Governors Look to Children in 1998

Health care for kids, education, and lower taxes are dominant themes in statehouses

In the middle of his State of the State speech this week, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller (D) flipped on a tape recorder to play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" for the assembled state legislators.

As part of his budget, he explained, he would allocate enough money so that every new-born Georgian (more than 100,000 a year) would get a recording of the kind of music experts say increases an infant's ability eventually to excel in math.

"Don't you feel smarter already?" he asked, returning to his speech.

It was a playful moment, but a serious gesture - one that symbolized the emphasis on children that governors around the country are putting at the top of their 1998 agendas.

In their annual messages to state lawmakers and constituents, Republican and Democratic state executives from coast to coast are pushing early childhood development, health care for the very young, and initiatives to support child care for parents who work outside the home.

New York Gov. George Pataki (R) last week proposed "perhaps the boldest step we've ever taken in the area of health care ... legislation guaranteeing access to comprehensive health coverage for every single child of New York through the age of 18." Governor Pataki also called for funds to support pre-kindergarten education statewide.

Arizona Gov. Jane Hull (R), a former teacher, this week called for "a solid learning foundation in the earliest primary grades."

"Our allocation of resources should reflect that focus," said Governor Hull.

Other governors stressing education and other early childhood programs include Pete Wilson (R) of California, Bill Graves (R) of Kansas, Parris Glendening (D) of Maryland (another former teacher), Benjamin Nelson (D) of Nebraska, and Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D) spent much of his address urging more resources and tax breaks to support child care. And noting that Colorado (like most states) is enjoying a budget surplus, he said, "families with young children ought to get the first crack at the surplus."

It's hard to find a politician who doesn't find frequent ways to voice support for families and children. But the current economic climate - which has helped to put nearly all states in the best budget situation in years - makes it easier to act on that inclination.

Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sees at least some of this emphasis resulting from welfare reform - the demands of providing for working families, especially as they struggle with low-paying jobs. To do otherwise, many at the state level of government realize, would be to add to those economic and social forces that encouraged a reliance on welfare.

At the same time, governors (most of whom are Republicans) are not advocating budget-busting spending to fund new and expanded programs. They remember just a few years ago when states were in far more difficult fiscal situations. Tax cuts and "rainy day" accounts in anticipation of possibly tougher times are also at the forefront of budgeting.

Governor Graves of Kansas, for example, wants to increase per-pupil education spending by nearly 10 percent, boost support for at-risk children by more than 20 percent, and commit an extra $5 million for preschool children in the Head Start program.

But he warns that "we cannot spend money we do not have, nor spend money we hope will be there. As I have said before, there is no Kansas credit card."

For the moment, however, fiscal good times allow for boosting politically popular programs - like those for children. And they also make the job of governor more attractive.

'It's a good time to be a governor or running for governor," says Professor Beyle. "You're seeing a lot of people saying, 'I don't need to be in the US Senate because you don't do anything there.... It's more fun to be in the governorship because at least you can do something.' "

The trend to "devolution" (passing responsibility for some federal government programs to the states), especially when coupled with the possibility of budget surpluses in Washington, makes the job all the more appealing.

Indeed, Idaho Republican Dirk Kempthorne is giving up his US Senate seat to run for governor, as are several members of the House of Representatives (including Illinois Democrat Glenn Poshard, Nebraska Republican Jon Christensen, and Connecticut Democrat Barbara Kennelly).

Also giving strong indication that she could run for governor is California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.


Gov. George Pataki (R)


r Called for universal health-care coverage for children.

r Proposed an expansion of pre-kindergarten funding.

r Plans to cut taxes by an additional $700 million.

r Proposed a program to make it easier for high-technology companies to set up business anywhere in the state.

Gov. Jane Hull (R)


r Said resolving inequities in funding for school construction would be her top priority.

r Proposed a $210 million tax-cut package, the largest in Arizona history.

r Proposed a $36-million-a-year initiative to provide health insurance to low-income children.

r Emphasized children's health care, education, and the environment.

Gov. Howard Dean (D)


r Called for expanded public school choice.

r Wants to provide incentives for developers to locate in downtowns.

r Called for tough drunken-driving laws that allow authorities to confiscate cars of repeat offenders.

r Advised great caution in making development decisions that threaten villages and downtowns.

Gov. Roy Romer (D)


r Urged lawmakers to allow voters to decide how to spend surplus tax revenue.

r Exhorted schools to improve student achievement test scores by 25 percent during the next three years.

r Called for legislators to give more attention to an overloaded transportation network, overflowing prisons, and threats to the environment.

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