State-of-the-State Speeches

(from Maine Townsman, February 2004)
By Kathleen Murphy,   

       The annual tradition of State-of-the-State addresses may be derided in some circles as so much political puffery. But governors’ big ideas often do become reality.

       Based on this year’s speeches, that could mean the future holds a personal income tax cut for South Carolinians and a new requirement that Rhode Island state employees pay a share of their health care premiums.

       Some political scientists say that governors’ annual speeches have become increasingly similar, with almost every address containing an education policy recommendation. Education again was a theme in 2004, along with health care and criminal justice.

       Here are some of this year’s noteworthy ideas in the speeches usually given to joint sessions of the legislature:

       Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) wants her state to be the first to guarantee health insurance for every state resident diagnosed with cancer. “Some will say, ‘No other state has done it.’ To them, I say it’s about time that someone did, and Delaware will lead the way,” Minner said in her speech.

       New Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said he wants to create “people-friendly juries” that would let potential jurors schedule their service within a six-month period, more like making a dentist’s appointment.

       Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) seeks to revamp the state’s education system by eliminating the agency that oversees it and replacing it with a new one.

       Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) wants to create a rating system for the state’s childcare and pre-school providers in addition to offering full-day kindergarten.

       New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (D) said his Governor’s Book Club, an elementary school literacy program in which the governor gives a monthly book suggestion to children, now extends through the sixth grade.

       Whether pushing reading or write-offs, governors will have their legislative success rate scrutinized by political scientists. But a governor’s gift for passing programs is far from a surefire path to political dominance or reelection.

       One study hailed the governors of Connecticut, Georgia and California as the most successful in the nation in passing programs mentioned in their 1999 state of the state speeches. But since then, Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) has become the subject of a federal corruption probe, and a house committee is studying his impeachment. Then-Govs. Roy Barnes of Georgia and Gray Davis of California, both Democrats, were defeated.

       Before political fortunes changed, Barnes successfully pushed for creation of an agency to control transportation-related projects in metro Atlanta in 1999. Davis won support for a peer review system for teachers, and Rowland made good on his pledge to fund a new juvenile detention facility.

       The study of 1999 State-of-the-State speeches by the University of Kentucky’s Richard Fording and his colleagues looked at 18 governors’ speeches and found an 80 percent legislative success rate overall. It also concluded that governors “strategically modify their legislative agenda in response to the political environment.”

       But governors don’t always accomplish everything on their to-do lists. Former Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel, elected in 1990 under the banner of the Independence Party, proposed that Alaska secede from the United States in a state of the state address. It never happened.

       Two years ago, analyzed governors’ teaching- quality proposals in 2001 speeches and found that governors had success with about half of their initiatives. Governors pushed through 24 of their 63 teaching-quality initiatives, saw partial success on a dozen others and failed on the remaining 27. [See, Jan. 29, 2002, Governors Batted Just Under .500 in 2001.]

       Contrary to what most would expect, governors’ chances of pushing through their priorities are better if legislators work full-time rather than part-time, said Margaret Ferguson, an Indiana University political science professor who researched whether bills endorsed by governors fared better. If state lawmakers treat the job “as a career,” the odds for a governor’s agenda improve, Ferguson said.

       In a 1994 study Ferguson studied 1,000 bills promoted by governors in their state of the state speeches. She found other keys to success included having a politically unified legislature and keeping wish lists short.

       In his speech this year, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) promoted hiking the cigarette tax and expanding the base of services subject to sales tax, issues that are already dividing many Democrats and Republicans.

       But Vilsack, who is not seeking a third term, told the Associated Press before the speech, “I’m not considering the politics of it. I’m considering the policy implications of everyday people.”

       Dan DiLeo, a Pennsylvania State University political scientist who has studied governors’ speeches for a decade, said, “Agendas for the states really do come from state of the state speeches. No governor will get everything he or she wants.”

       State-of-the-State speeches aren’t without drama.

       This year’s most unusual moment came when Missouri Gov. Bob Holden (D) was heckled by Rep. Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, who shouted, “Release the money, governor,” during a pause in the speech. Fellow Republicans applauded Jetton. Observers couldn’t remember another time when a lawmaker had interrupted a governor during a state of the state address in Missouri, according to the News Tribune of Jefferson City.

       New York Gov. George Pataki (R) began by accidentally dropping his lengthy speech on the floor. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) opened by joking, “I’ve changed my mind. I want to go back to acting.”