The nation's governors are enjoying their rosiest revenue pictures in five years, in a political season that will mark the end of terms for 36 governors who either must run again or retire, and facing a huge federal deficit fueled by a war in Iraq that puts stresses on states, too.
To provide a snapshot of where state policies may be heading, Stateline.org reporters talked to state chief executives attending the National Governors Association meeting that ended Feb. 28 about their visions, priorities and concerns for their home states.
In their own words, here's a sampling of what some of the governors said.
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), who is limited to one four-year term: "I will have a signature effort every year. … So transportation is my first issue. It's the most urgent issue … facing Virginia right now. I'll have initiatives later on in my term dealing with health care and fitness, and then education, probably then environment and energy. I've kind of got an issue a year in mind."
Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D): "I think the thing we want to do is invest in opening up higher education with community college enrollments and investment in research and development. (We want to address) some of the key economic issues in terms of renewable energy, energy efficiency, conservation. And just beginning to put back investments so that Mainers have higher levels of education and can compete in a global economy."
Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri (R): "We started a few years ago a tax-credit initiative taking old mill properties and converting them to … housing, retail space, offices or whatever, because Rhode Island is an older community. Providence is an historic city with lots of property like that. And it's very, very successful. I've had well over $1 billion, $1.5 billion in projects going on as a result of that. We've been able to afford that. It's a tax credit right off personal income in the state, so it's been very, very effective."
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) , NGA vice-chairwoman : "What we're going to do is … use some of our new revenue to pay off debt, borrowings. We swept from accounts so we could balance the budget three years ago. (We will) restore those (and) continue to invest in things that have a long-term return for us. Education we have underfunded in Arizona for years. So that will be an issue for us. I've got a $100 million border security package that I'd like to see the Legislature pass. And then we're putting money into the rainy day fund for the next time, so there is actually a buffer."
North Carolina Gov. Michael Easley (D): "The thing that all of us are trying to do is to keep the cost of doing business low, number one, and, number two, to get the work force better educated."
Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R): "I laid out to the Legislature, in my State of the State message, an agenda for affordability. We talked about the need for affordable housing, affordable health care, lower property taxes and greater access to higher education. I focused on those areas because - our economy is quite strong: We've had general fund surpluses of tens of millions of dollars over each of the last few years - but it's still an expensive place to live."
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D): "We're certainly focused on early childhood with the start of our Strong Start initiative, which is designed to encourage parents to be their child's first and best teachers and to improve the quality of child care and expand access to preschool. It's also allowed us to continue to provide extended coverage of our Medicaid Children's Health Insurance Program. We've just started a new program called the Iowa Care program, extending health care coverage to folks under 200 percent of poverty. And we're taking a look at creating a reinsurance program that would provide potentially some relief for small business in terms of purchasing health insurance. It would basically cover those catastrophic costs that oftentimes really cause problems for small businesses."
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D): "The top priority is to invest in things that will keep us competitive, and that's alternative energy, to lower energy prices in Pennsylvania and keep us competitive. We need to invest in education because if we don't produce educated work forces at the end of high school or community college or four-year colleges, we don't have the best-educated work force, we're not going to be competitive in the global economy."
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R): "Our top state priorities are education reform, health care reform and government reform. In the recent past we adopted the performance pay for teachers, but now I'm looking at transforming our education system so it's a more modern, results-oriented system focused on outputs rather than inputs, so that's going to show up in teacher compensation, going to show up in the way we pay for and produce services. The health care system similarly we've got a mess on our hands in terms of the rising costs. Our government programs are rising at a rate that we can't afford, same as in the private sector, so we've got to move towards a model that gets consumers making decisions with financial incentives and disincentives that are good in terms of quality and cost."
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) , on what the improved economic situation for states means: "Oh my goodness, it means jobs. We have the lowest unemployment rating, maybe in history based on the national average. We're having greater increase in per capita income. Under my administration, if our state's involved in development with any would-be investor, or any already existing company, it has to be based around a fair wage and benefits including health care. We are not into minimum wage jobs with no benefits."
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) said she was pushing development of two "21 st Century" technologies: life sciences and alternative fuels. "As (Washington State is) the most trade-dependent state in the nation, I've looked at the competition on two trade missions. So we are investing in education. We're beginning the process of a public-private partnership in early childhood education, where the private sector and the nonprofits are putting in over $100 million to make sure that every child in Washington State (age) zero to five gets the highest-quality early-childhood education. We think it's the single greatest investment in our economy that we can make."
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) said his top priorities were tax reforms to bolster the state's competitiveness, including lowering the state's income tax and removing taxes on food. He also said Utah needs to increase education funding and find money for roads and transportation.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) : "Montana's got better finances, but our concern is that the federal government is cutting back. For example, once again, they're going to come after us on Medicaid. And they've already announced they're going to cut back on things like Indian health services, so that leaves a lot more of that burden on the state of Montana." He also listed proposed federal cuts to agricultural subsidies, Amtrak, missile facilities and the National Guard. "So we've got to keep an eye on the rascals back here in Washington."
Stateline.org Staff Writers Kathleen Hunter, Eric Kelderman, Kavan Peterson and Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report.