As the nation’s governors gather for a convention here this weekend, the challenge facing state leaders is familiar: balancing budgets as revenues decline and the demand for government resources rises.
But for a sizable number of those attending the National Governors Assn.'s summer meeting, the task of navigating those challenges will not be theirs much longer.
By next year, no fewer than 24 states will have new governors. Most openings are a result of term limits, but at least a half dozen more governors chose not to seek reelection in a turbulent political environment. One incumbent already has been defeated in a primary, and many more face difficult races this November.
Even the man who is to become chairman of the Governors Assn., West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, may leave his seat early to run for the U.S. Senate. As a result, the final turnover rate could surpass 30 governorships, believed to be a historic high.
“It’s quite significant at a challenging time to the states,” said Republican Jim Douglas, outgoing association chairman and the soon-to-be-former governor of Vermont.
The turnover could be significant on a political level as well. Democrats have a 26-24 majority of governorships. But 37 states are holding gubernatorial elections this fall. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates 12 of those races as potential Republican victories — including four currently held by Democrats. Of seven states listed as potential Democratic wins, only one would represent a pickup from Republicans. The newsletter lists 18 races as toss ups.
The financial challenges faced by governors are a focal point of the conference. A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that states were forced to grapple with combined budget deficits of nearly $150 billion in 2009. The budget picture is growing worse, as stopgap federal aid is due to expire and an anticipated recovery has been slow to materialize.
“This downturn is deeper than I think we could have anticipated and that’s why you’re seeing such tremendous responses in terms of budget cuts at this point,” Douglas said.
The reality that many governors are attending their final governors’ group meeting is not lost on the attendees, who express concern about what new governors will inherit, not just with state finances but in implementing the new federal healthcare law, a major topic on the agenda.
But several retiring governors said their status has freed them to make decisions that may have been impossible under reelection pressures.
“Hopefully, I’ve taken a lot of the hard politics out of it, so whoever has to come in is going to find that they’re continuing down a road that’s already been plowed,” said Democratic Gov. John Baldacci of Maine. “They don’t have to worry about stepping on toes or breaking dishes. That’s already been done for them.”
Republican Donald L. Carcieri, who is finishing his second term as Rhode Island’s governor, said the change can also be positive. “It’s going to be a challenging time, but it’s a time when it’s going to take people with creative ideas willing to challenge the tough issues,” he said.
Carcieri pointed to New Jersey’s new governor, Republican Chris Christie, as someone who was able to seize an electoral mandate to make serious changes that the previous administration had been unable to achieve.
Christie spoke Friday about his most significant battle of in his first year, challenging public sector unions to assume a greater share of health care and retirement costs.
Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, said she is working to create a blueprint her successor can build from, while maintaining communication with the candidates about the tough choices ahead. “I jokingly said to a couple of them on both sides of the aisle: ‘Do you really want this job?’ ”