Few of Mike Leavitt’s constituents would complain if he told them that the sheer daily press of keeping his state on an even keel made it hard for him to pay much attention to the world as it will exist decades from now. Utah is on a prolonged growth spree that has placed an enormous demand on roads, schools, social services, and the agencies that maintain them. Managing that demand may be the single most important part of the governor’s job. By all accounts, he has done it well.
But Leavitt not only finds time to ponder the future, he asks probing questions about it with a persistence that borders on obsession. He is, without a doubt, the leading thinker among the governors on the role that states and localities must play in governing the United States during the 21st century.
What he sees at the moment troubles him. Pushed by technology and globalization, not only is the economy being transformed at full tilt but so is government at every level. Political boundaries are coming to count for less, and pressure from business for more speed and efficiency, particularly in regulation, is growing. When businesses encounter “friction,” Leavitt argues, they go elsewhere; in his words, “Friction kills prosperity.”
And at the moment, there is plenty of friction in everything from the way states deal with the environment to how they license insurance companies. State and local governments, Leavitt believes, “are not moving rapidly enough to solve these dilemmas of a global market, and industries are saying, ‘We cannot wait for the 50 states to solve this, so we’re going to go to the federal government.’ If states don’t come up with a clear agenda to solve the problem, we will continue to have our responsibilities preempted.”
The need he sees to reduce friction has pushed Leavitt in a number of directions. During his tenure, Utah has had one of the best-managed state governments in the country, and Leavitt has been at the forefront of applying technological advances to government functions. Together with Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon, Leavitt also has led an effort among the Western governors to find a way of resolving environmental disputes with less reliance on the courts and more on bringing the various actors involved—business interests, environmentalists, legislators—to the table.
And then, of course, there is the matter of taxing Internet purchases. Leavitt has been out in front on the issue since before many state and local executives saw it coming, and for those who think it unusual that a conservative Republican would be a proponent of a new way of levying taxes, Leavitt has a simple response: “This issue is not about tax revenues,” he says. “It’s about the shape of government. It’s about the survival of local and state government as independent decision-making bodies. Once they lose their capacity to finance their decisions—and the market is changing rapidly to antiquate the system on which we’ve come to depend, sales taxes—then they’re no longer independent and no longer able to respond to the needs of their people.”
It is the issue of strong and independent states that has brought Leavitt to propose a meeting next February, during the winter conference of the nation’s governors. If all goes according to plan, the 50 chief state executives will sit down with all 100 U.S. senators and talk about the states’ role in the federal system. “The meeting,” he says, “is to remind members of the Senate that they have an obligation to represent the interests of the states, that it is a constitutional responsibility we share. The states have not reminded them frequently enough of their responsibility, which is part of the need we have to have such a meeting. We’ve never had one like it before, and I think it will be a very powerful symbol.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Ravell Call