Stateline Story

Governors Upbeat, Wordy in Setting Quality Of Life Agendas

  • February 14, 2001
  • By John Nagy

It's an annual mid-winter ritual. As state legislatures open for business, governors of most states report on their political stewardship and lay out their agendas for the year. In most state capitals, the governor's State of the State address is as big a deal as the President's State of the Union speech is in Washington, D.C.

More than 40 state chieftains had delivered their annual reviews as of Valentine's Day and most of them offered a generally upbeat, though often wordy, picture of the status quo. Taking the governors' words for it, the state of most states these days is strong.

Most governors placed great emphasis on education, pitching new policies to improve what's going on in the classroom. Most also talked up programs to improve the quality of life that took in everything from blackboards to brownfields.

The long-windedness characteristic of State of the State speeches elicited barbs from one national columnist, The New York Times' Gail Collins. "Most of the speeches sounded like a meeting of the Bad Bureaucrats club," she opined in a Jan. 15 column.

Some governors, said Collins, took longer than others to "bore their audiences into insensibility." South Dakota Republican Bill Janklow's State of the State speech ran 9,500 words, making him the nation's most loquacious state executive this year. An old hand at addressing the legislature with 14 years in Pierre, Janklow's speech was nearly five times as long as one given by his rookie neighbor to the north. Republican Gov. John Hoeven. Hoeven, who was elected to North Dakota's top office last November, limited his speech to just over 2,000 words.

The governors' speeches have several common themes:

  • Pay raises for teachers and drumming up new recruits are almost universally popular topics, nestled in a hodgepodge of new education plans.
  • California's experiment with utility deregulation and its aftershocks are rippling far beyond the region.
  • Setting aside additional funding to preserve open space and renewed investment in transportation are hot, both in the explosive Southwest and the brimming Northeast.
  • Making states tech-friendly, from streamlining e-government to investments in nanotechnology to bridging the digital divide, was also a favorite talking point.
  • Prescription drug programs and improving services for children were among a broad array of health priorities.
  • Spending reform a state of the state perennial has surfaced in some form in every address, this time in light of the first real potential for a nationwide economic slowdown in over eight years. 

The speeches have included some innovative proposals as well.

  • Janklow, for example, suggested using anti-smoking money from the tobacco settlement to provide free nicotine patches for all pledged quitters.
  • Gov. Frank O'Bannon (D) urged Indiana to adopt daylight savings time. It is currently the last holdout among the states.
  • Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) requested funds to build a "bioinformatics" building at Virginia Tech.
  • Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) asked legislators to put redesign of the state flag, which features the Confederate battle flag in its upper lefthand corner, on the ballot.
  • Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R), fuming over the results of the 2000 Census, challenged lawmakers to attract enough additional people to the state that it will recover its freshly lost seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Hawaii's Ben Cayetano (D) proposed a "world-class aquarium" for the state's last remaining parcel of undeveloped land in urban Honolulu.
  • Michigan Gov. John Engler asked legislators to create a cabinet-level Department of History, Arts and Culture.  

Campaign Finance and Election Reform came up in only a few governors' speeches, most notably in Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota and New York and Pennsylvania.

Breaking Ranks

If there was one voice in the desert, it was that of New Mexico's Republican governor and practiced iconoclast Gary Johnson.

The curmudgeonly critic and newspaperman H.L. Mencken once wrote, "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety."

If Mencken was right, Johnson may be the most practical politician in the land.

Compare Johnson's take with the assessments of his fellow governors. Kentucky and Minnesota are "good," according to Gov. Paul Patton (D) and Jesse Ventura (I). Kansas is "never ... better served", according to Gov. Bill Graves (R). Massachusetts is "excellent," Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) believes. Virginia, home of the endangered car tax repeal, is "strong," Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) says. Maryland, enjoying a modest surplus, is both "strong and prosperous," Gov. Parris Glendening (D) opined. But then there is New Mexico, "at the bottom of almost every good list and at the top of almost every bad list," if you believe its governor. "We're still at the statistical wrong end of things when compared to other states. But as you all know, when you're so far behind that you're almost not in the race, you can't expect to jump ahead just because you want to," said Johnson, who has delivered seven of these speeches since he entered office in 1995.

In a state that has kept lopsided Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature throughout his tenure, Johnson seems comfortable playing the role of skunk at the garden party. Last year, his popularity plummeted nearly 20 points when he suggested relaxing his state's drug laws, a position on which he now claims he is "greatly misunderstood."

His tone before the legislature this year wasn't consistently sour; nor did he avoid the issues confronted by most governors. It remains to be seen whether his deprecating approach breaks the logjam he says has kept his state "stuck" on tax and education reforms.

Johnson backed school vouchers, a cabinet level schools superintendent, merit pay for teachers and additional charter schools, none of which have ever gone anywhere in the legislature. But he says lawmakers have failed to offer alternatives.

"I'm sure you're all familiar with the old saying that the definition of insanity is continuing to do things the way you've always done them but expecting a different result. That's what I think has been going on in education for decades. So, it's time to make some changes," he said.

2001: A State Odyssey

Twenty-seven governors spoke directly about preserving or enhancing the "quality of life" in their states, typically in connection with education reform and the protection of natural resources. Several others put the idea in their own words. Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) called it "The Basics."

"We want to know our children will get the very best education...with the best teachers in the best learning environments. We want clean, cool water for our families and fish, and enough affordable energy to light our homes, cook our meals and power our industries," Locke said. Last November, with the result of the presidential election still in question, Maryland's Parris Glendening and several other senior governors served notice that they plan to play a very active role in upcoming national policy deliberations, with Medicaid, prescription drugs and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to come first.

But Glendening's state-level themes, particularly on channeling growth, have caught hold as well and, if he continues to wield his influence successfully, may take on an interstate and federal dimension during the remaining five months of his NGA term. His Jan. 17 remarks stayed tightly focused on three priorities: higher education, anti-discrimination policies and an array of expensive but broadly targeted remedies for sprawl.

"We can and will have the quality of life we want ... Families want to live in prosperous, close-knit communities, with good schools, open spaces, parks, and playgrounds. Smart Growth gives them that choice," Glendening told lawmakers.

A number of Western Republicans love the idea of smart growth too. Calling for major new spending to expand and beautify state parks, Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) forged the link between economics and environmental protection for Utah lawmakers. "In a world where most jobs can be located anywhere, now, more than ever, preserving our quality of life is an economic imperative," he said.

Only two governors Louisiana's Mike Foster and Oregon's John Kitzhaber will not deliver State of the State addresses in 2001.