Governors’ 2016 Priorities

Their State of the State addresses offer a window into their to-do lists for the new year.

In his state address, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal defended his proposal to give state workers a 3 percent raise.
(AP/David Goldman)
Judging by their State of the State addresses, most of the nation’s governors are full of good cheer. This is likely, in part, because their states’ fiscal status has improved since a few years ago. 

Many of the governors are in their second terms and used their start-of-the-year speeches to tout how much better off their states are: low unemployment, strong job growth, economic development victories, heightened investment (or anticipated investment) in education, balanced budgets and well-stocked rainy day funds. 

Some governors, however, offered a somewhat gloomier outlook
. States that have suffered from the dramatic drop in oil prices -- such as Alaska, Oklahoma and New Mexico -- and states with special budget problems -- such as Kentucky and Illinois -- have little to celebrate.

We read all of the speeches delivered as of Tuesday (31 of the 43 that will ultimately be presented). Here are the highlights of governors’ managerial concerns going into this year.

Improving Accountability

One concept that came up frequently was “accountability.” 

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts used that word when he referred to a needed culture change in the state’s Department of Corrections. Before he took office, "dozens of convicted criminals, many of them violent [were] released from prison early because of errors in sentencing calculations."

Unsurprisingly, accountability was also a particularly pressing topic for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who spent a significant part of his speech discussing and taking responsibility for the Flint water crisis.

“No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe,” he said. “Government failed you: federal, state and local leaders by breaking the trust you placed in us. I am sorry most of all that I let you down. You deserve better. You deserve accountability.”

He promised to release his 2014-2015 e-mails regarding Flint, to work hand in hand with Flint's mayor to "rebuild the trust that has been broken," and to cooperate with investigations.

Criticizing Unions

While state employees were generally praised for their good work, employee unions took a beating from the governors of Illinois and New Jersey.

In his speech, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner complained about unions’ compensation demands being “out-of-touch with reality.” He said that, adjusted for the cost of living, Illinois has the highest paid public employees in the nation. He also said one of the most critical actions needed in his state is constitutional pension reform, noting that the state has one of the nation's worst unfunded pension liabilities.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, criticized “selfish public-sector union leadership” and spoke against a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee state pensions. “We cannot deny funding for health care, education, criminal justice, the poor, our environment, our children and our infrastructure to pander to pensioners. We cannot soak every taxpayer for the benefit of the privileged few.” 


Boosting Public Workers’ Pay

Several of the governors are concerned with making sure their states have a sufficient workforce (the subject of a recent Governing article). Their way of doing that is offering more money.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, for example, defended his proposal for giving a 3 percent raise to teachers and state employees. As agency budgets were cut in recent years, he said the remaining employees worked overtime and deserved to be rewarded. “There are four agencies that had over a 20 percent annual turnover rate, with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities losing almost one third of their employees last year. System-wide, the turnover rate last year was 18.4 percent.”

Similarly, Kentucky’s new Republican governor, Matt Bevin, spent a good part of his speech talking about needed budget cutbacks but also promised increased compensation for social workers and corrections workers to alleviate extreme turnover issues.

Investing in Infrastructure

The need for investment in infrastructure is on the minds of many, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts, Indiana’s Mike Pence and Hawaii’s David Ige. But only a few governors specifically addressed deferred maintenance of roads and bridges, including Tennessee’s Bill Haslam and California’s Jerry Brown. Brown was the only one to quantify the backlog, which he labeled as a $77 billion problem. "At some point, sooner rather than later, we have to bite the bullet and enact new fees and taxes for this purpose," said Brown. "Ideology and politics stand in the way, but one way or another the roads must be fixed."

The biggest surprise from the speeches so far hasn’t been what governors said -- but what they didn’t say. 

There were few mentions of evaluation, data analysis or evidence-based practices -- topics we think are of great importance. The word “efficiency,” which had been a mainstay of State of the State speeches in recent years, garnered only modest attention. Another surprise is that cybersecurity was mostly mentioned as an economic development opportunity, rather than a critical issue that needs state attention. There was an exception, though: Idaho Gov. Bruce Otter discussed the work of his Cybersecurity Task Force and the “growing threat of hackers exploiting our state computer systems.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.