Think back to the first half of 2009. If you were following state governments -- or were part of one -- the situation was grim. It wasn’t just the fiscal squeeze brought about by the Great Recession, but that the fact that political leaders in a number of states weren't up to the challenge -- pushing some states into a generalized state of dysfunction.
Now, thanks to improved state finances and a spate of new governors, the situation has changed for the better.
"The states generally are much better off than 2009," says David Adkins, CEO of the Council of State Governments. "The biggest flops today look pretty good when compared to the worst of 2009."
To illustrate, let’s look at an article I wrote for the National Journal in the summer of 2009 in which I ranked the six most dysfunctional state governments in the country.
When I assembled that list, I ranked the states based on four factors: the quality of leadership by the state’s legislature, its current governor and, where applicable, its former governor; the whiff of criminality in the state’s top political leadership; the severity of the state’s policy challenges; and the intensity of the media circus surrounding state government.
Based on that criteria, I concluded that the most dysfunctional states were, in descending order, New York, Nevada, Illinois, Alaska, South Carolina and California.
To fully understand the nature of these states’ governments at the time, it’s worth remembering who was in charge back then.
In New York, the governor was David Paterson, who, weakened by a flurry of ethics investigations, decided against running for a full term after notables in his own party -- including U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who he'd personally appointed -- called for his resignation. And New York’s state Senate was so riven by partisan factionalism that it could barely perform the most basic operations.
As the New York Times described one Senate session back then, "The two sides, like feuding junior high schoolers refusing to acknowledge each other, began holding separate legislative sessions at the same time. ... There were two Senate presidents, two gavels, two sets of bills being voted on.”
Meanwhile, in Nevada, Gov. Jim Gibbons was discovered to have sent more than 800 texts using a state phone to a woman who was not his wife. That, however, was just the highest-profile of his ethical problems. Gibbons, among other things, faced a civil suit claiming he assaulted and kidnapped a woman, and was found to have plagiarized a speech from an Arkansas state official.
In Illinois, the legislature had only recently impeached and removed its governor, Rod Blagojevich, for abuse of power. He would become the second consecutive Illinois governor to go to prison.
In Alaska, Gov. Sarah Palin was finishing her abbreviated tenure, leaving office amid a spate of ethics complaints that left her with at least $500,000 in legal bills. She had attracted an intense national media circus that followed her bid as U.S. Sen. John McCain’s lightning rod of a running mate in his 2008 presidential bid.
In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford had recently made "hiking the Appalachian Trail" a euphemism for marital infidelity, setting off his own media frenzy.
And in California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislature were at loggerheads, unable to reach agreement on basic necessities such the state budget, even as unemployment in the state was soaring.
So how are these six states doing today? Based on interviews with local political observers and national experts on state government, there are two bits of good news to report.
First, it would be hard, if not impossible, to assemble a list of states as dysfunctional as these six were. A big reason for that is a vastly improved economy. While some resource-dependent states are worse off today then they were in 2009, the vast majority have made great economic and budgetary strides since the Great Recession.
"Money helps lubricate governing," Adkins says. “Decisions get easier when there is new money."
South Carolina offers a good example. State revenues fell between 2006-2007 and 2009-2010, but since then they’ve risen in each of the last seven years -- and the amount collected was 43 percent higher in 2016-2017 than it was in 2009-2010. That's a big boost. Jack Bass, an emeritus professor at the College of Charleston, credits the growth largely to manufacturers. "[They're] expanding, with a new Volvo plant nearing completion and Boeing expanding."
Second, the leadership situation in these six states is better today than it was in 2009.
In New York, key members of the legislative leadership may have faced criminal prosecutions, but the state has exchanged Paterson (and his disgraced predecessor, Eliot Spitzer) for a more effective governor.
“Love him or hate him, Andrew Cuomo has been a strong leader, and it has shown with everything from on-time budgets to on-time public works and a general sense that someone is really in charge,” says Lawrence Levy, the executive dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
Similarly, in Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a popular moderate Republican, has restored confidence in the governorship, says Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent.
“From Gibbons to Sandoval is like night and day," he says.
In California, meanwhile, the state is coming off eight years under Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, whose deep reservoir of state government experience and his pragmatic approach has won him plaudits. Brown has also benefited from a numerically and electorally weak Republican Party, which has made it hard for the GOP to block Democratic initiatives.
"California is currently a high-functioning state,” says Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist and senior aide to former California Gov. Gray Davis. “It is operating in the black, with budget surpluses and a rainy day fund. There have been few scandals in the Brown administration."
The only state from the 2009 list that has remained in serious trouble is Illinois.
Gov. Bruce Rauner hasn’t committed any serious ethics violations. Rather, the problem has been relentless gridlock between Rauner, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled legislature. In fact, Illinois’ situation may actually have worsened in some ways since 2009. The state went without a full budget for more than two years, and it remains in fiscal trouble, with over $15 billion in unpaid bills and a massive unfunded pension liability.
“This has made everything significantly worse -- fiscal, social, economic and civic trust, [as well as] confidence and engagement," says Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
All of this has all occurred at a time when Illinois’ policy challenges have grown, Redfield adds. These include “a weak, narrow revenue structure and insufficient tax rates, overspending and lack of priorities, a negative business climate, declining population, fiscal stresses for higher education, an aging state workforce, deteriorating infrastructure, state and local pension debt, and ineffective public service delivery at the state and local level,” he says.
The one silver lining for Illinois is that the two sides did manage to enact a compromise budget last year -- a significant, if belated, step forward.
Still, Illinois would be a clear candidate for a new list of the nation’s most dysfunctional states. What other states might contend for this dubious honor?
Connecticut is one possibility; it has also experienced a long-running budget standoff exacerbated by a persistently weak economy. Another is North Carolina, which has been riven by partisan and ideological disputes that have led to multiple cases of one branch of government suing another.
Kansas, meanwhile, is a contender. It has suffered from persistent fiscal woes following enactment of a major business tax cut. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, though. The GOP-controlled Kansas Legislature managed to reverse some of the tax cuts despite opposition from its architect, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
"The legislature demonstrated some leadership to fix a key policy crisis," says Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist.
There's Maine, which has experienced two terms under Republican Gov. Paul LePage. His polarizing and outspoken manner has alienated many lawmakers, making cooperation difficult.
Then there’s Missouri, where Gov. Eric Greitens is battling sex-and-blackmail allegations. But before that, Greitens had already come under scuntiny for using a secretive messaging app with his staff and for raising much of the money for his campaign from donors whose identities were never disclosed.
For a while, the strongest example of a dysfunctional state in recent years was Alabama, where each branch of government was hit with more or less simultaneous crises. Between 2014 and 2016, the governor, Robert Bentley, was embroiled in a sex scandal; former state House Speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted of ethics charges; and the state’s chief justice, Roy Moore, was removed from his position after failing to follow a judicial order.
But the situation there has since calmed down, as Bentley was forced from office and replaced by low-key Republican Kay Ivey. Despite Alabama’s bout of political turbulence, “there are several current politicians and possible candidates in state government who seem relatively clean, motivated toward public service and likely aware of our historical situation,” says former Democratic U.S. Rep. Glen Browder.
All this leaves one conclusion: For all the challenges of running a state government, the kind of deeply ingrained dysfunctionality evident in 2009 seems less pervasive today.