Three incoming governors have the bread-and-butter issues of schools, taxes and health care atop their agendas, but their own state's role in making the United States more energy independent also ranks as a high priority.
Stateline.org talked to the governors-elect of Colorado, Florida and Maryland about their legislative goals between sessions of a Nov. 17-19 seminar for freshmen governors at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
All three will take over in states where their own parties control both chambers of the statehouse, potentially giving them a leg up in trying to push through their agendas.
Colorado Gov.-elect Bill Ritter
Governor-elect Bill Ritter (D)
(D) intends to focus on making higher education more affordable and health care more accessible, two thorny issues that he admits will unlikely be solved during the first legislative session. He also said he aims "to move the state and the country forward" in using renewable energy.
Ritter, the former Denver district attorney, said his state is next-to-last in spending per college pupil. "How we go forward and find sustained funding for higher education is a challenge," he said.
On the health care front, he said Colorado has a high percentage of uninsured compared to other states, at 17 percent. Ritter said he has talked to officials in Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont about their programs to provide medical insurance to more people. They advised against trying to tackle such an ambitious project in the first legislative session without first talking with all the involved parties, such as consumers, physicians, medical schools, large and small businesses, unions and the self-employed.
To bring down the cost of prescription drugs, Ritter said he likely would sign a measure that his predecessor, Gov. Bill Owens (R), twice vetoed that would require the state to join a multi-state drug-purchasing pool.
On energy, Ritter said that Colorado has the ability to innovate with wind power, solar power and biofuels, and that he hopes Congress will extend some tax credits to encourage investments in those fields. During the campaign, Ritter laid out a seven-point energy plan that includes working with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, both Democrats, on a regional plan to generate clean energy and reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Ritter's victory over his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, returns the governor's seat to Democratic control after eight years under Owens, who stepped down because of term limits. Democrats also control both chambers of the statehouse.
Florida Gov.-elect Charlie Crist
|Governor-elect Charlie Crist (R)
(R) puts lowering property taxes and property insurance for Florida homeowners, curbing the state's climbing murder rate and expanding alternative fuels at the top of his legislative wish list
To relieve the pinch of rising property taxes, Crist wants to double the state's $25,000 homestead exemption and make "portable" the existing 3 percent cap on the amount a property tax can increase each year so that homeowners can take their current tax rate with them when they move. To do that, he said he plans to ask the Legislature to put the question to voters.
Crist noted that Florida voters overwhelmingly approved property-tax relief measures that benefit seniors and veterans that state lawmakers put on the Nov. 7 ballot. He predicted voters likewise will endorse his plan. "It will be a piece of cake," he said.
To solve the problem of skyrocketing homeowner insurance premiums, Crist wants to bar companies that sell homeowner's insurance in other states from refusing to sell homeowner insurance in hurricane-prone Florida. "We need to make this cherry picking illegal," he said.
On the crime front, Crist, who was previously state attorney general, said he will push for "anti-murder" legislation that would keep violent offenders who violate probation in jail until a judge finds they do not pose to a danger to the community. The Florida House passed similar legislation in the last session, but the Senate didn't act on it, he said.
On energy matters, Crist said he opposes off-shore drilling but supports tax credits and research funds to use Florida's sugarcane and citrus waste to make ethanol.
Crist became the first Republican since Reconstruction to succeed another Republican for the Florida governorship, beating five-term U.S. Rep. Jim Davis (D) to fill the shoes of term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush. The GOP also controls both the Florida House and Senate.
Maryland Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley
|Governor-elect Martin O'Malley (D)
(D) has set his sights on replicating a "good government" plan in Annapolis that he successfully launched as mayor of Baltimore.
O'Malley said that government performance may sound "ho-hum" but that a responsive and accountable government is crucial "to making government work." The program will likely be called "StateStat," modeled after CitiStat" that in 2004 won an "Innovations in American Government Award" from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
As part of the CitiStat program, O'Malley would grill top city officials about the performance of their departments in biweekly meetings. Baltimore estimated the program saved the city $12 million. Syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, of the Washington Post Writers Group, said Citistat "may represent the most significant local government management innovation of this decade."
Making college education more affordable, health care more accessible and biotech and defense jobs more plentiful are other top O'Malley initiatives. "Middle-class families are being squeezed by the soaring costs of health care, energy and higher education," he said.
O'Malley also said he will pump more state dollars into higher education to turn around a 40 percent hike in tuition Marylanders endured in the last four years. "We went from an `A' to an `F' in college affordability. …We would like to see that reversed," he said.
In some ways, O'Malley said, his state doesn't need new legislation or programs but better administration of existing polices, including "smart growth planning" aimed at preventing urban sprawl and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. "We need to stop poorly planned growth."
O'Malley narrowly ousted Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., the state's first GOP governor in 33 years, securing a return to Democratic control of both the governor's office and both houses of the Legislature.