Charlie Baker is a Republican health care executive who hopes to unseat Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick this November, in part with a plan he cleverly calls " Baker's dozen ," or 13 ways to save taxpayers well over $1 billion that includes various schemes for shrinking state government. "Right now, under this administration, state government is not working," Baker says in a recent campaign ad.
Meanwhile in New York, Andrew Cuomo's gubernatorial campaign has unveiled "The new agenda: A Plan for Action," that in 252 pages details how the current attorney general wants to freeze salary increases for state employees and reduce by 20 percent the number of state agencies toward "rightsizing" a state government that he says is too big, ineffective and expensive. "The New York State government was at one time a national model. Now, unfortunately, it's a national disgrace," says the son of former Governor Mario Cuomo, who is favored in the polls to follow his father into the governor's mansion.
There are proposals for change in virtually every one of the 37 states where governors will be elected this November. Some of the ideas are genuinely substantive. Most of the time, though, they avoid specific plans for raising revenue or cutting spending and focus on governmental process.
In Connecticut, several candidates want to institute "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles" or GAAP, considered the highest standard for accounting and financial reporting. Candidates for governor in Colorado, Georgia, Oregon, and Pennsylvania say they want to incorporate "zero-based budgeting," in which every state department function is reviewed comprehensively and all expenditures must be looked at, rather than only requested increases. Aside from the fact that zero-based budgeting has been tried in a variety of jurisdictions over the past generation with decidedly mixed results, it represents pure procedure, not fiscal substance.
"When candidates don't want to talk about substance, they talk about process," says Nick Johnson, director of the state fiscal project for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. While not commenting on any candidate's particular plan, he says what is often left out are details for balancing the budget. "None of this is surprising," he says, because erasing deficits often involves painful cuts or raising taxes, neither of which are popular among voters.
Daunting task ahead
The men and women elected governor this fall are going to need all the help they can get when they take office in January. Even if the fragile economic recovery picks up, most states will face millions, if not billions, of dollars of deficits in fiscal 2012 and will have to balance them largely without federal stimulus money. This will take more than reforms in procedure; it will take painful decisions about where to cut and where to tax.
Even the most substantive of the proposals have been tried before in many places. Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation
in Boston, says some of the ideas in Baker's plan, such as his pension proposals, are good, but are hardly new, noting that politicians have lacked the political will to get many of them passed in earlier years. Widmer figures Baker's overall plan would probably save no more than $500 million, half the amount Baker promises. He adds that, so far in the campaign, "political rhetoric ignores reality" in that all three candidates - Baker, Patrick
and state Treasurer Tim Cahill, running as an independent-
vow to cut taxes but don't say how they will close an impending $2 billion budget gap for 2012. "It's surreal. It's as if we were in the 1990s and were in a booming economy," he says.
In New York, E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy
, a project of the Manhattan Institute
, calls Cuomo's agenda "semi-bold." He lauds Cuomo for proposing a tighter cap on property taxes than the one recently enacted in neighboring New Jersey, but says the rest of Cuomo's plan is timid. "Blowing up the clutter of outdated and duplicative boxes on the state organizational chart, as Cuomo also promises to do, is all well and good. But as he surely knows, this won't save money unless the remaining agencies also employ many fewer employees," McMahon recently wrote
Former U.S. Congressman Rick Lazio and wealthy businessman Carl Paladino are vying for the Republican nomination to challenge Cuomo. While they don't have agendas that total 252 pages, they likewise call for overhauls. Lazio's 24-page agenda
vows, like Cuomo's, to freeze state salary increases and shrink the state workforce. Paladino promises
to reduce spending by 30 percent. All three candidates want to reform Medicaid and state pensions. Whoever wins, the next governor of New York will likely have to close at least a $7.5 billion budget gap for 2012.
But nearly two-thirds of polled New Yorkers said they would like to know more about Cuomo's fiscal plan. Voters say by a margin of 63 — 23 percent that Cuomo has not done enough to explain how he will fix New York State's budget problems, according to poll results
released September 1 by independent researchers at Quinnipiac University. That same poll found Cuomo leading either of his Republican rivals by more than 2-1.
"Is it fair to ask if Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, as the runaway favorite for Governor, has done enough to tell New Yorkers where he stands on issues? Voters think it is," Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in a statement
Big ideas in California
Of all the fiscally challenged states, some may argue California is most in need of budget ideas as it remains the only state without a budget in place for the current fiscal year that began July 1.
Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay and Republican candidate for governor, says she has found $15 billion in spending cuts that she would make if elected governor and would order a top-to-bottom review of state government. She pledges to institute a spending cap, consolidate agencies, reduce the state payroll by 40,000 employees, institute merit pay for state workers, and reform the state's pension system. She also wants to make the Legislature part-time, according to her 48-page "Building a New California" briefing book
released during the primary season.
Her Democratic rival, attorney general Jerry Brown, has yet to release a budget plan and probably won't. "The plan is the process," Brown said in one MSNBC interview
. He says the governor must make clear to the people, in a "painful, step-by-step" process what the realistic options are, including lots of cuts and moving functions of state government to the local level. He says he is against tax increases unless they're approved by the people. "Anything you do, whether to cut or to seek revenue, is going to require a vote of the people," he says.
But as Stateline previously reported
, Whitman is not the first to call for a process-based overhaul of California government. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his 2004 State of the State address after being elected governor in a 2003 special election, promised: "Every governor proposes moving boxes around to reorganize government. I don't want to move the boxes around; I want to blow them up."
Mark Baldassare, president of Public Policy Institute of California
(PPIC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, says that an endless string of late state budgets has "become a sign of California government dysfunction" and that the issue is clearly on voters' minds. The race in California is still very close. "For voters to make up their minds, the candidates will have to answer serious questions" about how they will tackle California's budget problems, Baldassare says.
Fred Silva, senior fiscal policy advisor at the reform group called CalForward
, says the grim reality is that whoever wins will face at least a $10 billion budget deficit. "Neither candidate has identified what they will do to close that gap," he says.
Stateline staff writers John Gramlich, David Harrison, Melissa Maynard and Daniel C. Vock and intern Joey Peters contributed to this report.