Stateline Story

Govs Want Action on Immigration, Health Care

Photo courtesy of Steven Wayne Rotsch, West Virginia Governor's Office
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) takes questions from the press during a bipartisan workshop for new governors. From left, NGA Vice Chair Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), Manchin, NGA Chair Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), Massachusetts Gov.-elect Deval Patrick (D), Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) and Florida Gov.-elect Charlie Crist (R).

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - The nation's governors, in their first gathering since Election Day, urged Congress and the White House to stop bickering and work with them to address illegal immigration and the country's broken health care system.

Fresh off the campaign trail, 10 of 11 newly elected freshmen governors joined 13 incumbents at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia as part of a National Governors Association (NGA) weekend seminar to provide tips for transitioning from candidate to chief executive.

"It's time to put partisanship aside," Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), chairwoman of the NGA, said at a news conference Saturday (Nov. 18). She called the lack of national immigration reform a "huge failure" and said she looks forward to working with the new Congress on that thorny issue as well as health care and education. "The American people are looking for results," she said.

Gov.-elect Bill Ritter (D) of Colorado noted that both his state and Arizona acted this year to crack down on illegal immigration because Congress had not. In Arizona, voters Nov. 7 approved a series of proposals, including barring illegal immigrants from receiving day-care funding or in-state college tuition, while in Colorado, the public narrowly voted to prohibit employers from deducting wages of illegal immigrants as an expense on state tax forms and directed the attorney general to sue the federal government for failing to enforce immigration laws. "It's an issue we need to solve in concert with the federal government," Ritter said.

Throughout the weekend, the governors stressed bipartisanship and were cautiously optimistic that they could play a key role in brokering deals between the newly Democratic-controlled Congress and the Republican White House on policies that have left Capitol Hill in gridlock. Democrats will outnumber Republicans in governor's suites next year, an exact reversal of standings before the election.

"I'm excited about the role that the NGA can play in bettering state-federal relations," NGA Vice Chairman Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota's Republican governor, told Stateline.org . "When governors speak in one voice, it has a significant impact."

One new governor who has a keen sense of how Congress views the role of state leaders is current U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), who in January will exchange his Capitol Hill office for the governor's suite in Carson City. "Congress needs to understand that it needs to empower states to solve our problems," said Gibbons, one of three U.S. congressmen elected governor Nov. 7 who can use their knowledge of Capitol Hill to help relay states' positions and priorities.

Specifically, some governors are looking for less red tape from Washington, D.C., so states can experiment with new ideas, particularly with health care and alternative energy. "Like welfare reform in the 1990s, if Congress gives states flexibility, they'll show the pathway to a better future," Pawlenty said. "Let states take a crack at it."

Taking the lead in the health care arena, Massachusetts and Vermont in 2006 adopted different strategies with the same goal of providing medical insurance for all their citizens. Both plans were drawing interest from new and incumbent governors. Ritter of Colorado told Stateline.org he already has talked to officials in those states and to Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) about his year-old Dirigo Health program for advice on reforming health care in Colorado.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) said, "We can't stand around and wait for Congress to come up with solutions. Our people expect it and expect it now."

Both Pawlenty and Florida Gov.-elect Charlie Crist (R) told Stateline.org they hoped Congress would lift restrictions against importing prescription drugs from Canada. Pawlenty has defied the Bush administration and set up a system for Minnesotans to import cheaper drugs from Canada. The administration has deemed it illegal and unsafe to re-import U.S.-manufactured medicines sold to Canada.

At the news conference, Iowa Gov.-elect Chet Culver (D) said he had just gotten off the phone discussing alternative energy proposals with U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is expected to take over as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"The message to Congress is that we need each other," said Culver.

In interviews, Manchin of West Virginia, Ritter of Colorado and Crist of Florida each spotlighted alternative energy as a top concern they hoped Congress would tackle, including changes in tax polices to encourage more investment at the state level.

Maryland Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley (D) said he hoped Congress would stop pinching pennies and invest more funds in states for infrastructure, higher education and homeland security. He also said he hoped lawmakers would "revisit the hypocrisy" of the No Child Left Behind law that he said purports to raise standards while "de-funding and de-stabilizing" public schools. The law is up for reauthorization in 2007.

Of the 11 new faces joining the governors' ranks, only Alaska Gov.-elect Sarah Palin (R) was unable to attend the NGA retreat. She was preparing for her Dec. 4 inauguration, the earliest of any state.

Other freshmen governors-elects attending the seminar were: Arkansas' Mike Beebe (D); Idaho's Butch Otter (R); Massachusetts' Deval Patrick (D); New York's Eliot Spitzer (D); and Ohio's Ted Strickland (D).

Sitting governors attending the seminar included: Sonny Perdue (R) of Georgia; Kathleen Sebelius (D) of Kansas, John Baldacci (D) of Maine; Jennifer Granholm (D) of Michigan; Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina; Mike Rounds (R) of South Dakota; Jon Huntsman (R) of Utah; Jim Douglas (R) of Vermont; Jim Doyle (D) of Wisconsin; and Dave Freudenthal (D) of Wyoming.

NGA holds orientation seminars every two years for new governors and their staffs. The last two seminars have been at the historic 6,500-acre Greenbrier in the Allegheny Mountains. Buried 720 feet below the resort is the formerly top-secret "bunker" that would have housed the U.S. Congress in the event of a nuclear explosion. The bunker remained a secret until a 1992 Washington Post article disclosed the location and now it's been decommissioned and open to the public.

Tags: Immigration