Dueling partisan messages became a surprising theme at the National Governors Association (NGA) Winter Meeting, held February 21-24 in Washington D.C. Governors traditionally use the politically-neutral NGA events to produce press opportunities and swap governance tips with their counterparts from around the nation. The partisan tack become noticeable shortly after NGA Chair, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (R), unveiled her initiative, America Works: Education and Training for Tomorrow’s Jobs. Republicans seized on the subject matter opportunity to steer the discussion toward traditional GOP concerns about the economic effects of over-regulation. Federal government “meddling” in issues like healthcare, transportation, and education was a popular Republican refrain.
The Economic Development and Commerce Committee’s meeting was lively, but still featured a productive dialogue between committee members and invited guests including former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation Mary Peters, former Under Secretary of Policy for the U.S. Department of Transportation Roy Kienitz and Jim Tymon, Director of Program Finance and Management for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The panel disputed a number of issues, but members agreed that Congress would likely extend MAP-21 funding, a major federal transportation initiative, only beyond the mid-term elections. Panel members encouraged Governors to push Congress for a long term transportation funding plan to ease state uncertainties about investing in infrastructure. Mr. Kienitz suggested that a standalone transportation bill with a funding mechanism is not likely to pass, but that a larger bill with tax reform and funding might make it to President Obama’s desk.
Governors discussed innovation in early childhood education at the Education and Workforce Committee meeting. The speakers included Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery and Alabama Commissioner of the Department of Children’s Affairs Jeana Ross. The two educators gave presentations on two different approaches, arguably driven by ideology, to early childhood education. Partisan tensions heightened the education dialogue when Vice Chair Nevada Governor Sandoval (R) and Secretary Duncan sparred over the administration’s method of distributing early education funding.
Partisan divides and even the occasional heated argument are not unusual at NGA meetings. The subtle jabs at the Administration and boasting about individual state accomplishments, however, took on an unusually confrontational flavor when likely Presidential contender, Louisiana Governor Jindal (R) took the microphone outside the West Wing. Governor Jindal criticized President Obama’s stance on the minimum wage issue during a press conference immediately following a bi-partisan meeting between the Governors and the President. Connecticut Governor Malloy (D) quickly criticized Governor Jindal’s opportunistic use of the situation stating, “Here’s a guy [Jindal] who didn’t come to any of the meetings except this one today, and has the nerve to pull that stuff on everyone, ten feet from the West Wing.”
The NGA, as always, is tackling substantive issues critical to the success of state governments. That overarching political pressures brought out the partisanship at its Winter Meeting this year is good reminder that the organization is, at times, beholden to the politics – and ambitions – of its membership.
Mark Anderson is Senior Vice President working at Stateside Associates managing the Regulatory Services Division. He advises clients on engagement strategy and directs educational and “grasstops” campaigns directed at governors and regulatory officials. Mr. Anderson also has created issue advocacy coalitions and facilitates work group meetings of state and federal stakeholders addressing environmental issues.
Patrick Stone is Manager of Issues and Information at Stateside Associates managing the Legislative Information Division. He began his career as a legislative aide in the Maryland State Senate and has worked on state and local political campaigns before joining the firm.