Every January, the nation’s governors summon their rhetorical gifts to take stock of their home state and the year that lies ahead. For the most part, these annual addresses stick to safe statements about the importance of job creation or education. But for political junkies, the State of the State often presages some of the larger policy debates coming up in the next legislative session.
“The speech is really a north star where people can predict where the governor will head next,” says Ben Vaught, who wrote Gov. Jay Inslee’s first annual address in Washington state.
For instance, Inslee spent 8 percent of the words in his speech last year on gun violence. The mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., had happened about a month earlier, and Inslee was one of the first governors to give a state address in 2013. “It was such a raw issue that touched everyone in the country,” Vaught says. “It was responsible for us to address it.” During the subsequent legislative session, Inslee supported a bill to expand criminal background checks for all gun sales. Ultimately, a bipartisan deal fell apart in the House of Representatives and never got a vote in the Senate.
Other proposals in Inslee’s speech fared better. His call for a management system that measures the performance of state agencies using data, for example, became Results Washington, a new division within the governor’s office.
Governors’ record on proposals in their state addresses last year was mixed. Three governors used their state addresses to demand legalization of same-sex marriage, and all three of those states did so in 2013 (Illinois, Minnesota and Rhode Island). Three governors advocated for raising their states’ minimum wage in the annual speech, but of those only New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo managed to get a law enacted. Of the 30 governors who voiced their support for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, four failed to convince the legislative branch to take the same position: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.
In general, governors succeed about half the time with legislative proposals in their State of the State addresses, according to research by Thad Kousser, a political scientist with the University of California, Berkeley. In 2012, Kousser and his co-author Justin Phillips published The Power of American Governors, a book that examined proposals in addresses for 28 states in 2001 and 2006. In all, governors had a 52.1 percent success rate in the ensuing legislative session, Kousser and Phillips found.
The reason that gubernatorial batting average isn’t higher, they argue, is because legislatures have most of the negotiating power in passing new laws. As a result, governors usually consult with party leaders and legislative committee chairs while drafting the state addresses. And the speeches focus on championing legislation they think has a good chance of passing. “What they ask for,” Kousser says, “is very much a function of what they think they can get.”
“There’s a lot of groundwork laid before a State of the Commonwealth address,” says Tucker Martin, a speechwriter for outgoing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Most major proposals, such as McDonnell’s demand for new transportation funding last year, get unveiled with their own press conferences before the speech. “The State of the Commonwealth is more of an opportunity for him to express why those are his priorities,” Martin says, “not [to announce] what those priorities might be.”