By Rod Boshart

Gov. Terry Branstad used his final Condition of the State speech Tuesday to urge the GOP-run Legislature to "seize the opportunities" to reshape government in ways that "challenge the status quo" to improve education, public safety, health care and water quality.

"This new General Assembly brings new dynamics, new expectations and new opportunities to deliver positive results for Iowans," according to prepared remarks Branstad was to deliver Tuesday morning to a joint legislative convention for the 22nd time in his run as the longest-serving governor in U.S. history.

Branstad, who likely will leave office later this year to become U.S. ambassador to China, spoke of past challenges and successes the state has seen while charting a new budget and future expectations for a smaller, smarter government to a statewide televised audience and a Legislature where Republicans control the Senate 29-20-1 and the House 59-40.

"Today, America and Iowa exist in a challenging world," he said, according to a copy of his speech. "But we must seize the opportunity to make it a better place."

To that end, Branstad called on lawmakers to re-examine the system whereby government delivers health benefits to its employees for savings and efficiencies, explore ways to make the state's highways safer, establish a long-term funding stream to clean Iowa's waterways, and beef up Iowa's "talent pipeline" through workplace skills and educational innovations.

The governor also spelled out ways he hopes to erase a roughly $110 million shortfall yet this fiscal year and proposed a new two-year spending plan that included increased state aid to K-12 schools of $78.8 million for fiscal year 2018 and $63.5 million the following year -- calling on lawmakers to approve both 2 percent hikes in the session's first 30 days.

"It prioritizes education, health care, economic development and public safety," Branstad said of his two-year budget blueprint, "and it redirects family planning money to organizations that focus on providing health care for women and eliminates taxpayer funding for organizations that perform abortions."

He said this year's budget process should include a commitment to examine every dollar of revenue and expenditure in order to maximize efficiency and respect hardworking taxpayers with an eye on downsizing and streamlining government.

"We are committed to a smaller, smarter government that seeks innovative ways to provide services rather than blind adherence to the way things have always been done," the governor said.

"I'm asking the General Assembly to take a comprehensive review of all of our state's boards and commissions to address unnecessary barriers that prevent competition and raise costs," he added. "I encourage you to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo."

One of the governor's proposals called for changing the state's "antiquated" collective bargaining system by establishing a single comprehensive statewide health care contract for public employees at the state and local level to "spread the risk and dramatically reduce costs."

"Using a uniform health-care benefit system similar to the IPERS program for retirement we can provide quality health care at a significantly lower cost and give local governments more flexibility to provide better wages and meet other needs," he said.

Branstad said he hoped 2017 would be the year to approve a bipartisan water-quality improvement plan that would provide funding for community conservation practices and improvements to wastewater and drinking water facilities via a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue.

Branstad said a starting point of this year's discussion could be a plan that won bipartisan support in the Iowa House last session that proposed to shift $478 million over 13 years to water quality projects from a water-metering tax and the gambling-funded state infrastructure account. Then-majority Senate Democrats balked at that plan fearing it would shift money from other priorities like education.

During his remarks, Branstad called the rise in traffic deaths from 315 in 2015 to 402 in 2016 "unacceptable" in urging legislators to consider recommendations from public safety officials on ways to reverse "a troubling trend."

"Modern technologies should come with new responsibilities," he said. "I ask that all Iowans join the Iowa law-enforcement community, first responders, the League of Cities, all the major cellphone carriers, the insurance industry, and the medical community in demanding real change in the laws for distracted and impaired drivers."

To highlight past challenges the state has overcome, Branstad pointed to successes in Bloomfield, Woodbine and Waterloo.

Branstad was to recognize students from Des Moines, Bondurant-Farrar and Waukee on hand for his speech to emphasize the need for STEM and comprehensive computer science initiatives, work-based learning programs, and the administration's Future Ready Iowa effort that seeks to have 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce with education or training beyond high school by 2025.

Branstad also paid tribute to his wife, Chris, for her patience and volunteer work, as well as his family for their sacrifices during his years of public service and the prayers and encouragement of friends he has made in Iowa's 99 counties during his years in elective office.

"I've been so blessed to serve as your governor, leading the state I love, for 22 years.

I am confident Iowa will continue to move forward because Iowans care deeply about their neighbors, their communities and creating an even better future," he said.

"As I approach the U.S. Senate confirmation process my main priority is to continue serving the people of Iowa with the same energy and passion that I have brought to this office each and every day," he added in conclusion.

(c)2017 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)