see Iowa become the healthiest state in the nation, and I believe we can do so by using what we learned about health risk assessments at DMU, and focusing on nutrition and exercise. We can do this not only in state government, but throughout the state.
I also learned a lot by working with the diverse individuals found in higher education, including academics and doctors. There are some challenges involved in that, but it helps me as I work with a split legislature and work through governmental bureaucracy.
12) For those new governors, and other newly elected state government officials, what advice would you offer based on your last tenure as governor?
Be a good listener. Be accessible and available. Don’t be afraid to take the heat. Meet with people and explain not only what you are doing, but why. Be willing to make adjustments and changes if somebody comes up with a better idea.
13) What led you to public service initially and what is keeping you in it today?
I had some great teachers. One, Lura Sewick, taught the ‘Three R’s’ of good government: Rights, Respect and Responsibility. Another, Fred Smith, was my eighth-grade civics teacher. They had the biggest influence on my decision to pursue public office. It is a chance to really make a difference and help other people. I’ve always been a people person and I enjoy it. This time, I really felt a calling to come back. I loved my job at Des Moines University, but saw the mess the state was in and the mismanagement that occurred in the Iowa Film Office, among others. I was approached by people who said ‘We need your experience and leadership.’ I’ve enjoyed the challenge.
14) Iowa is key in presidential elections and it’s been said you will play an influential role in these caucuses. Any predictions you’d like to share?
It’s too early to make any predictions. It will be a large field with many candidates. I want to welcome all the candidates, encourage them to come and spend a lot of time in Iowa. If they can, they should visit every county. Iowans are thoughtful and discerning, and if candidates want to do well in Iowa, they need to be very honest, direct and forthright in sharing with Iowans their vision for getting the nation back on track. Iowans, like most Americans, realize what’s going on today is unsustainable, we can’t afford the debt and dramatic change is needed.