DES MOINES — In her maiden Condition of the State address a year ago, Gov. Kim Reynolds shared a vision of Iowa as “a place to call home that unleashes opportunity at every turn.”
Toward that end, Reynolds pushed a pro-growth agenda of policies intended to provide predictability and stability for businesses, historic income tax cuts and workforce development and mental health measures that won unanimous support in the Iowa Legislature.
This year, Reynolds, who will deliver her Condition of the State speech at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Capitol, says her focus is on implementation.
“I think we’re implementing the opportunities we unleashed last year,” she said in an interview ahead of the legislative session that begins today.
“Last year we put in place a lot of the infrastructure and policy that between workforce and mental health and opioid reduction will really help to continue to move the state forward,” Reynolds said. “Now we’re really moving into the implementation stage, which ensures we’ve got the funding there to sustain and implement the priorities we talked about last year — as well as some new ones.”
Reynolds, 59, who served in local government, the Legislature and as lieutenant governor, became governor when the nation’s longest-serving governor, Terry Branstad, resigned in May 2017 to become ambassador to China.
While acknowledging that some of her efforts in the 2018 legislative session were to complete proposals Branstad initiated, Reynolds rejected suggestions her first 20 months in office were an extension of the previous administration. She was elected to a full, four-year term in November.
“I think I owned it last year,” she said. “I mean some of that was fulfillment. Water quality would be one. But mental health was something that I personally am invested in and really drove.”
The affordable health care options she backed were in response to Iowans telling her they couldn’t afford a 57 percent increase they faced under the Affordable Care Act. The Future Ready Iowa workforce development was her answer to pleas from employers who said they couldn’t find workers with the necessary skills.
If there were any doubts about whose water Reynolds was carrying, GOP legislative leaders say the results of the 2018 session and the election dispelled them.
“I think she’s worked hard to step out of that shadow even before election,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said. “I think she was clear about places where she would do things differently.”
Reynolds, Upmeyer added, “was able to move forward and bring forward her own ideas — Future Ready Iowa, empowering rural Iowa, some of those things — those were her initiatives, building on things she cares about.”
“She laid out an agenda that was hers, not Terry Branstad’s,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said.
Her 50-47 percent victory over Democrat Fred Hubbell gives Reynolds “the formal opportunity to stake out her own turf,” Upmeyer added.
It wasn’t just her victory, Reynolds said, but voters “gave sent me a majority in the House and Senate” that tells her they support what she and the Republican-led Legislature accomplished last year.
“They like the direction the state is heading,” Reynolds said. “They appreciate that we do things differently and we are able to get things done … and not get caught up on who gets credit or getting everything that we want.”
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, hopes the governor means that.
“I certainly would hope the governor will reach out to Democrats,” she said. “I think there’s a number of issues where we can come together and come up with bipartisan solutions.”
Reynolds believes there “is opportunity again to see great bipartisan support” for funding initiatives launched last year to address mental health and workforce development.
“Every single legislator is hearing what I hear as a travel the state: ‘My business is doing great. I could hire more people if I could find the people,’” the governor said. “What a great opportunity for Iowans who are struggling or working two jobs or who are unemployed to invest in them and help provide that support system and network to get them the skills to match up with a job. We need to put the funding into that.”
Lawmakers appropriated about $3 million last year to “build the infrastructure” for Future Ready Iowa, but Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said about $18 million will be needed to implement the plan.
Similarly, this is the year for Reynolds and lawmakers to fund the mental health initiative they unanimously approved last year. She’s saving the details for her Condition of the State address, but Reynolds said funding likely will be a “process.”
“We can’t do it overnight because there isn’t a system now,” she said. “When we did mental health reform with the regions, we started with county-by-county delivery systems. It would be a similar process.”
A big part of what Reynolds hopes to accomplish is establishing a children’s mental health system. Last year, she issued an executive order bringing key interests together to make recommendations on what such a system should look like.
And Reynolds isn’t done working on Iowa’s privatized management of Medicaid, which has come under criticism not only from Statehouse Democrats but many patients and providers who say care and payments were denied or delayed.
“We took a lot of steps last year to start to stabilize the system,” she said. “We need to follow that through.”
Although a recent state audit showed the arrangement saved Iowa $126 million last year, Reynolds said she’s done talking about savings because “people get so hung up on that.”
“It’s a component of (Medicaid), but we have to look at making sure we have a sustainable system in place,” she said. “I need to make sure I have a system in place that when I look parents in the eye I can assure them it will be here today, tomorrow and into the future.”
To a large degree, Reynolds said, that describes her overall goal, her vision as governor.
“Opportunities,” she said. “This is about helping Iowans recognize their full potential. Making sure we have an environment where everybody has an opportunity to succeed. We want to put in place something that will help them do that.”