Govs Look to Shape Energy, Transportation

By: , and - February 23, 2009 12:00 am

After successfully securing a federal stimulus package with billions of dollars for state relief, governors now have their sights set on exerting influence in crafting new energy and transportation polices with the Obama administration and Congress.

“States have been leading the way on clean energy and climate change, and we are thrilled to now have a willing partner in the White House to promote these policies on a national stage,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said in a statement following a private meeting on Feb. 21 with 11 other governors and President Obama’s top energy and environment cabinet officials to discuss clean energy and climate change issues.

Already, 23 states have joined regional agreements to lower carbon dioxide pollution. Seven states – Connecticut , California , Hawaii , Massachusetts , Minnesota , New Jersey and Washington – have imposed caps for carbon dioxide released within their own borders.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) said the administration officials promised to push a national “cap-and-trade” policy by summer that Obama has touted. This kind of system sets a limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere, and the limit is gradually reduced. Polluters buy credits allowing them to spew a given amount of carbon dioxide. They can sell leftover credits to other polluters, creating a monetary incentive to reduce emissions.

“There wasn’t a doubt in any one of their minds that there was a firm commitment to move forward,” Gregoire said of the governors’ meeting with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson and Carol Browner, Obama’s energy and climate change czar.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) said the administration’s goal of passing a national law by the end of summer would still allow states to offer their input. “That should not debilitate us. We’ve been studying this for a long time,” Otter said.

Gregoire said she was encouraged by that news since businesses in Washington state were resisting a regional agreement among Western governors to curb carbon pollution for fear the initiative would put businesses in the area at a disadvantage because their costs would be greater than those of companies elsewhere in the U.S.

The governors were in Washington , D.C. , at the National Governors Association annual winter meeting and will meet the president Monday (Feb. 23).

During their meeting, Browner described the stimulus bill as the largest energy bill in American history, a point Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) said showed there were “great opportunities” for proponents of clean and renewable energy. The recently passed stimulus bill includes billions of dollars for building new transmission lines, upgrading the electric grid and improving energy efficiency of homes and government buildings.

The meeting between the governors and top Obama officials resulted from a letter 12 governors sent to President Obama last month seeking a meeting with his energy team. Also present at the meeting were the governors of Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Salazar and Browner also met privately with the Western governors Feb. 22.

On the transportation front, the governors agreed Sunday (Feb. 22) during a closed door session to press the Obama administration to include governors as major players in shaping the nation’s next long-term federal infrastructure plan. Congress is scheduled to take up the legislation this spring.

According to two governors who attended the meeting, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) and Gregoire, the chief executives believe that continuing to rely on the federal gasoline tax to finance the nation’s infrastructure system is inadequate.

The governors want Congress and the White House to explore other sources of money, such as borrowing, increased use of tolls, public-private financing and a system in which drivers would be charged according to the number of miles they travel.

“All of them need to be on the table,” Gregoire said. During the meeting, NGA released a report, An Infrastructure Vision for the 21st Century, that looks at new ways, both public and private, to finance infrastructure needs.

Rounds said the governors did not recommend which source of money is best. “There was no comfort level to suggest a specific tax, but we wanted to say the existing source may no longer be appropriate,” he said.

Rounds said the governors are concerned that, with the recession, the debate over future infrastructure policy could get lost. “We don’t want this to be on the back burner,” he said.

The governors are going to ask Congress to be flexible and not delay the reauthorization of a transportation bill, because the funds are still needed, Gregoire said. “The stimulus is not going to do what we need to get done,” she said.

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.