Drilling Into State of the State Addresses, Gubernatorial Agendas Take Shape

The Rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

The Rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Zack Frank / Shutterstock.com


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Transportation funding, innovative P3s and prison reform are high on governors’ lists.

Can you guess which governor called for the following in their most recent State of the State address?

“This year I hope to sign legislation to decriminalize cannabis oil . . . so that families who need it and who obtain it legally will not be prosecuted for possession of it.”

No one could fault you if you answered Gina Raimondo, the newly elected Democratic governor of Rhode Island, or John Kitzhaber, the ill-fated now-former Democratic governor of Oregon.  

In fact, the quote comes from none other than Nathan Deal, the conservative Republican reelected last November to a second term as governor of Georgia.

Such are the counterintuitive insights to be gleaned from reading every governors’ State of the State addresses yearly.  

Last year was the busiest year of the four-year gubernatorial election cycle with 36 chairs up for grabs.  

That turns this year’s State of the State addresses into a rich source for agenda items for governors looking to establish their first-term reputations or build upon their accomplishments.

Transportation Infrastructure

With Democrats struggling to elect officials at the state level, one would think that the policy offerings across the nation’s statehouses would be a predictable shade of deep red.

However, that overlooks the dynamic of second-term governors who are freed from the constraints of seeking re-election.  

With 17 Republicans and seven Democrats earning second terms, the collective agenda pivoted toward repairing state transportation infrastructure and finding or raising the revenues to fund it. Transportation agenda items are up 43 percent for 2015.

Several Republican governors, including Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota and Gary Herbert of Utah, asked their legislatures to take long, hard looks at how to create sustainable funding streams for roads and bridges.  

Meanwhile others like Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana are looking for the same while keeping tax and fee increases off the table.

It’ll be interesting to see how this transportation infrastructure push pans out over the next year or two, but the surge in governors seeking change indicates the issue is here to stay.

Public-Private Partnerships

Prior to the Great Recession, privatization of public services, whether they be toll roads in Northern Indiana or welfare intake in Texas, was on the agenda nationwide.

The economic downturn combined with high-profile controversies made public-private partnerships, or P3s, into a political hot potato.

This tide was reversed this year as 19 different agenda items called for P3s across a wide range of policy offerings.

Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad wants to create the Center for Human Capital Enrichment, a P3 to “dedicated to aligning education and job training program for workers.”

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wants a private partner to help reinvigorate the state fair, while fellow Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is seeking a P3 to help spur investment in solar energy.

In the past, P3s were mostly seen as tools for reducing operational costs or a quick source of cash.  

The current crop of governors seems to have learned from past lessons and is looking to leverage a new breed of P3s to provide more sophisticated benefits. They also seem increasingly aware of the need for transparency and accountability in P3 deals.  

If they are successful, expect more widespread and ambitious goals for P3s in the near future.

Corrections Reform

Incarceration costs have long been a major source of pain for governors. For years, prison expenses grew faster than almost any other and threatened to exceed investments in higher education.  

In recent years, governors bent the costs curve by ramping down penalties for petty drug offenses and diverting non-violent and aging offenders over to community supervision.  

Yet 2015 saw a new phase in the war on prison costs, as some governors called for comprehensive services to help reintroduce offenders back into society.

Delaware Democrat Jack Markell offered the most aggressive call for reform, seeking to expand the state’s trade school programs into the prisons in order to make ex-cons job ready upon release. Gov. Deal of Georgia wants to consolidate relevant corrections, juvenile justice, and probation and parole services into a more efficient Department of Community Supervision. Nebraska Republican Pete Ricketts is calling for a comprehensive review of short- and long-term programmatic needs that will reduce recidivism.

In all cases, the nation’s governors have decisively turned away from the old lock’em up and throw away the key approach. The collateral damage to state budgets has simply been more than the taxpayers can bear.

Of course, when it comes to state governments, the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.  

Governors have the power of the bully pulpit, but they can only enact what the legislature sends back.  

How each of these policy domains described above plays out in the coming years will depend on how well governors can build bridges with parochial legislative interests.  For those 31 governors who are in their final terms, it is a race against time to set their agendas before lame-duck status renders them afterthoughts.

Chris Dixon is the senior manager for state and local industry analysis for Herndon, Virginia-based Deltek.

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