Where Have All the Governors Gone?

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

By all accounts, Mel Carnahan will be missed. The late Missouri governor, who died unexpectedly in a plane crash in mid-October on the night before the final Bush-Gore debate (ironically, also in Missouri), was cut from plain cloth. He bought his own groceries, washed the dishes at home, got his hair cut at the local barbershop in his hometown of Rolla, an hour south of the state capital, Jefferson City. He was also very much at home in a centrist state lying in the center of the nation.

A second-term Democrat, Carnahan was the kind of chief executive his own party venerated, and Republicans grudgingly respected, for his willingness to roll the dice. In 1994, Carnahan took a chance and lost big on health care reform. In 1999, he led the defeat of a state ballot measure that would have allowed citizens in Missouri to carry concealed weapons. Some said he put his political fortunes on death row when, also in 1999, he commuted a killer’s death sentence at the request of Pope John Paul II.

Politicians are poker players, after all, and most governors have the good sense to realize they’ve been dealt an inside straight.

But Carnahan’s signature achievement was education. His 1993 “Outstanding School Act”—a $315 million tax increase, the largest in Missouri history—paid for all-day kindergarten, computers, and smaller class sizes, as well as expanded summer school. It also rewrote school-rating standards and required school districts to make public annual performance reports tracking student achievement. Conservatives never forgave Carnahan for pushing through that tax increase without a public vote, but he was willing to take the heat and leave it to the public to decide if he deserved reelection or, as he was trying for at the time of his death, a seat in the U.S. Senate. (Carnahan did, of course, end up winning the Senate election after his death; his wife, Jean, will fill his seat until 2002.)

This is the kind of boldness America came to expect from its governors in the 1990s, when state government was indeed America’s laboratory for democracy, and state chief executives were willing to lay their popularity on the line for the sake of progress. It’s the kind of boldness you won’t find in today’s state governments, where complacency and risk-aversion and cutting big-spending checks seem to be the order of the day.

One might ask: Where have all the governors gone?

Close your eyes and think back to America of a decade ago—before e-mail and DVDs and the Bill-and-Al era of prosperity (that’s Gates and Greenspan, not Clinton and Gore). State economies underperformed amid a recession, there was no such animal as a budget surplus, state governments were badly in need of reform in all directions—crime, welfare, heath care, regulation, taxes.

Now open your eyes and look at state government of the twenty-first century. Good men and women occupy the 50 governors’ offices. Some of them, like Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson and Michigan governor John Engler—welfare-reform champions—are holdovers from the great gubernatorial revival of the 1990s. But for the new arrivals, where are the challenges that define the times? State coffers are overflowing with revenue, welfare rolls have receded, crime rates are at record lows, public schools are on the mend—in many cases, due to reforms enacted by the current governors’ predecessors.

For too many governors, leadership is an exercise in having a good time spending taxpayers’ money.

The net result: inertia has set in. Politicians are poker players, after all, and most governors have the good sense to realize they’ve been dealt an inside straight. Cognizant of the fact that reelection is easier in these comfortable times, too many governors have retreated to a safer, higher ground where they’re unwilling to risk political capital. Even worse, along the way they’ve abandoned one of the guiding tenets of the Reagan years: fiscal restraint. Bigger revenue equals bigger spending, which equals new entitlements in education, health care, and social programs.

Consider the small number of governors who waded into controversy in the past year over their handling of state government. I count five: three, who got into trouble of their own policymaking (Illinois governor George Ryan, for suspending capital punishment; Florida governor Jeb Bush, for ending affirmative action in university admissions and some state hiring; Vermont governor Howard Dean, for signing a law extending marriage benefits to same-sex couples); a fourth, George W. Bush, because he was the Republican presidential nominee, thus putting his Texas record in Democratic cross-hairs; a fifth, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, because he’d just as soon referee a WWF match as referee a squabble in his state legislature.

And what of other governors? Yes, there is some innovation at the state level that reflects new approaches toward old problems. In Kentucky, for example, Democratic governor Paul Patton addresses education reform not only as a youth issue but as a jobs issue, introducing an “Education Pays!” media campaign touting the virtues of continued education.

But for too many governors, leadership is an exercise in having a good time spending taxpayers’ money. And, on this count, conservatives should be scared—very scared.

A decade ago, the defining political issue in California, the nation’s bellwether, wasn’t excess but instead how much to excise from the state budget. In 1991 Pete Wilson, the newly elected Republican governor, inherited a $42 billion deficit with a $14 billion budget shortfall. Wilson’s successor, Democrat Gray Davis, now rules over a budget that has passed the $100 billion mark; Wilson’s $14 billion shortfall is now a $14 billion surplus.

What occurred in Sacramento over the past year bears noting, as a new president begins to divvy up a federal budget surplus. Davis earned rave reviews and national attention when he signed a new state law promising to pay tuition at California public colleges and universities—or nearly $10,000 in private tuition—for lower- and middle-income students with good grades. It’s an intriguing concept—eligible students earning a 2.0, or C average, will get a grant of up to $1,551; grants are available to students whose families have no more than $45,400 in assets (the annual income ceiling for eligibility varies, from $23,500 for students who are independent to $74,100 for students from families of six or more).

It’s also a direct invitation to two of the larger challenges in improving education in America: accountability (what’s to prevent high schools from engaging in grade inflation to get students those scholarships?) and affordability (with students underwritten by the government, what’s to stop private colleges from boosting their tuition fees?).

How far we’ve come in a relatively short time, even before the Republican Congress, when a new class of governors took on a vestige of the New Deal era: welfare reform. The first to take on welfare, Governor Thompson of Wisconsin, went about it in an unusual fashion. He invited groups of welfare mothers into his home for luncheon discussions on what aspects of welfare were a trap and what reforms offered freedom. Thompson offered both compassion and tough love: he provided adequate child care, health care, transportation, and job training; he established time limits on aid and stopped handing out larger checks to welfare parents who couldn’t afford more children. And it worked: Wisconsin’s welfare caseload is down 93 percent since Thompson’s reforms kicked in.

States don’t lack for challenges. School choice—vouchers—remains the great untested what-if of education reform. Rising gasoline and electricity prices beg the question of comprehensive energy strategies. Gridlock and the search for affordable housing present a challenge to find new transportation and economic development plans. If the national economy suddenly declines, governors may face a repeat of a decade ago, when tough times forced tough decisions.

Speaking of what-ifs, what if more governors ran their states like Jeb Bush?

At the beginning of Florida’s legislative session last March, more than 10,000 people marched on the state capitol in Tallahassee to denounce Bush’s “One Florida” plan rewriting state affirmative action laws. Nine weeks later, Bush received kudos from minority leaders for his style—Bush didn’t cave on amending affirmative action, but he was smart enough to give ground and create two new law schools to increase the number of Florida’s black and Hispanic lawyers. Meanwhile, the Florida governor stuck to his agenda—an “A+” education plan that rates schools on a scale of A to F; a call for a Pan-American free trade zone; proposing a 25 percent reduction of the state workforce; pushing through the two largest tax cuts in state history. And, in a great populist touch, Bush personally answers constituents’ e-mails.

What did Bush have to show for daring to be both creative and controversial in managing his state? Sixty-three percent of Florida voters said Bush is doing an “excellent” or “good” job—the highest job-performance rating of a governor in 15 years.

Maybe that’s the answer to where the governors have gone. Like a lot of Americans, they’ve migrated south to Florida.