Governors say, 'Hooyah!' then get to work

New leaders have the money and determination to take onmainstream issues like education, health care

If you were a politician, who would you rather be? A Washington lawmaker whose main activity seems to be sorting through the sordidness of presidential adultery? Or a governor who is seen to be doing the people's business seriously, soberly, and perhaps even boringly?

No contest. Statehouses are the place to be these days. As Jesse Ventura said at his swearing-in in Minnesota this week, "Hooyah!" (Translation, according to columnist David Broder: "There's never been a better time to be a governor....")

State governments have amassed budget reserves totalling nearly $35 billion, even though state lawmakers have cut taxes some $16.7 billion over the past four years. Governors - including the 13 newcomers taking office - thus have the luxury of deciding whether to cut taxes further, grant one-time rebates, or store up rainy-day funds for any economic downturn.

Recent years also have seen more government decentralization (hence, more gubernatorial authority and independence) as important issues such as welfare reform, health insurance, and environmental protection "devolve" to the state level.

But state chief executives are not rushing to launch grand new programs or to dismantle government agencies. Instead, they are emphasizing their pragmatism and moderation. And at a time when affairs in Washington are decidedly partisan, governors - especially the baker's dozen who recently won office - are downplaying ideology.

"Once you're elected you don't have a 'D' or 'R' on your forehead," says Kenny Guinn, Nevada's first Republican governor in 16 years.

Thus can Republican Jeb Bush, who took over as governor of Florida this week, declare his intent to increase social services for "the frailest and weakest among us." And Democrat Gray Davis, newly anointed governor of California, can warn public school teachers who don't measure up that they "will be encouraged to find another line of work."

Not a lot of votes for ideology

Experts see this middle-of-the-road politics as one of the lessons of the recent gubernatorial elections being carried over into office.

"The people who have really pushed ideological programs or who have governed with an eye toward the Christian Coalition agenda were the ones who had the hardest time being elected or were defeated," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "Especially in the South."

There, three of the four new governors are Democrats, reversing a trend in which the GOP was seen as taking over the South. And in all three of those races, support for legalized gambling as a means of providing economic development and education funds (a trend opposed by the Christian right) played an important role.

Only one of the five new Democratic governors - Tom Vilsack of Iowa - campaigned on a traditional populist help-the-little-guy platform that might be seen as too liberal in an age of centrist, "New Democrat" moderation. But he too stresses family values and a lock-'em-up approach to drug dealers.

For their part, it was the relatively moderate Republican candidates who won governorships as well.

Among the "defining issues" pressed by governors of both parties, according to an analysis by the National Governors' Association, there is nothing outside the mainstream: fiscal responsibility, "results-focused" environmentalism, health care (especially for children), and fighting crime.

If there is one issue all new governors are emphasizing as they take office it's education.

Robert Taft (R) in Ohio offers tax deductions for the cost of college tuition. Don Siegelman (D) of Alabama proposes a $150 million scholarship program to be paid for from lottery funds. George Ryan (R) in Illinois pledges to spend 51 percent of all new state revenues on education and work-force training. Jim Hodges (D) of South Carolina (who fought video gambling as a state legislator but then embraced a state lottery) calls his election a "mandate for better education."

As Professor Black points out, however, the new governors are not lock-step in their philosophical approach to making public schooling more effective. Republicans Jeb Bush in Florida, Bill Owens in Colorado, and Mike Johanns in Nebraska favor some sort of voucher program. Governor Davis in California is clearly opposed to making public funds available to private schools.

On another education-related matter, Mr. Davis (who is expected to announce a $444-million bundle of education initiatives today) may find himself swimming against the tide on affirmative action. California's Proposition 209, passed by voters in 1996, is designed to end the state's system of racial and ethnic preferences for state university admissions.

California now admits the top 12.5 percent of all high school graduates to University of California schools. Davis says he wants that to include the top 4 percent of graduates from every public high school, which would have the effect of including more minority students from poorer districts.

Trying to end 'era of wedge issues'

Davis sees such a move as one of inclusion, part of his goal of ending "the era of wedge-issue politics in California," as he put it in his inaugural speech this week. While this was clearly designed to separate himself from his predecessor, Republican Pete Wilson, it doesn't mean Davis will try to make a clear break with the recent past.

"Wilson was a conventional center-right governor. Davis will be a conventional center-left governor," writes Sacramento Bee columnist John Jacobs. "Expect a careful, deliberate, go-slow approach."

The same can be said of the moderate pragmatists now sitting in most governor's chairs.

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