It wasn't too long ago that most governors positioned themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers more committed to progress than party. Compared with Congress, that description still applies. But as states are buffeted by polarizing issues like the gay-marriage debate the Supreme Court heard this week, the difference is narrowing.
When I interviewed four sitting governors for a panel discussion at the Milken Institute's annual Global Conference in Los Angeles this Monday, I heard some echoes of the consensual approach that once led governors such as Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrats Jim Hunt and Bill Clinton to advance agendas that blurred partisan lines and launched national reform movements on issues from education and children's health to welfare.
But even as the four current governors—Democrats Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Republicans Pat McCrory of North Carolina and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska—bantered amiably this week, their conversation also exposed the pressures driving apart red and blue states. The issues on which the four governors agreed, and disagreed, previewed the (limited) opportunities for the parties to cooperate in Washington—and the continued clashes that will rumble through the 2016 presidential election.
These four savvy governors converged the most around several strategies for economic growth. All are pushing to reorient their post-high-school education systems to close the "skills gap" that has left many employers complaining they can't find trained workers for available positions, even after years of high unemployment. "We have jobs available," McAuliffe insisted. "We have to make sure that our education system is training people to come out with the skills to match those jobs."
All four touted hybrid programs that more directly link community-college (and sometimes high school) students with the workforce needs of local employers. Ricketts, the most ideologically conservative of the four, praised programs "where private-sector companies work with the schools to create a curriculum," then "pay for [students'] post-secondary education, and create [a] pipeline to hire them directly after that." The fact that Hillary Clinton held her first formal 2016 campaign event at an Iowa community college with just such a program suggests these ideas could appeal broadly.
The governors also urged Washington to finally complete a long-term highway- and transit-infrastructure bill instead of the short-term renewal that seems likely as President Obama and congressional Republicans haggle over funding. McCrory, who recently proposed a big state-bond initiative for highways and colleges, told me, "I come from an Eisenhower Republican philosophy [of] investing in the infrastructure of the future." Congressional Republicans, he insisted, "need a long-term plan for infrastructure."
The four governors united as well in supporting expanded access to early childhood education. But it was there that their consensus revealingly dissolved. The two Republicans rejected Obama's call for a federal program to give states grants to expand prekindergarten access, insisting that states should act alone. Both Democrats backed federal intervention, with Hickenlooper proposing a broader principle: Once evidence demonstrates an idea—like expanded pre-K—produces positive results, "I think it's fair then that the federal government" should intervene to spread it more widely across the states.
Washington's role in health care divided the governors even more. All 21 states that have rejected Medicaid expansion under Obama's health law (including North Carolina and Nebraska) have Republican governors, GOP-controlled legislatures, or both. Hickenlooper was the only governor on the panel who has expanded Medicaid, and since 2013, his state's uninsured rate has plummeted by fully one-third (much more than the other three states). Expanding Medicaid, he said, has "been a great part of our economy. "¦ We've got more people who are able to go to work; they're not using "¦ the emergency room for their primary health care."
McAuliffe expressed optimism that, in 2016, he can push Medicaid expansion through a GOP legislature that has so far blocked it. But McCrory said he has concluded he can't reach agreement with the Obama administration for an expansion that would allow the governor to impose the work and training requirements on recipients that he wants. Ricketts, for his part, dismissively rejected signing up for "an unknowable long-term liability that could bankrupt our state." Obama's impending Environmental Protection Agency regulations to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants split the four governors just as sharply.
Governors no longer express these disagreements only in panel discussions. Republican governors are now routinely suing to block Obama initiatives, while Democratic states are mobilizing to defend them. Twenty-six states—all with GOP governors or attorneys general—are suing, for instance, to stop Obama's executive action legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants; 14 Democratic state attorneys general have intervened to support the administration. The states have clashed in similar alignments over Obama health and environmental initiatives.
Hickenlooper was right when he told me governors still find it easier to share ideas across party lines than do officials in Washington. But that healthy tradition is fraying as governors are increasingly conscripted—or enthusiastically enlist—in the ever-widening partisan war radiating from the capital.
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