Nation's Governors Get What Federal Leaders Miss?

The bipartisan National Governors Association is meeting in Virginia, where they aim to tackle big issues, like how to grow state economies amid national uncertainty. Guest host Maria Hinojosa speaks with Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican and outgoing chair of the National Governors Association.

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MARIA HINOJOSA, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, do black politicians face greater scrutiny over allegations of wrongdoing than their white colleagues? It's a question explored in the new book "Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics." We'll speak with the author in just a few minutes.

But first, the National Governors Association is holding its annual meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia beginning today. The bipartisan organization will be tackling some of the issues confronting state governments. We wanted to hear more about those issues, so we've called on the outgoing chair of the National Governors Association.

Dave Heineman is a Republican and the governor of Nebraska and he joins us now to talk about some of the issues facing governors broadly and some of the issues he faces specifically as the governor of his state. Governor, welcome to the program.

GOVERNOR DAVE HEINEMAN: I'm glad to be part of your program and I appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts on this.

HINOJOSA: So what's the biggest challenge that you and other governors are facing right now?

HEINEMAN: Our biggest challenge is the economy and jobs and that's why as chair of the NGA this past year my initiative was growing state economies, to try to develop a plan of actions to share with governors what could we do as governors to help increase job opportunities in our state? And that's what we've been focused on.

HINOJOSA: So what can you do, in fact?

HEINEMAN: Well, governors can impact significant policies within their state, for example, through lower taxes, less regulation, create a more competitive environment for businesses to operate and to grow your economy. I'm very, very fortunate in Nebraska. We have the second-lowest unemployment rate in America right now at 3.9 percent.

HINOJOSA: Wow. That's incredible.

HEINEMAN: It is incredible. We're faring much better than the rest of the country.

HINOJOSA: How did you do that? How is that possible?

HEINEMAN: It's possible because we don't spend money we don't have and it keeps you out of trouble every single day, whether it's your family budget, your business budget, or in state government. So our focus is to control our spending, but invest in our priorities, and by doing that we've been more successful than most other states.

HINOJOSA: So if you don't spend the money that you don't have, you have to cut things. So what have you had to cut in your state, Governor?

HEINEMAN: Well, first of all, I wouldn't say it's a cut. We've slowed the growth of government spending. So often in Washington, D.C. a projected 8 percent growth turns into a 6 percent growth and they call that a 2 percent cut. That's really a plus 6 percent growth. Again, it's about slowing the growth of government spending, prioritize where you put your money. And when you do that, you can continue to grow your economy and move your state forward. And I think Nebraska is a good example of that with an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent.

HINOJOSA: So, actually, in your term you have kind of delivered the old school Republican notion of smaller government. There has been an 8 percent dip in terms of government employees. So what about people who say, yeah, that's great for keeping a small government, but this means that services are not being met?

HEINEMAN: Services are being met in the state of Nebraska, and here's how we've gone about it. We've taken greater advantage of technology. For example, 90 percent of our citizens this year filed their income taxes electronically. That's more secure, more efficient, costs less money. Five years ago it wasn't that way and we had to hire 150 to 200 people on a temporary basis for about six months to process paper returns. We no longer do that.

You can go online and in under 10 minutes get your driver's license renewed. There are a number of services where we're trying to take advantage of technology that make us more efficient. Every time someone retires or leaves the state government for another job, we look and see can those duties be transferred to someone else? Can we do it more efficiently? Just like the private sector. So, actually, our customer service levels are up through the greater use of technology and deploying our people in a more efficient manner.

HINOJOSA: Except that those jobs are now gone and those people who had those jobs don't have those jobs anymore, don't have that disposable income.

HEINEMAN: Yeah, but in almost all those cases you're talking about here in Nebraska that was through retirement and attrition. That's where the reduction has occurred as opposed to initiating layoffs.

HINOJOSA: But what about those people who say, look, you know, sometimes you have a budget but sometimes there's need and it goes beyond your budget but you have to address that human need. So in not spending, perhaps, on social services is there a consequence to that?

HEINEMAN: Well, what we try to do is reflect the priorities of our state and we have very serious conversations about jobs, education, helping those who are less fortunate in society. And it's finding a balance. But at the end of the day, you know, the way out of poverty is a good job and also through a good education. So we're going to continue to focus there and yet take care of our citizens who are less fortunate. And it's always a delicate balancing act because there's no government's going to have all the money in the world to meet every single need. But you've got to decide your priorities. I think our citizens have been very good about that and sharing those thoughts with us.

HINOJOSA: So there are many progressive commentators and ordinary citizens that say Republican governors essentially use the economy as political coverage to target social programs that really have minimal impacts on budgets. When you hear that criticism what do you say?

HEINEMAN: You know, I say that's certainly not true of what I do in my state. My wife's been an elementary school principal and teacher all her life, so we've lived with this every single day, the challenges of kids from a variety of different backgrounds. We've tried to find a way to help our citizens and, again, it starts by focusing on the job creation and opportunities for every citizen.

Secondly, I want every child, regardless of race, regardless of background, to get a quality education. We're trying to make sure we have no achievement gaps, academic achievement gaps, in our state and we try to work with every single child to make sure they receive a quality education.

HINOJOSA: How does the state of Nebraska, you know, which everybody kind of thinks is a very homogenous kind of state - the reality is that Nebraska, actually, has changed in amazing ways over the past, you know, decade or so.

How much do you talk about this, Governor Heineman, in the sense of you know what's happening in Nebraska, let's just say in terms of demographic challenges, how do you see this as not a problem necessarily the way, let's say, Arizona maybe looks at it, but instead says we can use this to our own advantage?

HEINEMAN: Well, what we try to talk about is there is a growing diversity in our state, a changing demographic, then that's why education is so critical. I want to make sure that every child gets a quality education. So you've got to address the challenges that are facing Nebraska and every other state in America and clearly we're becoming more diverse all the time.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. I'm speaking with Nebraska governor Dave Heineman. He's the outgoing chair of the National Governors Association. Their annual meeting begins today. We're talking about important issues for the nation's governors, as well as issues he's handling as governor of Nebraska in his own state.

Governor, a big question that is looming for many governors, is how to implement the Affordable Care Act, which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. You issued a statement after the decision calling this a regulatory nightmare. So what are your concerns about how states will go about implementing this law?

HEINEMAN: The reason I'm concerned and I called it a regulatory nightmare is how are you going to conduct this health insurance exchange? How are you going to integrate it with Medicaid? You have different rules for the expanded population than the current population. Secondly, the court unexpectedly said the unfunded Medicaid expansion is an optional choice for the states.

So we're going to take a look at the whole thing. We also understand the health insurance exchange, for example, is constitutional. We'll continue to move forward planning and designing that and make the decision about how we build it at a later date.

HINOJOSA: I notice that the meeting is going to feature a session focusing on strategies to lower the cost of Medicaid but is this a little bit risky considering that more and more people are now finding themselves, because of their economic circumstances just right now, in need of this kind of assistance?

HEINEMAN: Well, I think the key on Medicaid, on any reform in the health care system, needs to focus on wellness, prevention, and quality outcomes. We need an electronic medical system just like we have an electronic financial system to reduce costs. We need hospital transparency. The cost of the routine medical operation ought to be posted on the Internet so we can all do comparison shopping. So there are a number of things that you could do that would drive down the cost of health care to make it more affordable for more citizens and I think that's the focus we should have.

HINOJOSA: So you, personally, as governor of Nebraska, you oppose the expansion of Medicaid that was written into the Federal Health Care Law, so...

HEINEMAN: I...

HINOJOSA: What's your alternative, then, to provide coverage for the uninsured?

HEINEMAN: Well, first of all, I oppose it because we can't afford it. And if someone can explain to me how we can afford it without cutting the education of our children, I'll certainly be willing to look at that.

Secondly, we have one of the lowest uninsured rates in America already at 11 percent. We're going to focus on reducing the cost of health care so it's more affordable. I think you also need to recognize there are some Americans who are young and healthy. They're not interested in insurance at this time, like many of us didn't when we were younger, so there are a variety of issues here that we need to look at relative to the whole health care reform issue.

HINOJOSA: So we know, governor, that in your state, in particular, you just declared a state of emergency regarding the drought. Talk to us a little bit about what that's like as a governor when, you know, this is something that absolutely you have no control over, something like drought, and yet it's impacting your state in huge ways.

HEINEMAN: It does and we have no control over when it occurs. It's kind of ironic. Last year, we were dealing with the flooding along the Missouri River and now we don't have any moisture at all. And that severely impacts the agricultural sector of my economy. So we're watching this one very, very closely. I've declared a state of emergency so we can deploy our National Guard assets and our Nebraska Emergency Management resources at a moment's notice and we're going to particularly going to work on issues like roadside haying. We've moved that up so our farmers and ranchers can take advantage of that.

HINOJOSA: So the National Governors Association prides itself on finding bipartisan solutions to policy challenges. This is a divisive year, so how do you do that in an election year?

HEINEMAN: Well, you do it to the best of your ability. I find that governors - that we all have the same challenges, jobs, economy, health care, education. You go right down the list. And so, there's a common denominator there. Now, on some issues, like the new Federal Health Care Law, we are divided, but we try not to let that get in the way of finding solutions where we're all in agreement on education, jobs, whatever it may be.

So again, I enjoy working with the other governors. Most of us try to do that in a very bipartisan way. We do it at home. We try to do it when we're together as governors.

HINOJOSA: Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman is the outgoing chair of the National Governors Association. He joined us from his office in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Governor, thank you so much.

HEINEMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HINOJOSA: Coming up, black politicians like D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, congressman Charlie Rangel and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters have recently been investigated for wrongdoing. But are they corrupt or victims of racial bias?

GEORGE DEREK MUSGROVE: There are patterns of disproportionate targeting, but there is no organized conspiracy. No.

HINOJOSA: We'll talk with a political science professor who writes about racial politics. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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