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The Year of Governors Living Dangerously

They’ve been in the spotlight over the last 12 months as Washington bucked responsibility to the states. Now many of them are facing harsh critics and challenges to their power.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott
If 2020 was the year of the governor, 2021 is shaping up as the year of governors in trouble.

In the last 12 months, governors across the country leapt to the foreground. But New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, who led the pandemic fight from their capitals, are now under fierce assault — Cuomo as the focus of an investigation for producing misleading data on COVID-19’s impact, and Newsom as the object of a recall in the face of voter anger over pandemic shutdowns and restrictions. And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is facing harsh criticism for the state’s bumbling management of a winter storm’s assault on the power grid.

There is rich irony here. The number of new coronavirus infections is down sharply. Millions of Americans are getting vaccinated. For most Texans, the lights are back on and families are no longer huddling around fireplaces and boiling drinking water. So at a time when a return to something like normalcy seems in sight, why have governors found themselves on a razor’s edge?

Party leaders aren’t missing a chance to take a shot at their opponents. Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature in Kentucky, have taken on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. Republican Sen. Matt Castlen proposed legislation to rein in the governor’s powers, telling a local newspaper, “I believe the governor has abused his executive powers and I believe a bill like this will ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little is facing legal challenges from his fellow Republicans. The assistant House majority leader, Rep. Jason Monks, told a reporter, “Our government was set up with checks and balances, and for some reason, we think that during an emergency, checks and balances need to be sent out the window.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that governors in at least 40 states are facing legislation aimed at limiting their emergency powers. And the American Legislative Exchange Council has taken advantage of the political turmoil to advance its ongoing effort to limit government’s powers.

Governors have been in the spotlight, seemingly as never before, over the past year because the federal government has bucked so much responsibility to the states. In fighting back against the virus, developing the plan for vaccinations and dealing with other emergencies, states would have been in big trouble without strong actions by their governors. Those executive actions, however, have made legislators of all political stripes very nervous about big shifts in the balance of power, and that’s leading now to a flurry of legislative proposals to pull governors’ power back.

There’s nothing surprising about this, of course. We’ll never fully resolve the balance-of-power questions that the founders hardwired into American democracy. Today’s governors, however, are facing new kinds of challenges that the founders never anticipated: Big surprises that seem to come from nowhere, with little notice but with grave implications and which require a quick and strong response.

In most of these cases, there’s at least some advance warning and rudimentary planning — even though, too often, those exercises fail to produce action to head off crises. The Obama administration left behind a document laying out the risks of a pandemic and a playbook for dealing with it. The latest struggles in Texas over power and water followed another episode back in 1989, after which analysts produced an extensive report with a game plan for protecting the state’s power grid from freezing weather.

That puts governors in a tough spot, between “why aren’t you responding faster?” and “you’re seizing too much power.” For state executives, there’s no comfortable place in that political vise. Moreover, they face an enormously complex threat matrix, encompassing everything from public health and natural disaster emergencies to racial unrest, pandemic-shattered economies and even domestic terrorism. Governors run for office promising to transform their states, but increasingly their biggest challenge is dealing with these out-of-nowhere threats that might have been anticipated but which sit in the background among many others that don’t materialize. When these threats do surge to the surface, they menace not only citizens but also governors’ political futures.

In the last year, the states have risen to a level of political and operational importance that we haven’t seen in a very long time. What seemed destined to be an era of federal dominance in the 1960s has become an arena of state action in the 2020s. The importance of governors has risen to unprecedented levels — and with that rise has come unparalleled threats and a struggle with capacity to tackle them. That’s a nasty brew, and it’s not one that governors can hope to survive simply by hoping that the next crisis happens in someone else’s term.

It’s not a good bet either that the free market will provide an autopilot solution to these tough problems. Texas bet big on a free-standing electric grid with competitive market prices. In the face of a statewide storm, the grid collapsed, many consumers faced electric bills that jumped by thousands of dollars, and everyone turned to the state government for help on a mega-problem where the market failed. Elected officials discovered that there was no way to escape the searing spotlight.

The overarching lesson of these crises is that governors need to develop a far more effective deep-scan radar. They need a team about them, but out of the spotlight, that can identify the biggest issues with the biggest potential for the most harm, and they need to frame a coalition for action that can help them lead their states through the crises they’re increasingly likely to face.

What makes these issues unprecedented is the scale of potential harm and the complexity of the needed game plan. Texas was less than five minutes away from a complete collapse of its power grid, which would have taken weeks or months to repair. Every state has faced a public health disaster that threatened to destroy its economy and damage the lives of its citizens. These crises spill across lots of boundaries, geographic and functional. The solutions the governors need require concerted action across levels of government and sectors of society, from pharmacies to nuclear power plant operators.

When we weren’t paying much attention, the job of governors dramatically changed. Now they’re struggling to catch up, at a time when even state legislators of their own party aren’t so sure they like the idea. The states might be laboratories of democracy, but if they’re going to deal with the emerging problems of the 21st century, the labs are going to need a new breed of scientists.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.


Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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