Vilsack delivers final Condition of State speech
Gov. Tom Vilsack offered a nostalgic review of his eight-year tenure as governor today, urging lawmakers to build on his efforts to sharply increase teacher pay, broaden access to health care and lure new high-tech jobs to the state.
During a speech before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, the governor was predictably upbeat about his accomplishments, telling of his reflections during a tour of the ornate old Statehouse.
"I realized that more than our landscape changed in Iowa during the last eight years more importantly, we changed as a people," the governor said. "We are more hopeful and optimistic about a future where Iowa leads an energy revolution due to our leadership in renewable fuel and energy production."
Vilsack delivered his eighth and final report on the Condition of the State before leaving office later in the week to devote all of his energy to seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
His speech was long on general themes and short on specifics, leaving those details to Gov.-elect Chet Culver, who must deliver a proposed state budget to the Legislature by the end of the month.
Vilsack urged lawmakers to stay the course and expand on a series of efforts he's pushed, including spending more on preschool programs and boosting teacher pay.
"Great learning requires great teaching," the governor said. "Great teachers deserve respect and to be paid well. No athlete, CEO or government official on their best day performs as much magic as classroom teachers perform every day."
He applauded Culver and Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature for their vow to increase teacher pay, but said that's only a beginning.
"The current compensation model for teaching salaries has existed for over 90 years with little change," said Vilsack. "The legacy of this new era of leadership must not be the preservation of the old, but an acceptance of the new."
Vilsack offered few specifics on how lawmakers should overhaul teacher pay.
"Iowa teachers deserve it and Iowa children depend on it," said Vilsack.
Vilsack noted that he's pushed through an additional $200 million to lower class sizes for early elementary grades, and expand programs to strengthen basic skills like reading.
"While thousands of children have been helped, thousands more need our help," Vilsack said. "The challenge will be to increase our effort for those who have no powerful lobby, but represent 100 percent of our future."
The governor also called on lawmakers to expand education spending on colleges, and buttress programs for at-risk youngsters.
While 90 percent of the state's high school students graduate, that number drops to 70 percent for minority students, Vilsack said.
"It simply is not enough that every white student graduate from high school and has a shot at college," Vilsack said. "Every student must graduate from high school."
Vilsack also touted the Iowa Values Fund as one of his bigger accomplishments in office. The fund is a 10-year $500 million effort to lure new high-tech businesses to the state.
"Our work helped to employ a record number of working Iowans, improve family incomes and establish Iowa as the undisputed renewable fuel and energy leader in the nation," Vilsack said.
In seeking the Democratic nomination, Vilsack casts himself as a Midwestern moderate who led the state through a deep recession without raising taxes, and he said his efforts have led to an economy that's growing and allowed him to pass along a budget surplus to Culver. His entire tenure in office featured a Legislature run by Republicans, but Culver will take office on Friday with Democrats in control of both chambers of the legislature.
In addition, Vilsack focused on his efforts to expand health coverage and access to health care, though he concedes more needs to be done.
"Now, we must continue this important work of bringing the actual cost of health care down by transforming health care from a system that treats to a system that prevents and cures," Vilsack said.
Vilsack also had a nostalgic nod to running mate Sally Pederson and his wife, Christie, a teacher who has focused on reading programs as first lady.
"Over 500 libraries received a visit from the first lady, and most received additional state resources as the result of her advocacy for libraries through Enrich Iowa," Vilsack said.
The governor also had a nod to the Legislature.
"I started my service to the state as a state senator 14 years ago," said Vilsack. "I know how much work faces each member of the General Assembly at the start of a legislative session."