Few Governors Tout Bold Initiatives

 

In his state of the state address last month, Vermont Gov. James H. Douglas (R) said that the state should track convicted drug dealers the same way it does sexual predators, by publicizing their names and addresses.

Modeled after state "Megan's Laws," Douglas's drug fighting proposal is one of only a handful of truly innovative proposals made by governors in their state of the state addresses this year.

Like the president's State of the Union speech, governors address the legislature early every year to report on their states' accomplishments, push their legislative agendas and reveal innovative proposals. But a widespread budget crisis and the stagnant economy have dominated most state of the state speeches this year, and only a few governors announced new programs or pushed pet projects.

"In recent times when there have been sufficient surpluses to think about doing something new, governors could promote new projects. What you're hearing now is a rhetoric of responsibility... (and) we won't see a lot of spending proposals this year," said Fred Antczak, a political speech expert at the University of Iowa.

Instead, some governors came up with inexpensive proposals to promote their agendas.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) also addressed illegal drugs in his state of the state speech, focusing on the dramatic increase of methamphetamine abuse and trafficking in his state.

Owens did not propose any increased spending for drug prevention, but he recommended legislation that would expand the definition of child abuse to include manufacturing methamphetamine drugs in the presence of a child.

"Ladies and gentlemen, if there was ever an example of child abuse, this is it," Owens told the legislature.

In Delaware, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) said in her state of the state speech that her administration plans to create a voluntary curriculum for character education that she said will produce better students and citizens. She said that character education classes could be added to school districts at little or no cost.

"As we develop our children's intellect and abilities, we should also seek to develop in them virtues that are good for them and good for society," Minner said.

Improving and protecting education is typically a common theme in state of the state speeches. In 2001 for example, Stateline.org reported over 200 education-related proposals. These included teacher quality and recruiting proposals, a laptop initiative for grade-schoolers in Maine and stricter standardized testing in many states.

This year almost every governor mentioned education as a high priority in state of the state speeches, but only four governors asked for money to fund new proposals.

  • Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) proposed a Summer Start program for kindergartners in his state of the state speech that would bring kids to kindergarten class two months before, and extend two months after the kindergarten year. Musgrove said that Summer Start would reduce dropout rates and increase the skills of Mississippi's future workforce, saving the state millions in the long run.
  • Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) urged the legislature to establish full-day kindergarten classes in her state of the state address. Napolitano said the budget crisis should not deter lawmakers from taking action to raise Arizona from its last place designation in quality of education.
  • Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) also proposed full-day kindergarten in his state of the state speech, saying "Research and common sense tells us that full-day kindergarteners perform better on standardized tests, and attain higher levels of achievement in reading and mathematics." 
  • New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) asked the legislature to use $11 million in federal welfare block grant funds to jump-start full-day kindergarten classes in his state of the state speech.

Vermont Gov. Douglas's "Megan's Law" for drug dealers was part of a four-year, $4.5 million drug prevention program and one of the largest funding request for a new program in this year's state of the state speeches.

About half the amount - $2 million would come from federal matching funds, Douglas said. Vermont is also the only state in the country that allows the legislature to run deficits, which it did during the last recession in the early 1990s. A spokesperson for the legislature's Joint Fiscal Office said that lawmakers do not plan to run a deficit during this economic downturn.

The hallmark of Douglas's program would be a registry for convicted drug dealers that would provide the public with the names and addresses of convicted drug dealers. The law was first named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey who was raped and murdered by her neighbor, a twice-convicted sex offender. Her parents helped establish a sex offender registration law that has since been adopted by every state.

"Today, convicted drug dealers can enter your neighborhood to live, and begin peddling their deadly wares without you ever knowing they are there," Douglas said.

The program would also include harsher penalties for drug crimes and would place a substance abuse counselor in every middle and high school by 2007. The stricter laws would impose a mandatory life sentence for selling drugs that cause the death of a child.

 
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