New Head of Governors Group Talks Future of States

In an interview, Scott Pattison of the National Governors Association says he wants to guide the group through a period of fierce partisanship.
by | March 28, 2016
(Photo by David Kidd)

In December, the National Governors Association (NGA) tapped Scott Pattison as its executive director and CEO. Pattison’s appointment comes at a time of polarization and gridlock at all levels of government. It also follows a decade in which intense partisanship has threatened the NGA’s traditional role as a policy-oriented group.

Pattison, who held the top job at the National Association of State Budget Officers for 11 years and was once Virginia’s state budget director, said he hopes to reassert the organization’s influence.

In an interview, Governing’s Louis Jacobson asked Pattison about some of the challenges he’ll be facing in his new position. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What attracted you to the job?

I get so many questions about how a bipartisan group, with the rhetoric on the campaign trail and with all the political polarization, can navigate those waters. And I really think NGA is more important now than ever, because that’s going to continue.

You have all these policies going on in the states. They’ve got K-12 education to run, a university system, and incredible challenges in health care and criminal justice. So we’re trying to share ideas, solutions and management tips among the states, and to analyze what’s working and what’s not working.

I’ll give a couple examples. One is the growing realization that housing is a critical component of health care. We did a workshop with state officials the other day where our chair, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, discussed his state’s very successful Housing First program. There’s an awareness that if you have housing issues, it has a health impact. I think the best example came when we were doing a discussion with state officials and a Minnesota official said the folks there were beginning to realize that chronic users of the emergency room often were elderly people who were falling in their homes. They realized that focusing on how people live will have a real impact on the health-care system.

We are seeing a presidential campaign in which most of the governors, except for Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, exited pretty early. A number of them were pretty pragmatic and policy-oriented. Does that suggest to you that the electorate is not paying much attention to the nitty-gritty of policy, and that it’s more about fear and loathing on the campaign trail?

It’s an incredibly unusual political year. I know people dump on the media. I don’t usually, but I will say that a lot of this is about where the media attention goes, and right now the media attention is going to anger and very large pronouncements. I think in future election cycles, governors will be looked to as strong potential candidates.

I do find that a lot of governors are popular in their states, and the reason is that they really do have to manage a lot. California Gov. Jerry Brown has to act immediately if there’s a shooting in San Bernardino, or if there’s a fire or an earthquake. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez have to deal with the fact that a certain part of their revenue comes from oil, and oil prices are low. So they’re really governing, and frankly that’s not getting the attention it should. This morning I was reading some fairly technical information about Medicaid. Now that’s not going to make the news, but governors and their staffs are working on it.

How do you describe NGA’s role historically, and do you intend to go in any new directions now that you’re here?

There was definitely a unique time period in the early 1990s leading up to the welfare reform act, which dramatically changed the federal-state relationship in regard to public assistance. Back then, the governors were able to come together and attract some attention. I would say the best way to describe NGA lately has been that it has talented expertise but it’s been more below-the-radar.

The vision I’ve laid out for the governors who hired me -- and I’m really reflecting their vision -- consists of a couple things. We want to raise the group’s profile to make policymakers, especially here in Washington, realize there’s a lot they do that impact states. We’re on the front lines, whether it’s the national guard or hurricanes, and there’s been a lot going on with regard to Medicaid and all kinds of regulatory policies that impact states. So it’s really critical to have an organization that’s making that clear. We don’t want to be seen as another in a list of special interests. States are the only other governmental entity outlined in the Constitution. We want to solve the same problems the federal officials want solved.

The second part is that as an organization, we need to provide more direct customer service to the governors and their staffs. Most have seen their staffs shrink since the recession.

As a side note, I’ve noticed in the past couple years that there’s a recognition among national governments and international groups like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank that the subnational level is a critical component in executing and administering policy. Provinces are sharing information with states and vice versa. For instance, utilizing public-private partnerships for transportation financing is pretty unusual. In the international sphere, provinces in Canada and quite a few subnational governments in Europe have done it. So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel in the states, we can ask what worked and didn’t in Canada and Europe. I think it’s a really interesting development.

Numerically, we’re at a historical peak or a near peak in terms of Republican governors. So much of the rhetoric over the years on the GOP side has been that government isn’t to be trusted and that we have to shrink government. There even appears to be a frustration even with the idea of governing itself. How has this translated within NGA? In practice, are governors more restrained than their rhetoric would suggest?

I think so. I sat in on the governors’ meetings in February, and I was very impressed with the degree to which the political rhetoric and polarization was checked at the door. They just really rolled up their sleeves and had good discussions about some fairly controversial issues, such as refugee resettlement.

I tell the governors and their staffs, “Knock yourselves out, do all the partisan stuff that you all want and need to do. But NGA obviously can’t do that, so you should use us as the place for shared ideas and shared interests.” For example, we just sent a letter last week concerned about the federal government taking away governors’ power to manage national guard technicians. There’s a pretty unanimous feeling among the states.

As to the question of bigger and smaller government, the Republican governors are tasked under their state constitution with quite a few things they have to manage. From the NGA standpoint, we say, “Smaller government, bigger government -- that’s your choice. But we want to help you with how you manage the policies you’re interested in.”

Because of the Great Recession and fairly limited revenue growth at the state level since then, most state government programs have shrunk, at least if you measure by inflation. Outside of health care and K-12, we’re getting smaller government.

How hard have you found it to get governors of different parties on the same page? What are some of the issues where they really have come together because of shared interests, and where have you not been able to speak with a unified voice?

Several governors have joked with me, saying, “We know NGA is not going to do something on climate change.” We may do something on energy policy, but they’re right, you’re not going to get agreement on climate change.

We all know the specifics of Obamacare are controversial, but it’s fairly universal among the states that they want flexibility in terms of running their Medicaid programs. So we try to convey that to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). On other issues, though, there’s a realization that we’re unable to go there, and that’s not our role.

What efforts are you working on in the near term?

We’re working on the Zika virus. We’re partnering with HHS we’ve asked each governor to identify a Zika virus point person in their state.

Another thing that’s really going to be interesting is the recent K-12 act. It gives a lot more power to the states. We’re spearheading technical assistance and information, and providing forums for governors’ staffs.

And another thing is the opioid crisis. This is one where I have literally seen governors with tears in their eyes. They are telling me they have relatives or friends who have been hit by this. Some of the New England governors in particular have been active on this issue, such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan and, of course, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Then at the 30,000-foot big picture, we don’t have any comment on who should become president, but for the next administration, we want to be right there. We want to be partners and say, “Work with us, but also give us some flexibility to get to the goals we all want.”

How healthy is congressional respect for NGA? You see a lot of people in the GOP who are proponents of small government or are anti-government.

I have to say, I’ve accompanied our leadership of both parties to quite a few congressional meetings. The agendas are complex, but I’ve been really impressed with the level of respect and cordial interaction by the congressional leadership.

When you talk to the governors, what do they think about the crazy presidential election we’re going through now?

Uncertainty. Most of these conversations were a month or so ago, but at the time I think maybe it was still in their mind that on the Republican side it wouldn’t be Donald Trump as the nominee. No one said it quite this way, but a lot of the conversations were kind of like, “Wow, usually I can predict the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and where voters will come out.” It is such an unusual year. I would have been right there a year ago saying there are a lot of governors running and people will want a governor as their nominee. But it hasn’t turned out that way.