Alaska, Massachusetts Governors Sell Budgets with Advertising
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
In a fresh approach to legislative arm-twisting, the new governors of Alaska and Massachusetts used newspaper ads and paid political broadcasts this year to try to rally public support for their budgets.
Alaska Gov Frank Murkowski (R) dipped into discretionary funds to finance a 30-minute, $4,500 fireside chat about his budget aired on statewide TV on March 30. The state Republican Party paid another $17,000 to include a four-page advertisement for Murkowski's proposals in a May 5 special edition of The Anchorage Chronicle on the budget debate that went to 70,000 subscribers.
Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney (R) reached out to Bay State residents following his budget battle with the legislature with a 60 second radio spot that cost his state party $20,000. The spots urged the public to help Romney "hold the line" on taxes.
The new approach seems to have worked. In Alaska, Murkowski got nearly everything he wanted in the budget approved by the legislature except sales and gas tax increases. He has said he plans to offset projected revenue losses from those two setbacks with line item vetoes of spending items that he regards as low priority.
Romney's message also appears to have gotten through. The separate Massachusetts House and Senate versions of the budget do not include any substantive new taxes at this point, but legislative leaders still have to forge a final compromise.
There's nothing new about governors employing advertising to deliver non-partisan messages. Chief executives such as Mark Warner (D-Va.), George Pataki (R-N.Y.), and Gray Davis (D-Calif.) routinely produce state-funded public service announcements on issues such as water use, tourism or nutrition.
But Davis generated controversy in April for appearing in a state-funded anti-smoking ad that came out as he was proposing to cut back anti-tobacco spending. And Murkowski and Romney blazed a new trail by hawking their budget plans in paid ads.
"The governor will use every tool at his disposal to advance his agenda. A commercial advertisement allows you to convey your message without having to go through a media filter," Romney spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom told Stateline.org.
"We wanted to get the whole message out intact," Murkowski spokesman John Manly said.
Massachusetts GOP spokesman Nathan Little said Romney's ad was a success because the budget so far doesn't include new taxes. "The reaction from Democrats on the Hill was high-pitched and shriek-ish as usual," Little said.
Readers complained to The Boston Globe that Romney had a conflict of interest in letting the GOP pay for his ad blitz and columnist Eileen McNamara said the ads distorted the budget debate. "Inexplicably, the governor has launched an advertising blitz against phantom tax-and-spend Democrats. Where are they?" she wrote.
And the Anchorage Daily News scolded Murkowski for using state employees to write his advertising insert. "Did the deal cross the line about what government employees should be doing?" it asked.
Murkowski's spokesman defended the communication strategy, saying it's the staff's job to convey the governor's priorities. But Manly said he would advise other governors who are considering TV ads to advance their agendas to expect a backlash.
"The first thing they're going to get hit with is, You're wasting tax dollars to produce a TV show and you're taking it out of the mouths of babies and pregnant mothers,'" Manly said.
Some political ad experts said governors' advertisements could alarm voters who see a conflict of interest in letting political parties pay for an elected official's messages about state policymaking.
"Voters are very cynical about politicians to begin with, and if they see groups paying for a governor's ads, it ought to send red flags up," said Brown University political science professor Darrell West.
Montague Kern, associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, said governors who advertise "have the right to do it, and they have to live with the consequences of getting their message out through special interests."
"That can be a real downside. But there's nothing that says governors have to get their message out through the press," she said.