States Tackle Health, Energy and Climate — Why Not Washington?

Posted June 25, 2008 at 2:14pm

As the National Governors Association gets ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the states are once again stepping up to serious problems that the partisanship-possessed federal government can’t or won’t face.

[IMGCAP(1)]Whether it’s health care reform, climate change, alternative energy or competitiveness, dozens of states are doing things that Congress and the Bush administration sometimes can barely agree to even talk about.

It’s an old tradition, of course. In the Progressive Era, when the NGA was founded in 1908, states changed labor conditions and tried to control monopolies and securities fraud long before Washington, D.C., got around to reform.

More recently, it was the Northeastern states that started the movement to control acid rain and other air pollutants. It was governors such as Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson and Michigan’s John Engler who pioneered welfare reform. And Tennessee’s (now-Sen.) Lamar Alexander and Arkansas’s Bill Clinton promoted education standards.

Part of the NGA’s meeting in Philadelphia July 11-14 will be devoted to commemorating the states’ achievements since President Theodore Roosevelt met with 39 governors at the White House in May 1908.

Two years later, New Jersey Gov.-elect Woodrow Wilson proposed establishing a permanent organization. Clinton is scheduled to keynote the NGA’s historical remembrance. President Bush and former President Jimmy Carter, also former governors, declined invitations, according to NGA Executive Director Ray Scheppach.

But the main business of this NGA meeting will be new challenges — clean energy alternatives, financial market disorder, early childhood education, reintegrating soldiers returning from war — that Congress and the White House have barely begun to deal with.

In fact, it’s an embarrassment how little the federal government has done on such issues as health care reform, clean energy and competitiveness — huge national problems — compared to state initiatives.

What’s more, Scheppach, who has been the NGA’s executive director for a quarter of its history, expects that states will continue to have to take the lead on major domestic issues no matter who is elected president in November — even if it’s Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) with big Democratic majorities in Congress.

On the health care front, the federal government is stymied by partisanship.

Not only is comprehensive reform just a debating issue, but last year Bush vetoed a measure to expand children’s insurance coverage. This year, Democrats won’t accept his tacit admission that he was too chintzy and reach a compromise.

Meanwhile, states are forging ahead. It’s well-known that Massachusetts, under former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and a Democratic legislature, passed a mandatory insurance law. It’s less well-known that Maine and Vermont also have programs, without mandates, to offer coverage to everyone.

Beyond that, all the ideas being talked about at the national level — small-business insurance pools, premium assistance programs, pay-for-performance, “connectors” to pool individuals, prevention and wellness, chronic disease management, information technology and other quality improvements — are being experimented with in dozens of states from Oklahoma to Minnesota and Rhode Island to California.

The federal government can’t guarantee coverage to all children, but Illinois and Wisconsin are in the process of doing so.

On climate change and energy, Senate filibusters have blocked the setting of limits on greenhouse emissions and standards for the use of renewable energy by utilities, but the states have teamed up in three regional compacts to do the former and 26 states have done the latter.

Two of the states leading the way on renewable portfolio standards for utilities are Minnesota and Pennsylvania, whose governors, Republican Tim Pawlenty and Democrat Ed Rendell, are chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the NGA — and potential vice presidential candidates.

Congress may get around to partly funding the 2007 America Competes Act, designed to promote scientific research and science education, but last year’s NGA chairwoman, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), set the governors on a course to use their state universities and local community colleges as engines of research and training.

And, bipartisan wrangling — some admittedly encouraged by the states — has stymied Congressional reauthorization of Bush’s No Child Left Behind school standards program.

But the governors, led two years ago by Virginia’s Mark Warner, did get started on a uniform national graduation standard and created a new organization, Achieve Inc., dedicated to setting voluntary curriculum standards pegged to international benchmarks.

With both Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Obama promising to end partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., perhaps some breakthroughs are possible on health, energy and competitiveness in 2009. They might be easy if Obama comes in with nearly 60 Democrats in the Senate.

But Scheppach thinks that, from his first day in office, the new president is likely to be consumed with foreign affairs and the economy, leaving little time and energy for domestic initiatives.

Ideally, the next Congress and the next president would examine what states have done and help them do more. It might help if the next vice president was a governor who could show the way.