Governors Take the Lead Where Congress Lags
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
The nation's governors are here in Washington this weekend at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. The states have been taking the lead on more and more policy fronts, according to Arizona's governor, Democrat Janet Napolitano.
Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Democrat, Arizona): I think it's fair to say that the last few years that Congress has been absolutely paralyzed, and has left this huge vacuum that the states have moved to fill, and indeed with the war in Iraq that's a huge issue for Washington D.C. to cope with, although they need to be multitasking. They can't just focus on one issue. all these things need to be dealt with.
ROBERTS: Governor Napolitano took a break from chairing the governor's session to stop by NPR and talk about the agenda for the meeting, the theme of which is innovation. It's a broad concept encompassing education and technology initiatives to spur economic development. I asked where states were succeeding and where they were falling short.
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Well, we gave each governor yesterday a scorecard measuring some sort of non-traditional things. How many engineers do you have? How many patents per capita do you issue? How many new businesses have been created in your state in the last two years? To give them a sense of what's really going on in their economy.
And then we gave them an educational profile so they could see how their students are doing, not just on the NAPE scores, which is a kind of national test, but on SATs and ACTs. How many of their students are taking advance placement courses. And their reports were not very positive.
You know, every state has something going on. What we don't have is kind of national sense of urgency about the United States losing its competitive edge in the world. Governors can lead that effort. They can bring these schools to the table. They can bring the universities to the table. They can bring business to the table and say, hey, we need to be more 21st century-ready than we are, and that means we need to innovate.
ROBERTS: Arizona - border state, obviously; immigration dominates a lot of political conversation there. You've recently come back from talks with the governor of Sonora in Mexico. Is that a way to sidestep the federal government and just work it on your own for what works for Arizona? Is that a long-term negotiation with Sonora? What is the purpose of those talks?
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Well, Arizona has a long-term relationship with Sonora. Both of our federal governments have let our states down. They didn't fix the border. They are now proceeding to do that, and there have been improvements along the Arizona-Sonora border. But while we were waiting for that, we put together task forces on stolen cars and fraudulent identification and human smuggling and money laundering, all things that were going on along the border as the immigration issue was allowed to fester by both federal capitals.
ROBERTS: What would you like to see them do?
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Well, I'd like to see a plan passed that includes not just more technology manpower at the border, which we need and will always need. It needs to be something more than an election-year surge, as it were, but a real ongoing program. We need to have a temporary or essential worker program that really works.
We need to deal realistically with the 10 or 11 million already here in our country illegally, and to me that means if they want to earn a path to citizenship, they've got to pay a substantial fine. They've got to be paying their taxes. They have to show English proficiency. And finally we need employer sanctions that really work so that when we pass a new law, we have something that's in force and enforceable, and we don't get into this situation yet again.
ROBERTS: Another area where states have expressed some frustration that the federal government is not doing all they wish it would is health care. What would you like to see happen on health care? Where can the states fill the gap, and what does the federal government need to do?
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Well, I think health care is such a key issue, and again, this is where the states are way beyond the federal government. I can count at least 30 states that are increasing access to health insurance for their populace, and then there needs to be the second leap, which is health insurance to quality health care.
So the states really are in a position to lead this charge, much as they were in the position more than a decade ago to lead the charge on welfare reform, and I think that's what the governors are going to work toward. But let's expand the debate to how we really get to health insurance more universally available to every American.
ROBERTS: Janet Napolitano is the governor of Arizona and chairs the National Governors Association. Thanks so much for joining us.
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Thank you.
ROBERTS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.