On the Record: NGA Executive Director Ray Scheppach

 

Names like Bush, Ventura and Glendening may garner the headlines, but Raymond C. Scheppach is the glue quietly holding together the National Governors' Association. Scheppach became the NGA's executive director in an era when an obscure Democratic politician named William Jefferson Clinton was Arkansas' chief executive. Scheppach recently spoke with Stateline.org Senior Writer Blair S. Walker about running one of the nation's most influential political organizations.

Stateline.org : How many people work for the National Governors' Association?

Scheppach : We have more than 80 people.

Stateline.org : And they work primarily in Washington, D.C.?

Scheppach : Totally.

Stateline.org : What kind of annual budget do you have to operate with?

Scheppach : It's about $12 million.

Stateline.org : Who bankrolls your organization?

Scheppach : Well, we're actually two separate entities. We're an instrumentality of state government, and that is our entire lobbying activity. And the states pay dues into that -- I think we get from the states probably around $4.4 million or $4.5 million. That funds all of our lobbyists and our public affairs operation.

We also have the Center for Best Practices, which is actually a 501(c)3 And it focuses mostly on the states. It is funded partly by the federal government, around 40 percent, around 40 percent by foundations. And then we have a little bit of corporate money -- we have corporate fellows, about 80 corporations that pay about $12,000 each. A little bit of that money goes into paying (for the Center for Best Practices) also.

Stateline.org : Does it bother you that if I grabbed 10 people off the street, probably none of them would know what the National Governors' Association is, or what it does?

Scheppach : Well, today I would think that it's better and better known. I would hope that now you'd get one or two that might know what NGA is. Because we're on C-SPAN a lot more. And we have a pretty developed Web page. I think we're getting better and better known.

Stateline.org : Is your mission to act as an advocate, or to facilitate cooperation between governors?

Scheppach : I'd argue that we basically have two missions. One is to speak collectively on behalf of governors and states, relative to the federal government. If you look at the recent Fortune magazine rankings, we're the 12th most powerful lobbying group in Washington. So, that's pretty significant.

Our second mission is how to help governors become better governors in their individual states. We do a lot of training sessions. We set up a training session for new governors as soon as they're elected. We have about a two- to three-day retreat where we help them. And we have sessions for press aides, for chief of staffs, for policy people. So we probably have 50 of those sessions. : Does the Center for Best Practices almost function like a think tank?

Scheppach : It does some think tank stuff, yeah. We try to do some cutting-edge types of issues. We're doing a lot of work on technology, a lot of work on the New Economy. I think we're trying to think through what federal/state relations should be (looking) out a couple of years. So, we do some of that.

But I would say 80 percent of the function really is to share best practice information. I mean, these governors like to steal the best ideas from each other. So what we are is a mechanism. So we're constantly surveying and gathering information and putting out publications.

We do a lot of special request information. You may get a request from a state that says, `Tell me which of five states have the best programs in technology and education. What we'll do often times is just a short five- or six-page memo back to that state, that sort of summarizes what we think are the best programs. That's not something we do publicly, it just goes back to the individual state.

Stateline.org : What are some of the more popular ideas that have been shared in recent years?

Scheppach : A lot of them have been around the New Economy . . . how to link universities to your commercial business sectors. What can you put up on the Web that's very, very efficient?

Entrepreneurship -- we're also doing what we call an academy. We have a grant where we're going to be convening about eight states. And what we'll do is convene them over the next year, with four or five people from their states. So they'll go back and work on how to develop a program for entrepreneurs. Then they come back again and everybody critiques it. So at the end of a year, they're hopeful that they can have new programs, either developed under executive order, or they go back to the legislatures for legislation.

Stateline.org : How frank and up-front do closed-door discussions between governors typically get?

Scheppach : You mean during governors-only (sessions)?

Stateline.org : Yes.

Scheppach : Very frank, very candid.

Stateline.org : Are there clashes of personality and strongly defended ideas? : Once in a great while. Yeah, we've seen that. But if you were to ask the average governor why do they come to NGA meetings, it's to talk with their colleagues. Both in those governors-only sessions, as well as in separate kinds of sessions.

Stateline.org : Do the governors drive they agenda, or does Ray Scheppach drive it?

Scheppach : (Laughs) Well, we often times come up with suggestions and bring topics up. This last year, we thought that NGA should start working on New Economy types of things. And it happened to be something that (outgoing NGA chairman, Republican Utah) Gov. (Mike) Leavitt wanted to sort of grab ahold of.

Stateline.org : It you contrast the federal relations piece of what you do with the sharing of ideas among governors, how do they compare percentage-wise?

Scheppach : In terms of budget and time?

Stateline.org : In terms of your time.

Scheppach : Well, that's interesting. I guess if you had asked me that a couple of years ago, I probably would have said 70 to 80 percent would have gone to federal. Since I've brought in (Director of State/Federal Affairs) Frank (Shafroth), who sort of handles that day-to-day, to be honest with you, I'm a lot more evenly balanced.

And, I think, probably over the next year may in fact spend more time on the state-oriented types of things. Part of that is because this is a political year.

If you were to ask the average governor over time, what does NGA provide for you?, I think three years ago eight, or nine, out of 10 would have said, "the lobbying function. They protect me from the federal government."

Now if think if you were to ask, you would probably get six. But the other four would say, `They're real helpful to me in terms of policy in my state.' So, the Center (for Best Practices) has actually moved up, I think, in terms of priorities. We've been really working very hard to change the whole culture of the Center. We used to do publications, and hope that the governors would listen in.

Now, we do some of that, but we're doing a lot quicker types of information. We're doing shorter issue briefs, we put them up on the Net very, very quickly, and we're trying to do a lot more tailored assistance to the governors. At times, we will actually send teams out to a state.

If they have a problem with child care, we will send a person who knows about child care. But that person may bring with them three people from three other states. So, I think you'll find now that the Center for Best Practices is becoming more and more important.

Stateline.org : Were you appointed executive director, or elected?

Scheppach : I was appointed actually . . . I'm trying to think, it's probably been 16 or 17 years now. Basically, I had a three-year contract at that time and, uh, the contract has never been renewed and I've never been terminated. So, I just continue on.

Stateline.org : How much longer do you plan to do this?

Scheppach : I don't know. I really care about public policy, and if you care about public policy, this is probably one of the best places to work. Because you can work with the governors to influence federal legislation, and when you get too frustrated with that, you can turn around and work with the states.

If you look at what's happened in the U.S., really how the U.S. makes policy, you'll find that most things bubble up in the states, then come to the federal government, now.

Stateline.org : Who are some of the more colorful individuals among the governors?

Scheppach : It goes around -- you have people like Gov. Leavitt who are visionaries in terms of the New Economy. You have people like (Republican Gov.) Bill Janklow from South Dakota, who are willing to really stand up and do what they think is necessary. He's closed down the Canadian border a few times because he hasn't liked what the Canadians are doing. Even though he realizes he doesn't have the power, he will find some old law within his state that allows him to, and he will be willing to create a crisis and he's very, very colorful.

Jesse Ventura obviously is very colorful. In the past, we've had (former Louisiana Gov.) Edwin Edwards and some others. To visit the National Governors' Association Web site, click here.

 
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