Governors' speeches reflect states' cautious mood

February 1, 2012 - 6:25 PM
Broken Budgets State Of The States

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 file photo, Gov. Nikki Haley and Rep. Ronnie Sabb, D-Greeleyville, look up at the balcony where the first family is seated after her State of The State address to the joint session of the legislature at The Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

NEW YORK (AP) — Glimmers of economic optimism. Deep concerns about jobs and health care costs. These are among the recurring themes as governors across the nation deliver their annual State of the State addresses. And the speeches have this in common, too: a striking absence of grand and costly proposals.

Some governors have touched on personal matters — evoking childhood experiences with domestic violence and dyslexia. But overwhelmingly, the speeches are focusing on fiscal issues, mostly in cautious tones.

"Is the current state of our state good enough? I think the answer is no," said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

Like many of his counterparts, Haslam, a first-term Republican, hopes state revenues are on the rebound. Yet he still called for eliminating nearly 1,200 state jobs, which would leave Tennessee just shy of 44,000 employees — about 6,000 fewer than in 2008.

It's been a trying few years for governors, with state governments cutting more than 80,000 jobs since the start of the recession. The pace of cutbacks has slowed, but few governors are now calling for large-scale expansion of state payrolls.

General fund spending has rebounded beyond pre-recession levels in 24 states, but the remaining 26 are still a collective $42 billion lower compared with the budgets approved in 2007. Meanwhile, compared to before the recession, states have hundreds of thousands more students to educate in their public schools and colleges, and millions more people eligible for subsidized health insurance.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, said the state must rein in costs for Medicaid and state employee and retiree health care.

"We have a system that doesn't encourage healthy behavior in patients and doesn't discourage unhealthy behavior," he said. "In essence, we don't have a health care system; we have a sick care system."

As for creating badly needed private-sector jobs, several Republican governors suggested this could best be addressed by further tax cuts. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley talked about lowering both corporate and individual income taxes and also took a swipe at labor unions.

"I love that we are one of the least unionized states in the country. It is an economic development tool unlike any other," she said. "We'll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome."

Another Republican, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, presented a jobs plan calling for a 40 percent reduction in commercial and industrial property taxes, as well as spending $25 million on direct subsidies to companies for creating high-quality jobs.

In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, also proposed a tax cut — calling Wednesday for an end to the state tax on natural gas.

Tacking modestly in the other direction, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee made a pitch Tuesday for new taxes on restaurant meals, pet grooming, cigarettes, car washes and taxi fares.

Chafee, an independent, said higher taxes on discretionary spending is the best way to rescue struggling cities and schools as his state tries to escape its economic woes. Its jobless rate is 10.8 percent, third highest in the nation, and two cities — East Providence and Central Falls — are under state financial oversight.

In Maryland, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley made several new tax proposals in his speech Wednesday, aimed at spurring job growth. O'Malley would increase the state tax on sewer bills and impose a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline, to be phased in by 2 percent a year.

In Missouri, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon proposed another form of revenue hike — a $1 per patron fee increase at casinos to generate about $50 million annually for state nursing homes for veterans.

He also proposed a 12.5 percent cut to public colleges and universities. When combined with cuts in previous years, that would drop Missouri's funding for higher education to its lowest level since 1997.

Missouri's public elementary and secondary schools would get a modest increase of $5 million under Nixon's plan — but still be $472 million short of what they're due under the state's school funding formula.

Similarly, Georgia schools would see a modest boost under a budget proposed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, but would not recoup more than $1 billion in state funding lost over the past few years.

"The best news is that it didn't get any worse," said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Even in states that are faring relatively well, governors shied away from ambitious proposals with high price tags.

For example, the major new initiative offered by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was a proposal to unify the state's 15 community colleges,

"Things are better in Massachusetts than in most other places," said Patrick, a Democrat. "But that doesn't mean they are good enough."

Maine's first-term governor, Republican Paul LePage, was among those injecting personal notes into their speeches.

"I am sad to say that my childhood memories are ravaged with domestic violence," said LePage, who grew up poor and homeless. "Those memories are not pleasant, but I share my past to help end domestic abuse today, and going forward."

Of the 23 murders in Maine last year, 11 involved domestic violence, LePage said. He challenged Mainers to make domestic violence an issue for men as well as women, saying 80 percent of domestic abuse is inflicted by men.

Another first-term Republican, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, encouraged parents to seek help for dyslexic children through existing state programs.

"As a child, I struggled with dyslexia and believed I was a failure until the fourth grade," Bryant said. "I then had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Henley, explain to me I simply did not see the letters on the page like other children. I had to practice my reading and work hard to keep up, but I had a desire to succeed."

Bryant also said there's no reason for Mississippi to be ranked perennially as the most obese state in the nation.

"Mississippians, walk, run, go to the gym, plant a garden or ride a bike," he said. "Getting active is key to your own health care, and I again intend to lead by example."

Bryant, an avid runner, said he plans to sponsor a 5K run this summer beginning at the governor's mansion in downtown Jackson.

Perhaps the stormiest of the recent speech-making sessions involved Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the first-term Republican whose campaign to curb collective bargaining rights for state workers has triggered an effort to oust him from office less than midway through his term.

Hundreds of protesters in the Capitol rotunda shouted, whistled and booed throughout the speech a week ago. Inside the chamber, Republicans applauded loudly for Walker, but he was interrupted several times by people in the galleries, including by a woman who screamed, "Liar! Recall Walker!"

Walker appeared unruffled, never mentioning the recall effort and making his case for why the state is on the right track.

"We thought more about the next generation than we did about the next election," Walker said. "And isn't that what you elected us to do?"

In New Hampshire, where Democratic Gov. John Lynch must coexist with a Republican-controlled legislature, the governor tackled the phenomenon of partisan acrimony head-on in his speech.

"There's a harshness in the air, in the tone and nature of our communication, and particularly within this building, that's not healthy for our people or our democracy," Lynch said. "We can disagree, without demonizing one another."

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Norma Love in Concord, N.H.; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss,; Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md.; Seanna Adcox in Columbia, S.C.; Randall Chase in Dover, Del.; Ray Henry in Atlanta; Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn.; Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine; Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa; David Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo., David Klepper in Providence, R.I.; and Bob Salsberg in Boston.

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David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP