Last spring, stuck in traffic on New Hampshire's Blue Star Parkway, Governor Craig Benson had an idea: Collect all the tolls on the northbound side and close all the time-wasting toll booths going south. Benson got on his cell phone, made a few calls, and within days the deed was done. It was a potent political symbol of the first-year governor's pledge to cut through bureaucratic clutter.
Unfortunately, it was about the only such symbol achieved during Benson's first year in office. His hopes of creating constitutional limits on spending and imposing a supermajority requirement for tax increases went nowhere. He got off on the wrong foot with the state's legislative leadership because of his nasty, multimillion-dollar Republican primary campaign against a former state senator, and never recovered.
Benson won no friends by holding the state's first-ever veto-stamping media event, then signing off on a budget basically identical to the one he vetoed (although it did give him permission to seek $50 million in unspecified savings through better management.) The Republican chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee called Benson "erratic" and complained that he was "close to incompetence" in terms of leadership
Even if legislators don't like Benson, voters seem to. The governor's approval ratings have steadily climbed during his time in office and are close to 60 percent. Benson's stature will be burnished if legislators adopt a plan he announced last month to save $400 million over five years by privatizing prisons and cutting 5 percent of state personnel. But that's still an "if."
Quite a few members of the gubernatorial class of 2002 have had similar experiences. Two dozen of them took office a year ago--more than at any one time in American history. Fully 30 of the nation's 50 states now have leaders with one year's experience or less. All but a handful succeeded incumbents from the other party, campaigned against fiscal mismanagement and promised sweeping change.
But they haven't been able to change much. Unable to win passage of new initiatives at a time of preoccupation with severe budget shortfalls, they have largely spent their energy looking for symbolic victories while fighting with legislators about which ongoing services and agencies can be spared. Budget pressures have left some of them feeling lucky if they can manage to keep the lights on.
There's been a great deal of debate as to whether state budget problems are the fault of politicians who spent and cut taxes too freely during more prosperous times, or whether they are the inevitable consequence of growing constituent demands and declining assistance from the federal government. Either way, the result is the same. "Never has a large class of new governors been elected under worse conditions since the Great Depression," says Larry J. Sabato, a government professor at the University of Virginia. "It's asking too much for them to undertake major projects and programs with these kinds of economic conditions. If they can just manage to get the budgets to balance they're doing well."
The partial exceptions to last year's rule of disappointed hopes were Democrats Bill Richardson in New Mexico and John Baldacci in Maine. Richardson won passage of major legislation on taxes, school finance, transportation and criminal sentencing. Baldacci pushed through an ambitious health program aimed at providing coverage for the state's uninsured residents by 2009, with small businesses paying higher insurance premiums while the state provides subsidies to needy families and individuals.
But considerable doubt remains about whether Maine will have the money to proceed with Baldacci's program, and Richardson suffered painful defeats this fall over plans to reform his state's tax code. Meanwhile, the first-year governor who pushed the most ambitious tax and education package--Alabama's Bob Riley--was beaten decisively. Those who have tried to restructure or merge government departments, including Jennifer Granholm in Michigan and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, have had their ideas largely rejected by legislators.
Rejection is something governors these days have come to expect. Some of them, especially the Republican newcomers elected in New England, have called for cuts that they know Democratic legislatures won't swallow, hoping at least to suggest a contrast between their push for change and the resistance of the opposition.
Romney, in Massachusetts, saw his government restructuring plan shot down with glee. In Rhode Island, Don Carcieri has looked for savings through major reductions in state employee health benefits and pension contributions. Unions in the state recently announced a million-dollar campaign to fight Carcieri's proposals, which haven't won many champions in the legislature either.
But like most of their colleagues, the New England governors are doing reasonably well in popularity polls. They are finding ways to succeed politically even as they meet defeat on substantive policy issues. Elected as political outsiders, most of them have been careful to maintain that image, continuing the politics of 2002 by other means and from a different vantage point.
New Hampshire's Benson, unpopular with legislators of his own party, which controls both chambers--one called him a "dictator"--has gone on tours of the hinterland to bang the drum for constituent support. Michigan's Granholm, faced in October with a fresh $900 million deficit, took to the road to ask voters what she should do about it. It was a tour resembling others she's taken during her year in office and was even imitated this fall by Republican legislators.
In Illinois, Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich won in 2002 by railing against the "corruption" of state government, and hasn't changed his theme song since taking office. Blagojevich has refused even to establish a permanent residence in the state capital of Springfield, spending most of his time at home in Chicago. In November, he accused his own party's legislative majority of engaging in a "spending orgy" the state didn't need. "We're going to keep fighting," he said, "to reform and change the system and give the people a government that stops spending their money like a bunch of drunken sailors."
Given the fiscal mess and the impossibility of doing much about it, says political scientist Paul Green, of Roosevelt University, Blagojevich has "got to have somebody to play off of. He is using the legislature; I think that's politically brilliant." While Blagojevich's posturing has angered capitol insiders and some of the media, it hasn't hurt him with the public the way that, say, raising taxes would. Despite the terrible budget conditions, voters in Illinois have shown no desire to send more money to the state.
LEVELING THE WINGS
The same intransigence on taxes characterizes public sentiment in just about every state, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was chosen in 2002. If anything, the new Democratic governors seem more reluctant to raise taxes than their Republican counterparts. And by and large, they are winning political points for that stand.
After Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano filled a billion-dollar budget gap without raising taxes, the Arizona Republic praised her "huge accomplishment." Similarly, Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen, a licensed pilot, talks about having to "level the wings" as his main job, and hasn't gone beyond keeping a temporary lid on spending and taxes--he can't do much more until he gets Medicaid costs under control and pays for an expensive teacher pay equity mandate.
But the fact that Bredesen has brought an end to four years of fighting over a proposed state income tax--an idea of his predecessor's that provoked near-riots at the capitol--comes as something of a relief to most of the electorate. "Things have calmed down now, and he's given the impression that he's in charge and he's trying to save money," says Larry Daughtry, a columnist with the Nashville Tennesseean.
In many states, however, balancing the budget without raising taxes has meant resorting to accounting tricks that won't make this year's budget process any easier to cope with. In Kansas, Governor Kathleen Sebelius wasn't happy when the legislature handed her a budget that balanced the books by shifting school aid payments and property tax collections from one fiscal year to another. But she wasn't left with much choice. A government efficiency panel Sebelius created came up with tens of millions in savings, but not nearly enough to fix the state's budget woes.
In neighboring Oklahoma, where Brad Henry took over as governor in 2003, the budget was balanced with the help of more than $225 million in one-time revenue transfers--a big chunk out of its $5 billion total, and one that didn't do anything to solve future-year problems. Many other governors who managed to dog-paddle their way through 2003 will find it even harder this year to sustain the trick of balancing rising costs without raising taxes.
The biggest surprise winner in 2002, Georgia's Sonny Perdue, prevailed on his signature pledge, convincing the legislature to allow voters to decide whether the state flag should have a Confederate emblem restored to it. Perdue persuaded Democrats to go along with a small tax increase but had a hard time winning over his fellow Republicans, which made for a long session. But Perdue has had no luck on other priorities, including changes in ethics laws and redistricting. He has rolled back some changes his predecessor made to the state's K-12 education structure, but he faces major battles next year as he looks to make the state's HOPE college scholarships less generous.
One question--"Can we afford to do this?"--has served as the backdrop to almost every recent gubernatorial initiative in every region of the country. Now economic conditions are starting to improve and state revenues are beginning to pick up a little. But whether the improvement will be sufficient to allow the 2002 gubernatorial class to turn activist is far from clear. "They will be seeking reelection in 2006, and the economy on its current cycle will be at its peak then," says Sabato, the Virginia professor. "They will have two awful years and then two relatively good years to accomplish things. In 2006, they can then capitalize in the greatest myth in American politics--the belief by the public that presidents and governors run the economy."