Barack Obama and John McCain have emerged from back-to-back conventions with broad visions of where they would lead the country and competing ideas on a host of issues that will have repercussions throughout state government, right down to the local driver's license bureau.
States are looking to the next president to help resolve problems they must deal with day-to-day, from out-of-control medical costs to failing schools. The next president's policies will determine such things as how many uninsured Americans states can afford to send to the doctor, whether crumbling bridges get fixed, which states will be winners or losers in the race for new energy sources, and whether jobs will stay in state or go overseas.
An urgent matter for states is how McCain, a Republican, or Obama, a Democrat, would boost the national economy, which has been damaged >by the housing and mortgage crisis. After years of increasing tax revenue, at least 29 states face budget restraints this year because of falling receipts. The slump has forced some governors and state lawmakers to cut services or raise taxes to balance their budgets.
So far, Obama has been more specific than McCain about direct relief for states. Obama proposes to quickly send $50 billion to the states to pump up the economy: $25 billion for fiscally ailing states and $25 billion to help states build and fix highways, roads, bridges, airports and rail systems. Obama says this second dose of economic "stimulus," following up on President Bush's $600-to-$1,200 refunds to taxpayers, would create some 2 million jobs.
McCain, a traditionally conservative Republican on fiscal matters, so far has not talked about the fiscal plight of states. He has said he would consider another stimulus package, but he has rejected a bipartisan proposal by two governors, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell (D), for a stimulus package devoted entirely to helping states rebuild infrastructure.
Instead, McCain so far has stressed a core philosophy of government not unlike Republican candidates dating back to the last Arizonan to seek the presidency, Barry Goldwater in 1964. He wants lower taxes and less government.
"We believe in low taxes, spending discipline and open markets," McCain said Sept. 4 in accepting the GOP nomination in St. Paul, Minn. "We believe in a government that unleashes the creativity and initiative of Americans."
McCain wants to make President Bush's tax cuts permanent because he said that will lead to more growth and jobs - while Obama would end the tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 and boost tax cuts for middle-class families. The Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire in 2010. McCain also wants to make it harder to raise federal taxes by requiring a three-fifths majority vote in Congress.
Health care a top issue in 2008
One of the biggest issues for state budget writers is the spiraling cost of health care, which in fiscal 2008 accounted for nearly one-third of total state spending. With 45.7 million uninsured Americans, it is up to states, with federal matching funds, to care for poor and disabled Americans through their state Medicaid programs and state children's health insurance programs, known as SCHIP.
Both 2008 contenders for the White House are pushing health-care solutions, but the plans are markedly different. McCain's plan focuses on lowering costs, offering tax breaks as incentives to buy insurance and including state-based initiatives to cover the medically needy. Obama, on the other hand, wants to guarantee universal access to health insurance by making employers share costs. He supports mandatory health coverage for children, but not adults.
McCain has voted against efforts to renew and expand SCHIP, while Obama has voted for it while also calling for an expansion of eligibility for Medicaid.
Alternative energy now a hot topic
Almost $4-a-gallon gasoline has foisted energy to a top rung of priorities for both McCain and Obama. Both candidates promise to spur alternative energy production using wind, solar and clean-coal technologies.
But Obama's plan leans heavily on federal financial support to spur development of renewable and clean energies. Obama and his surrogates speak of creating an "energy economy" in the states, backed by $150 billion in federal money to develop clean-energy technologies over 10 years. The plan would create 5 million jobs, Obama says. He also set an ambitious goal of getting 1 million cars that get 150 miles a gallon on the road within six years and pledged to curb America's reliance on foreign oil.
"For the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East," he declared at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28.
McCain would reward $300 million to the first company to build a battery that can completely power a car. But the Republican, whose running mate was cheered on at the GOP convention by chants of "Drill, baby, drill," favors reliance first on a mix of traditional natural resources - natural gas, oil and clean coal - and is pushing for increased use of nuclear power, recommending 45 new plants by 2030.
In a reversal, both McCain and Obama gave up their opposition to more off-shore oil drilling. McCain now says states should be able to decide whether to drill for oil and gas off their coastlines. Obama's support is more nuanced; he said he would consider allowing more off-shore drilling if it is part of a larger energy package passed by Congress. Neither candidate supports oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, exposing a split between McCain and his vice-presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
Following the lead of states, both McCain and Obama promise to tackle climate change more aggressively than did the Bush administration, which balked at several state-led efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide thought to cause global warming. Both men vow to require polluters to reduce greenhouse gases, but Obama is calling for greater reductions.
Real ID to be revisited
Governors and legislators also are looking to the next president to end a bitter dispute between the states and federal government over new nationwide rules to make driver's licenses more secure. Several states have rebelled and refused to comply with the Real ID law. Not only have states received little federal money to defray the estimated $4 billion cost of revamping identity-verification procedures in driver's license bureaus, but critics also say the program is a threat to personal privacy and an intrusion by the federal government.
McCain supports the rules and has acknowledged the burden on states but has not said how he would pay for it. Obama opposes the program. Rendell said in Denver that the program "is going down" no matter who is elected Nov. 4.
>Splits emerge on social issues
>On key social issues, which create perennial conflicts in state capitals and influence state elections, the candidates are on opposite sides.
McCain advocates overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that toppled state laws outlawing abortion, while Obama supports abortion rights.
On same-sex marriage, now legal in California and Massachusetts but barred by state constitutions in 27 states, McCain says marriage should be between a man and a woman and supports state constitutional bans on gay marriage, such as those on ballots in California, Arizona and Florida this year. Obama also says he believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman, but he opposes state constitutional bans because he says they limit an individual's civil rights. Instead of marriage, Obama supports state efforts to allow marriage equivalents such as civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Both McCain and Obama voted against a proposed federal constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2006. In McCain's case, he said the legality of gay marriage should be left up to states. Obama also has repeatedly said the issue should be decided by states.
McCain said he supports an affirmative-action initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot in his home state of Arizona that would end racial and gender preferences in education and hiring, while Obama opposes the measure and has suggested that such programs eventually focus on income, not race.
And on immigration, McCain has led the charge and Obama has supported comprehensive immigration reform proposals that would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and give them an opportunity to earn citizenship. They both call for more border agents and for sanctions on employers that hire undocumented workers.
State-federal relationship at a low point
A new president also will mean a fresh start in the vital relationship between states and the federal government, seen by state officials as being at its lowest point since the Reagan administration. Many state leaders and observers have expressed confidence that the next president will give greater consideration to states when drafting national policies and will stop ordering changes without sending states the money to do the work. >
>One reason for hope is that both tickets offer a candidate with state experience. With eight years in the Illinois Senate, Obama if elected would be the first former state legislator in the White House since President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976. For the GOP, Sarah Palin spent nearly two years as Alaska's first female governor before McCain made her his running mate.
President George W. Bush, however, has shown state experience doesn't always yield closer federal-state ties. Despite having served as governor of Texas, Bush was been widely criticized for straining relations between the federal government and states by pushing >new, stricter federal regulations on issues ranging from education to national security and not providing enough federal dollars to states.