In fact, you have to wonder why any of the nation’s 50 governors would want the post. Being the chief executive of a state "is not a particularly fun job at the moment," says Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. Forty-seven of the nation's 50 governors are staring at budget shortfalls this fiscal year totaling $80 billion, forcing them to slash popular programs or raise taxes. None so far is threatened with being ousted by a recall like the one Davis faces. But for many a pink slip might be a blessing in disguise. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who's been in the pressure cooker seven years, likes to give this advice to new governors, only half jokingly: "demand a recount and hope you've lost." Four states where the post is losing its luster:
John Rowland celebrated his 1995 inauguration as Connecticut’s 37-year-old governor by chugging a beer with old fraternity brothers while standing on his head. Now the party’s over. When the economy soared and he had budget surpluses to play with his first two terms, “Teflon John,” as he used to be known, easily weathered a series of mini-scandals, like paying a $2,000 fine for improperly accepting box seats to a Jimmy Buffett show and other concerts. But voters haven’t been so tolerant of the “Rockin’ Rowland Tour,” as the local press dubbed it, since the economy tanked and state revenues shrank. Rowland has seen his approval ratings free fall from a high of 78% to 31% in July. He now jokes with state pollsters about not being so eager to field surveys.
This summer Connecticut faced a $2 billion deficit over the next fiscal year (a whopping amount considering the state budget for that period is only $13.5 billion), which put Rowland in an ugly fight with his legislature. Taking his cue from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dispatched his Texas Rangers to hunt for Democratic lawmakers in a redistricting battle, Rowland at one point sent out state troopers armed with subpoenas to round up Connecticut legislators slow in reaching a compromise. As it was, Connecticut was one of six states to miss its deadline for producing a budget. When one was finally enacted on Aug. 16, voters there saw not only state income taxes raised, but less aid sent to 100 municipalities which means local property taxes might have to be raised to make up the difference. “It wasn’t fun,” Rowland says of the last two months, and next year’s fiscal picture “isn’t going to be any prettier.”
Bottom line: Connecticut doesn’t have a recall provision but Rockin’ Rowland’s tour could end after this term if the economy doesn’t improve.
THOU SHALT NOT TAX
In the eyes of the Alabama Republican Party, Bob Riley is a sinner. He’s a conservative Republican and a born-again Baptist who had been proud of the fact that during his three terms in Congress he’d never voted for more taxes. Now, just six months after becoming Alabama’s governor, Riley is committing the ultimate GOP heresy: trying to ram through a $1.2 billion tax increase that would hit hardest the state’s wealthiest Republicans who enthusiastically backed him during the campaign because he promised never to do such a thing. State GOP Chairman Marty Connors is beside himself. “It’s too big, too fast, too soon,” he gripes. Riley’s plan would result in almost a one-fourth increase in the state’s $5.3 billion budget.
Riley says the Bible tells him a hike is needed. The state faces a $675 million debt and not much left in services to cut. Alabama has an education system that ranks 49th in the country, prisons designed for 12,000 inmates that now have 27,000 crammed in them, and so few state troopers that after midnight only a half dozen patrol 67,500 miles of road. The state’s regressive tax system, whose burden now falls heaviest on low-income earners, is “immoral,” he says. “And taking care of the poor is the right thing to do.”
Riley is airing infomercials on his tax plan and has Democratic lawmakers backing him. But his own party and the Alabama Christian Coalition are fighting it. Alabamans, who have a deep-seated hatred for higher taxes, have a provision in their constitution, dating back to 1901, which requires any increase to be approved by the voters. So far, polls show Riley’s plan losing by 25 percentage points.
Bottom line: That old constitution doesn’t have a recall provision but Riley’s courage may cost him his job if he runs for reelection in 2006.
PRAYING FOR RAIN
You know you’re in trouble as a governor when you have to pray for rain but without the lightning in order to ease your budget crunch. Drought-parched Montana is being ravaged by fires and Republican Gov. Judy Martz has enraged social activists and Democratic legislators by diverting money they believe should be spent on welfare programs to fight the blaze.
Martz enjoys the distinction of having poll numbers worse than Gray Davis’s: a 20% approval rating as of the last count. A former Olympic speed skater, she’s had her share of ethical lapses. When an intoxicated top aide drove off a mountain road, killing a passenger in his car, Martz had him spirited off to the governor’s mansion where she washed the blood from his clothes. He was given a suspended sentence for negligent homicide.
But Montana’s tax base also has shrunk, which has forced deep cuts in education, health and welfare programs. And the biggest blow for Martz came from what ended up being an ill-advised utility deregulation approved by her predecessor, Gov. Marc Racicot, who went on to chair the Republican National Committee, then Bush’s reelection committee. Before deregulation, the state’s residents enjoyed the nation’s fifth lowest utility rates from Montana Power Company. But then the unregulated company sold off its generation and transmission equipment and plowed the $2 billion in profits into a telecom subsidiary that went bankrupt. The result: utility rates soared and are still going up as power lines collapse in the forest fires.
Bottom line: Montana has a recall provision but Martz has escaped it by tearfully announcing last month that she won’t run for reelection next year.
NOT DR. SEUSS!
When Tennessee was staggered by budget shortfalls in 2001, then Republican Gov. Don Sundquist proposed an income tax for state residents instead of another hike in the sales tax, which was already one of the highest in the country. The GOP all but disowned him, conservative talk show hosts began vilifying him and a mob gathered on the Capitol’s steps in Nashville hurling rocks that crashed through his window. An embittered Sundquist settled for another penny hike in the sales tax then left office when his term ended last January, refusing to campaign for the Republican candidate who wanted to replace him.
Democrat Phil Bredesen, a self-made millionaire, won the seat telling voters they’d never hear a peep out of him about an income tax to balance the budget. But Bredesen quickly realized the one-cent sale tax hike wouldn’t be nearly enough to cover the budget shortfall. “The problems were more severe than I thought they would be,” he says. So Bredesen, who’s refusing a salary, took a meat cleaver to the budget, slashing $400 million and 847 state jobs. State officials may even repossess library books including Dr. Seuss from rural schools that haven’t paid their bills. “Moses didn’t bring an 11th Commandment down saying state revenues always have to go up,” says Bredesen. “You have to be able to manage when times are good and times are bad, and sometimes you have to tell your constituents no.”
Bottom line: Tennessee has no recall provision and Bredesen should weather the pain as long as he doesn’t stand near a window. with reporting by Amanda Bower and Mitch Frank/New York; Frank Sikora/Birmingham; Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville; and Pat Dawson/Billings