A Historical Perspective on State Leadership and Innovation

By: - May 13, 2008 12:00 am

As executive director of the National Governors Association (NGA) for the past 25 years, I have seen firsthand what can be accomplished when governors speak with one voice and act collectively to benefit citizens in their state.

Since NGA was “born” 100 years ago this week-when President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the first meeting of the nation’s governors to discuss conserving America’s natural resources-governors’ influence has shaped the nation in lasting ways.

In 1911, for example, Kansas enacted the first “blue sky” law to prevent speculative schemes that had “no more basis than so many feet of ‘blue sky.'” Many states-and eventually-the federal government followed suit by enacting similar regulations targeting fraudulent securities.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower enlisted governors’ help to build the interstate highway system; this state-federal partnership forever changed the face of transportation in America and underscored how critical states’ participation was to realizing federal goals.

Throughout my tenure, I have seen governors use their leadership skills and their collective influence to position critical issues at the forefront of policy debates and in the public consciousness. In the 1990s, for example, governors positioned states as leaders in moving people from welfare to work and played a key role in enacting changes on a national scale. Many of the policies and practices tested by states were adopted by the federal government in the sweeping 1996 welfare-reform legislation passed by Congress that governors helped write.

And in 2003, governors proposed a billion fiscal relief package-enacted by Congress-that not only helped stabilize the faltering economy but also allowed states to help low-income residents maintain benefits and eligibility for health-care services under Medicaid. In the past year alone, governors, through NGA, have weighed in on such issues as the authority over the National Guard, federal Real ID mandates, federal economic-stimulus efforts, federal higher-education mandates and a host of other issues that impact states and their citizens.

NGA provides a vehicle for the 55 governors of the nation’s diverse states, commonwealths and territories to speak with a unified voice to Congress and the president. It also bridges the intersection between state and federal policy. After all, most federal programs are administered by the states, and ultimately, it is state capitols where innovation happens.

NGA has a long and rich history of bipartisan achievement. At the first gathering in May 1908, President Roosevelt met at the White House with 39 governors, as well as representatives of the federal government, including the vice president and several Cabinet members, and even industrialist Andrew Carnegie and populist William Jennings Bryan.

Two years later at the November 1910 meeting of governors, New Jersey Governor-elect Woodrow Wilson proposed a vision for an association through which governors could come together to discuss mutual concerns and work toward common ends. Specifically, Wilson envisioned “a dignified and permanent institution” founded out of necessity “to supply some vital means of cooperation in matters which lay outside the sphere of the federal government .”

Governors have exerted their influence-and paved the way for innovation-through their yearlong NGA chair’s initiatives, which tackle serious challenges facing states and the nation. Many of these initiatives have focused on improving our nation’s education system, starting with former Tennessee Gov. and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s Time for Results initiative in 1985-1986. More recently, in 2004-2005, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s Redesigning the American High School helped states identify and implement best practices for improving high school education. It also led to the 2005 NGA National Education Summit on High Schools, which brought together the nation’s political, education and business leaders to build an agenda for high school improvement.

In 2006-2007, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano’s Innovation America initiative raised states’ consciousness of the need to innovate and compete in the global economy by strengthening science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in grades K-12; improving the postsecondary education system; and focusing on regional clusters of innovation and economic growth.

Often, these initiatives have been a catalyst for sparking policy discussions, if not practical change. Former Arkansas Gov. and President Bill Clinton’s Make America Work initiative, which helped drive welfare-reform efforts in the states and spark national discussions of the issue, is one example. The initiative of another former Arkansas governor-Mike Huckabee’s Healthy America initiative, which helped raise states’ awareness of the health and economic consequences of obesity and supported efforts to encourage citizens to adopt healthier lifestyles-is another.

This year’s initiative by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty- Securing a Clean Energy Future -recognizes that reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources and promoting the health of our environment requires changes in America’s energy policy now. The initiative has helped bring this issue to the forefront of governors’ policy efforts (nearly 90 percent of governors used their annual State of the State addresses to outline policies on energy, the environment and natural resources) and has positioned states as leaders in developing solutions to the nation’s energy challenges.

States have long served as laboratories for creating domestic policy solutions. And the initiatives and policy recommendations that have come out of NGA-whether in the last 25 years or the last 100-have served as catalysts for real change.

Raymond C. Scheppach, Ph.D., is the executive director of the National Governors Association. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Governors Association.

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