Governors Say, 'Hooyah!' Then Get to Work New Leaders Have the Money and Determination to Take Onmainstream Issues like Education, Health Care

Article excerpt

If you were a politician, who would you rather be? A Washington lawmaker whose main activity seems to be sorting through the sordidness of presidential adultery? Or a governor who is seen to be doing the people's business seriously, soberly, and perhaps even boringly?

No contest. Statehouses are the place to be these days. As Jesse Ventura said at his swearing-in in Minnesota this week, "Hooyah!" (Translation, according to columnist David Broder: "There's never been a better time to be a governor....")

State governments have amassed budget reserves totalling nearly $35 billion, even though state lawmakers have cut taxes some $16.7 billion over the past four years. Governors - including the 13 newcomers taking office - thus have the luxury of deciding whether to cut taxes further, grant one-time rebates, or store up rainy-day funds for any economic downturn. Recent years also have seen more government decentralization (hence, more gubernatorial authority and independence) as important issues such as welfare reform, health insurance, and environmental protection "devolve" to the state level. But state chief executives are not rushing to launch grand new programs or to dismantle government agencies. Instead, they are emphasizing their pragmatism and moderation. And at a time when affairs in Washington are decidedly partisan, governors - especially the baker's dozen who recently won office - are downplaying ideology. "Once you're elected you don't have a 'D' or 'R' on your forehead," says Kenny Guinn, Nevada's first Republican governor in 16 years. Thus can Republican Jeb Bush, who took over as governor of Florida this week, declare his intent to increase social services for "the frailest and weakest among us." And Democrat Gray Davis, newly anointed governor of California, can warn public school teachers who don't measure up that they "will be encouraged to find another line of work." Not a lot of votes for ideology Experts see this middle-of-the-road politics as one of the lessons of the recent gubernatorial elections being carried over into office. "The people who have really pushed ideological programs or who have governed with an eye toward the Christian Coalition agenda were the ones who had the hardest time being elected or were defeated," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "Especially in the South." There, three of the four new governors are Democrats, reversing a trend in which the GOP was seen as taking over the South. And in all three of those races, support for legalized gambling as a means of providing economic development and education funds (a trend opposed by the Christian right) played an important role. Only one of the five new Democratic governors - Tom Vilsack of Iowa - campaigned on a traditional populist help-the-little-guy platform that might be seen as too liberal in an age of centrist, "New Democrat" moderation. …


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