Governors Are Losing the Space to Govern

As the bulk of state spending shifts toward mandatory programs, experimentation is grinding to a halt in the laboratories of democracy.

John Hickenlooper
Scott Morgan / Reuters

After gamely crisscrossing the country for months in pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, John Hickenlooper, once one of America’s most popular governors, announced on Thursday that he was dropping out of the race. Though his faltering campaign had recently become the cause of mirth, Hickenlooper wasn’t crazy to think he had a shot at the job when he started.

It wasn’t so long ago that the surest route to the White House was first to serve as a governor. As Alan Greenblatt of Governing recently observed, governors won seven of the eight presidential elections from 1976 to 2004, hardly ancient history. During this golden age of governors, having served at the helm of a state government was seen as invaluable preparation for the Oval Office. Running the show in Sacramento or Little Rock might not have been quite the same as being the leader of the free world, but it contrasted favorably with, say, senatorial grandstanding. In the years since, however, gubernatorial experience has plummeted in value.

Consider that among the many current or former chief executives still vying for the Democratic presidential nomination now that Hickenlooper has exited the scene, the most popular is Steve Bullock of Montana, who is averaging a decidedly unimpressive 0.5 percent in surveys of primary voters. Though Bullock can tout having won reelection in a state that Donald Trump carried by 20 points, and that has an adult gun-ownership rate of more than 50 percent, he is tied with Tom Steyer, a hedge-fund manager and political novice best known for bankrolling environmental causes, whose chief distinction is his ability to blanket early-primary states with campaign ads. Jay Inslee, the well-regarded governor of Washington State, barely registers, despite his green bona fides. Not every governor looks at himself in the mirror and sees a future president. But to those who do, the dismal reception of Bullock and his fellow gubernatorial also-rans can’t be encouraging.

One explanation for this reversal of fortune for America’s governors is that in an ever more nationalized political climate, they find themselves at a distinct disadvantage relative to, say, U.S. senators. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are within easy reach of the D.C. press corps, and so number among the most obvious Democratic standard-bearers for reporters to turn to when they are looking for a response to President Trump’s latest missive. Governors, by contrast, toil in relative obscurity in state capitals, where they find themselves knee-deep in important yet unavoidably parochial issues.

But I suspect there is something else at work in this apparent eclipse of America’s governors. What if the diminishment of state governors reflects the diminishment of state governments?

Recently, scholars at the Tax Policy Center made an effort to suss out how much state spending is locked in on the basis of formulas, legal injunctions, and federal mandates, and the results were eye-opening. In 2015, for example, 40 to 86 percent of California’s budget was restricted. The lower-bound estimate reflects the percentage of the state budget belonging to pensions, other postretirement public-employee benefits, debt service, and Medicaid. You get to the staggering upper-bound estimate by adding in K–14 education, which is funded through a formula that passed into law as Proposition 98 in 1988; transfers to local governments; TANF; corrections expenditures; and federal receipts. A closer look suggests that much of what is included in the upper-bound estimate really is mandatory, leaving today’s California lawmakers with very little say over how their state government taxes and spends. In times of significant fiscal duress, a supermajority vote can give California the leeway to provide less funding for K–14 education than the formula calls for, but the law also dictates that these shortfalls be made up for in later years.

In recent years, considerable growth in restricted spending has come from Medicaid. Specifically, Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, has accounted for 68 percent of the growth in restricted spending since 2000. Moreover, across all these states, lawmakers are faced with the same agonizing Medicaid problem. In order to receive federal matching funds, you must meet minimum service and eligibility requirements, which are costly. Refusing these funds, though, is essentially a political nonstarter because they are what pushes many public hospitals out of the red and into the black.

Across the United States, the combination of Medicaid costs, pension obligations, and K–12 education-funding formulas are capturing an ever-growing share of state budgets. In Florida, the lower-bound estimate is 33 percent, and the upper-bound is 78 percent. Those numbers are 32 and 71 percent for Illinois, 47 and 85 percent for New York, 37 and 84 percent for Texas, and 27 and 85 percent for Virginia.

This drift toward restricted spending obtains across right-leaning and left-leaning states, and as a result, the substantive differences between conservative and liberal governance at the state level can be hard to discern. Every state, regardless of political coloration, spends far more on Medicaid, public education, and public-employee benefits than it did a generation ago, in no small part because of the availability of federal matching funds, part of a sprawling federal grant-in-aid system, that powerfully influence state spending decisions.

By promising to match state spending, federal grant-in-aid programs lower the effective cost of delivering services that Congress deems desirable, usually with strings attached that limit the autonomy of state officials. The advent of these programs then creates state-level constituencies that are deeply invested in their continuation, which in turn helps ensure that they can never be rolled back or substantially restructured. Even when federal grant-in-aid programs do afford some room for state-level creativity, a certain learned helplessness tends to creep in. State officials are so fearful of losing federal funds that they tend to stay well within the lines.

While grant-in-aid federalism flattens policy differences across states on matters of substance, cable-news controversies come to the fore. Battles over the regulation of guns, abortion, and immigration take up time and energy in state capitals that might, under conditions of greater autonomy, be devoted to bread-and-butter questions of what state governments ought to be doing in the first place. The more state governments fixate on nationalized cultural clashes, the less there is to distinguish governors from telegenic senators yelling at judicial nominees for the viewing pleasure of a small minority of die-hard partisans.

As for John Hickenlooper, it seems he’s not quite ready to give up on politics. The former governor reportedly is seriously considering running for the U.S. Senate.