Do Governors Matter? Budgeting Rules and the Politics of State Policymaking

By Barrilleaux, Charles; Berkman, Michael | Political Research Quarterly, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Do Governors Matter? Budgeting Rules and the Politics of State Policymaking


Barrilleaux, Charles, Berkman, Michael, Political Research Quarterly


Whether and how governors influence public policies in the U.S. is open to question. This research tests a model of gubernatorial influence on public policymaking in which gubernatorial power is conceived of the governor's power over the budgetary process relative to that of the state legislature. We argue that governors with greater control over the budget process will use those powers to deliver a higher proportion of policies that confer benefits to statewide versus more localized constituencies. As governors' electoral security increases, their willingness to support legislatively desired localized spending increases. Empirical results derived from pooled cross-sectional models largely support the models tested.

American stale governments vary in the extent to which governors or legislators dominate the budgetary process and state policymaking, but overall state governors are stronger than ever before (Gosling 1994; Beyle 1996; Hedge 1998). Bureaucracies are more centralized, formal powers have been enhanced, governors enjoy a larger role in setting state priorities (Rosenthal 1998; Hedge 1998; Clynch and Lauth 1991), and domestic policy devolution offers them and their policy innovations national visibility. Further, the quality of the individuals who become governors has improved (Sabato 1978: 57) and contemporary governors are celebrated for their "pragmatism" and skill (Stanfield 1996). The National Governors' Association is increasingly prominent and influential, and governors regularly make major party presidential and vice-presidential short-lists.

Yet, we know little about the consequences of all this institution building. Models of American state policymaking tend to focus on legislatures at the expense of executives.1 In some cases, such as when measuring governmental capability (Brace 1993), information on the two is even combined into a single indicator. Although governors may appear to be central players in American politics, political scientists' models of state policymaking provide only limited tests of their roles. Whether governors influence state policymaking is important for at least three reasons. First, for students of democratic politics, the variations in the design of executive and legislative institutions that exist among the American states provide a unique opportunity io assess the distributive consequences of differing governmental designs. Institutional designs do not occur by happenstance but more often are put in place to achieve some political, managerial, or policy goal (Knott and Miller 1987). Second, research on American state politics portrays governors as either extremely influential (e.g., Beyle 2001) or as inconsequential (e.g., Erikson, Wright, and McIver 1993). Given that governors are among the most visible officeholders in any state, a clearer understanding of whether, how, and under what circumstances they affect public policy is justified.

Third, at least one prominent scholar, Paul Peterson (1995), argues that the states, because of the parochialism of legislatures, are particularly bad vehicles for achieving statewide policy goals. This is of particular concern in the present era, where policy responsibility for welfare, health care, and other policies are commonly referred to the states by the national government. If, as we shall argue below, governors have incentives to produce public policies whose benefits have statewide, rather than district, incidence, the argument against states as vehicles for redistribution may not be as clear cut as Peterson suggests.

Governors and legislators bring to state policymaking distinct preferences shaped by the composition of their constituencies. While legislators are "pulled by local geographic constituencies" governors must consider the interests of a "larger and more diverse group" (Grain and Miller 1990: 1030). We argue that governors seek higher levels of spending for redistributive programs that benefit their geographically diffuse constituencies in ways similar to legislators' pursuit of geographically concentrated distributive benefits. …

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