It'd be easy to conclude that all governors say the same things in every state of the state address. “It’s jobs, it’s the economy, and then transportation and education,” said Tucker Martin, who helped write the annual speeches for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In some respects, that was true in 2014. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley announced a new advisory council to make sure small businesses “have the resources and support needed to not only grow their business, but to create well-paying jobs.” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called for extending job creation tax credits to enable “more businesses to maintain employees and hire new ones.” Others, such as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, touted public-private partnerships that match skills being taught in college classrooms with local labor demand.
But a few patterns distinct to 2014 did emerge. Many governors took time to mention partisan gridlock in Congress, which came to a head last fall in a shutdown of the federal government. “That might be this year’s big theme -- that a government shutdown is unacceptable,” Martin said in an interview last November. “It just provides such a natural contrast.”
The state addresses this year also revealed an economy on the mend. Nearly five years after the Great Recession, most governors were happy to report healthier budgets and lower unemployment rates. Yet the nation’s economic recovery has left some 46 million Americans living below the federal poverty line. Many governors used their speeches to discuss economic mobility and offer policy prescriptions meant to help people and businesses.
Based on the first 38 speeches, here are some of the important policy areas where governors indicated a desire to make changes.
“It seems to me most governors want to be known as the education governor,” said John Weingart, a political scientist who helps run the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University. That certainly was the case this year. Governors in Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania all announced support for funding early childhood education. Governors in Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Utah proposed dramatic increases in funding for K-12 education. As Governing’s Chris Kardish reported in January, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback wants to go from half to full school days for kindergarteners, something only 10 states and the District of Columbia currently do. Similarly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for more school days and longer school days in K-12 education.
“You have 36 governors up for re-election this year. Education is a well-liked and understood issue across constituent groups,” said Iris Maria Chávez, assistant field director at The Education Trust, an education think tank. “It’s my opinion that [elections are] largely driving the huge spike in education initiatives in state of the state addresses.”
Some gubernatorial proposals focused on revising the current school system. For instance, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who wants to encourage high school students to take college-level courses, proposed letting students to take one college-credit course for free, followed by discounts on other such courses. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for a change in the state's K-12 funding formula so that school districts with low-income students will receive a higher proportion of state money. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer proposed tying schools’ education funding to how well their students perform on standardized tests. Hickenlooper, of Colorado, asked his state legislature to pay for better counts of student enrollment. Finally, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for the creation of a “teacher excellence fund” that would reward high-performing teachers with bonuses worth up to $20,000.
A host of governors also outlined ideas for making college more affordable or more likely to help students find jobs. As Governing's Mike Maciag reported in December, a number of states recently reversed course and increased year-over-year funding for public universities after repeated cuts during and after the recession. Most states are likely to continue that trend of reinvestment in higher education in 2014 and the governors’ speeches reflect that forecast, said Daniel Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Haslam, of Tennessee, proposed that community colleges and applied technology colleges would offer the first two years of college to in-state residents for free. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal proposed paying 100 percent of students’ tuition at technical colleges when students study welding, health care technology, diesel mechanics and information technology, an expansion from an existing grant program that already pays students’ tuition when they prepare for fields in commercial driving, practical nursing and early childhood education. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee both requested tuition freezes at their state’s public universities. Finally, Haslam said he would request the creation of a scorecard that reports the percentage of students who graduate into a job in their field of study along with their average compensation.
Last year pension reform was one of the most frequently mentioned topics in state addresses and it remained a high priority for several governors in 2014. Some called for down payments to reduce the size of their states’ pension deficits (Alaska and Connecticut). Some want tax-exempt status for the pensions of specific demographic groups: teachers in Connecticut, low-income residents older than 65 in Hawaii and military veterans in Iowa. In an attempt to control future spending in her state, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is calling for a shift to a 401k-style retirement plan for new state employees. Other governors made general requests of their legislatures to overhaul state pension systems and reduce rising costs (New Jersey and Pennsylvania).
Democratic governors in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Washington state all called for an increase to their state’s minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as it’s been since 2009, but 21 states require higher pay. Those higher state requirements range from $7.40 in Michigan to $9.32 in Washington state. Democratic mayors in some cities, such as Seattle and Portland, Maine, want city-level raises to the minimum wage as well. Amid a national conversation on widening income inequality and a poverty rate that remains stubbornly high, the minimum wage has become a popular policy response among Democrats. In the past year, two other state policies have garnered attention as prescriptions for reducing poverty: offering tax credits to the working poor and requiring businesses to provide paid-sick days. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn proposed both in his address.
Governing by Tax Code
Both Republican and Democratic governors put forward tax cuts, tax credits and tax exemptions as part of a strategy to spur economic growth. “It’s a recognition of the Republican victory of making the subject of tax increases a non-starter,” said Weingart, of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University. “When politicians of either party want to put more money into a program or create a new program, the only places to turn are finding other places to cut or doing something like a tax credit.”
Gubernatorial proposals to provide tax relief focused on both the individual and on businesses. This year Cuomo, of New York, asked to reduce the entire state’s corporate tax rate, to eliminate the corporate tax altogether in upstate New York and to reduce the estate tax. Similarly, Maine Gov. Paul LePage called for a voter referendum that would lower income tax rates and eliminate his state's estate tax. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman requested that lawmakers lower his state’s income tax rate and Haley, of South Carolina, requested the complete elimination of her state's individual income tax. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker requested cuts for his state's income and property taxes and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence called for phasing out his state's business personal property tax.
Cuomo also asked for new tax credits for low- and middle-income property owners, renters and manufacturing firms. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy called for sales tax exemptions on non-prescription drugs and clothing items priced at $50 or higher. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie asked to double an existing food-excise tax credit for low-income residents who are 65 or older.
A number of governors sought to invest in infrastructure projects. LePage, of Maine, announced a $2 billion investment over three years that would cover roads, bridges, ports, airports, rail and transit. Hickenlooper, of Colorado, proposed the formation of a non-profit to foster public-private partnerships that would fund infrastructure projects in transportation and water. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick asked the state legislature to pass bond bills that would pay for a new bus rapid transit route, a viaduct and the expansion of broadband. Chafee, of Rhode Island, proposed placing a $40 million bond on the November ballot to upgrade mass transit hub systems. Meanwhile Wyoming Gov. Matthew Mead called for an investment of $15.7 million for a unified road network and Cuomo announced that New York state government would assume management responsibility from the port authority for construction and modernization at the JFK and LaGuardia airports.
This overview doesn’t do justice to the full breadth of policy proposals in the 2014 state of the state addresses. A number of governors reminded voters why they refuse to expand Medicaid. Others sought to clean urban waterways, privatize liquor sales and control the growth of wolf or other predator populations. One theme that was notable for its absence was support for stronger gun regulations. This year only New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan pushed for expanded background checks. That’s a reminder that some policy ideas enjoy a surge of interest from governors in a given year, but there's a reason why speechwriters always mention jobs, economic development, transportation and education: Those remain the meat and potatoes of state government work.