New Jersey Governor Rated Most Powerful State Leader

By: - August 2, 2001 12:00 am

Juice, stroke, clout, influence — all synonyms for political power, an asset common to all state governors. But which of the 50 state leaders is the king of the hill? Political experts say Acting New Jersey Gov. Donald DiFrancesco arguably claims that distinction, thanks to a quirk in his state’s constitution. DiFrancesco, known as Donny D. in state political circles, replaced Christine Todd Whitman as the Garden State’s chief executive last January after Whitman became the Bush administration’s top environmental official. DiFrancesco is also president of the New Jersey state senate, giving him legislative clout as well.

This political anomaly occurred because New Jersey has no lieutenant governor — the leader of the state senate is second in line of succession to the state’s top office. DiFrancesco’s unique status will be short-lived however — he decided not to seek election as governor following media scrutiny of his business dealings. Leaving DiFrancesco’s unusual situation aside, state leaders with the most “juice” in descending order are in West Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah.

Thad Beyle, political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ranks the governors on tenure, appointment power, budget authority, veto power, party control, and the number of other statewide elected officials.

Vermont’s governor, the last remaining state leader with just a two-year term, ranks 50th in terms of power, according to Beyle’s study published in “CQ’s State Fact Finder 2001: Rankings Across America.”

A governors’ strength also can depend on a state’s economy or population size, along with personality, personal wealth or electoral mandate. He or she also has the power of the bully pulpit,and governorships have served as pathways to the U.S. presidency for four out of the last five men to serve in the Oval Office — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Since the nation’s founding, when governors served one- or two-year terms without the possibility of re-election, the power of state governors has been gradually expanding. But in some states, the legislature is still the dominant force.

“Governors can overcome this situation by being shrewd, crafty or clever politicians,” said Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

Beyle gives West Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Bob Wise a top power rating because of his full authority over the executive budget request, line item veto power, and his virtually unlimited tenure potential.

In Maryland, the legislature can’t move money around within the budget but can only make cuts from a budget created by Gov. Parris Glendening. State Sen. Patrick Hogan led a fight this year to strip Glendening of his superpowers. But a proposed constitutional amendment, which would let legislators add money to programs in exchange for giving the governor a line item veto, died in the state Senate despite bipartisan support.

“The governor worked very aggressively against it which is understandable,” said Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat. “Any governor would.”

Another powerful arrow in Glendening’s quiver is his duty to submit a redistricting plan to the legislature on the first day of next year’s legislative session. In the past, the governor’s plan has become law because it’s a tall order to get the legislature’s swift agreement on changes.

Rating the powers of the governor’s office is important, UNC’s Beyle said, because it shows which governors have a better shot at driving through initiatives on education or economic development.

“State governments are pretty big and complex operations,” Beyle said. “What you need is somebody to run it.”

New Jersey’s DiFrancesco said his unique constitutional powers mean he’s been able to propose legislation, then get it passed with great efficiency in the Senate.

“It means you have to be very sensitive to the power you have,” DiFrancesco said. “You have to downplay it and be guarded. I’ve tried to do that as best I can.”

Virginia, where the governor’s office is up for grabs in November, ranked 26th according to Beyle’s analysis which he plans to post online for the first time later this month.

Democrat Mark Warner or Republican Mark Earley can serve only four years in succession, a tenure that drags down Virginia’s rating. Hawaii ranks high, No. 4, because Gov. Ben Cayetano’s line item veto power is strong, and his fellow Democrats control the House and Senate.

Although the Texas legislature meets just every other year, Texas’ governorship is considered weak and ranks 39th on Beyle’s list. Gov. Rick Perry (who took over after former Gov. George W. Bush was elected president), gets the mansion and limelight, but the state constitution gives Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff more legislative power.

Bob Behn, visiting professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of Duke University’s Governors Center, said states would probably be better off if the chief executive has greater power because citizens could expect performance from the governor. It comes down to the question of balance, Behn said.

“Americans don’t trust their government,” Behn said. “That’s why we’re Americans. So we have Madison’s checks and balances written throughout the country.”

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