What Governors Want from Washington

Governors are busy preparing their agendas for state legislatures, but they have a to-do list for Congress too.
by | January 6, 2015

Several governors visited Washington, D.C., on the day a new Congress was sworn in, in an effort to promote the National Governors Association’s stalled agenda on Capitol Hill.

The group’s top two officers, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, gave a speech laying out an ambitious but familiar agenda for the federal government.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and Herbert, a Republican, also planned to join several other governors in meeting with President Barack Obama and other administration officials Tuesday.

“Like many of my fellow governors, I too have been frustrated by the stalemate that seems to pervade Washington. Ideology is important but... [it] should not be used to impede governing,” Herbert said.

Hickenlooper, who is now serving a one-year term as chair of the NGA, said he hoped to talk with Obama about ways to make interactions between states and the federal government more effective. The Obama administration has allowed 43 states to operate under waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind education law, and state waivers in Medicaid are commonplace, he noted.

“When you have 35 to 40 states getting waivers on education, maybe it’s time to change the law,” Hickenlooper said.

The Colorado governor said he also wanted to talk to Obama about requiring retailers to collect state sales taxes on online and catalog purchases, a goal that has eluded states and businesses for more than 15 years.

Although Obama supports the idea, Congress has been tougher to persuade. Two years ago, the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate passed the “Marketplace Fairness Act” to force remote retailers to collect the taxes, the biggest victory to date for the effort. But the measure languished in the Republican-led U.S. House and died when the last session of Congress adjourned.

Hickenlooper noted that Congress originally exempted online retailers from collecting the taxes -- which individual customers are technically supposed to pay to their home states on their own -- to help promote the growth of Internet companies. “Well,” Hickenlooper said, “the Internet is pretty well established.”

Many of the other items on the governors’ agenda have met similar fates on Capitol Hill. The governors pushed for a long-term transportation spending bill, an update of the education law that created No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program that expires this October, and funding for the Workforce Investment Act to helps states build programs to attract and train workers.

The state executives also hoped to block initiatives of the Obama administration to cut National Guard units and equipment, eliminate the tax exemption for municipal bond interest and increase the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisdiction over waterways under the Clean Water Act.

But Herbert, the Utah governor, noted several areas where the states and federal government could work together. He suggested using the National Guard to help derail cyberattacks against local governments. “States, counties and cities all are experiencing the same attacks we hear about with regard to the retailers and banks,” he said.

He also encouraged the federal government to increase its coordination with states to combat prescription drug abuse. “While governors are leading comprehensive initiatives to address this issue, a coordinated national response is needed to effectively turn the tide of this epidemic,” he said.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory were expected to join Hickenlooper and Herbert at the White House meeting Tuesday. More governors will come to Washington in late February, when the NGA hosts its annual winter meeting there.

-- Liz Farmer contributed to this article.