Governors Take the Lead on Hot-Button Issues

Democrats won six governor seats in last week's elections.Alan Greenblatt, staff writer for Governing Magazine says the nation's governors might take the lead ahead of the federal government on issues such as education, health care and immigration.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Much of the week's news was focused on Democratic wins in the House and Senate, but Democrats made big gains on the state level as well, installing six new governors and now controlling 23 state legislatures. Alan Greenblatt is a staff writer with Governing magazine. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ALAN GREENBLATT (Governing Magazine): Thanks for having me.

SEABROOK: So more governors, more Democratic governors, more Democratically controlled state legislatures around the country. Is this going to be a sea change in state-level politics?

Mr. GREENBLATT: Well, I think what we'll see happening is that even though Democrats have taken control of Congress, we still have a Republican president. He'll still have a veto pen and, even though they're talking about doing things like sending him a stem-cell research bill right away, you know, the Republican Congress approved stem-cell research, and that's the one veto that Bush has issued. And we may see that happen on other topics.

And so for domestic issues, with Washington divided and with a lot of focus still on war, there will be still be running room for governors and legislators to make their mark.

SEABROOK: Like on what?

Mr. GREENBLATT: Well, on education, for instance, an on immigration, and particularly, I would say, on healthcare, which is a huge insoluble, seemingly insoluble problem, at all levels of government. It's probably the number one issue for states. It's a huge cost-driver for states. Medicaid has been going up by double-digit percentages for years. There are also big problems for them with funding state employee health programs and even prisoner health programs.

And so you'll see states look to Massachusetts, which this year approved a bill that will require health insurance for all of its residents. That will come online next year, and other states will be watching to see if that's something they want to imitate. You know, the Democrats in Congress are talking about moving a minimum wage bill. We already have half the states with minimum wage levels higher than the federal law because they've gone ahead and acted. Well, the federal minimum wage hasn't changed since 1997.

SEABROOK: I'm thinking now of issues that states have dealt with, like eminent domain, that the federal government hasn't weighed in on.

Mr. GREENBLATT: Well, what made it a big issue this year with several ballot measures was a Supreme Court decision. So in that sense it was federal, but no, it has to do with whether state and local governments can take over private property for development or for whatever purpose.

The case in Connecticut that the Supreme Court ruled on involved taking land and giving it to a private developer. The more common use of eminent domain is actually for public projects such as schools, such as highways and things like that, and that's actually the fear among public officials, is that in reaction to the anger over their taking property to sell to other private entities, that they'll lose the ability to get big parcels of land for public projects.

SEABROOK: You said that healthcare was one of the issue that the states were working on. Some have said that with federal officials so focused on the war in Iraq and foreign policy in general, that they really have not had much focus on domestic issues and that states are moving ahead on other issues as well, like stem-cell research, like California's new greenhouse gas emissions law. What else are we going to see in the coming couple of years on that level?

Mr. GREENBLATT: Well, I think what they're hoping for is some help from Washington, and that gets back to the point about which party is in control. You know, when Republicans took control of the Congress and won their majority governorships a dozen years ago, those different levels of government worked really closely together.

The governors were really influential on the welfare bill that passed Congress 10 years ago, and they're hoping for that kind of cooperation so that they can work on some of the big issues that affect all levels of government, including homeland security, including education, because the No Child Left Behind school testing law is do for a rewrite next year. And particularly states want action on immigration. States, again, have moved on immigration and changed a lot of policies in this year when there's been so much anger. But as you know, Congress was unable to come to an agreement.

Now, the Democrats control the House, and they will probably favor a more lenient type of approach on immigration, as did the Senate and as does President Bush. So there's more likelihood of an agreement, and that will help states a lot, particularly in the border states.

HANSEN: Alan Greenblatt of Governing magazine. Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. GREENBLATT: Well, thanks again for having me.

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