Hard Times, Hard Feelings

NEAL R. PEIRCE

March 30, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

In New Jersey, it's the liberal Democratic congressman who won the governorship by a landslide and then ramrodded through $2.8 billion in new taxes. He had his political head handed to him last fall as Republicans rebounded to veto-proof majorities in both houses of the legislature. At last count, Gov. James Florio's voter approval rating stood at 26 percent -- a recovery of a few points since last year when it was at 17 percent.

L But are big taxers the only governors in the political soup?

In Michigan, consider the case of Republican Gov. John Engler, who narrowly defeated a Democratic incumbent in 1990 and has since crusaded to reduce -- not increase -- taxes. Governor Engler has been on an unrelenting slash-and-cut mission aimed particularly at government programs for the poor.

Governor Florio raised taxes to fund a court-ordered school-equalization program to aid big-city school systems such Camden, Newark and Paterson. Governor Engler's social cuts have been aimed at such scorned inner cities as Detroit, Pontiac, Lansing and Flint, where thousands of ''general assistance'' adult welfare recipients have lost all benefits.

But has Mr. Engler emerged as a people's hero? Hardly. His voter approval has sunk as a result of hard economic times, the seeming callousness of his cuts and his refusal to negotiate on the budget. He gets 32 percent approval.

It's the rare governor who is popular with the voters these days. The third-term Democrat Mario Cuomo in New York is down to 37 percent approval. The figure is 28 percent for the freshman Republican Pete Wilson in California, who last year raised taxes and cut budgets to cover a staggering $14 billion deficit -- and who still faces billions of dollars more in shortfalls this year. Crusading for Connecticut's first income tax, the Independent Lowell Weicker sank to 23 percent approval.

Somewhat better off are Democrat Roy Romer in Colorado, with 59 percent approval, and Republican William Weld in Massachusetts at 55 percent. But the veteran Republican Terry Bransted is down to 42 percent approval in Iowa; Republican Arne Carlson gets only 36 percent in Minnesota.

In Texas, Democrat Ann Richards has cut a colorful swath but still gets excellent or good ratings from only 49 percent of voters. Democrat Lawton Chiles of Florida has ingenious ideas for restructuring state government, but grim deficit battles have driven his ''excellent-good'' rating down to 23 percent. Governor Schaefer comes in at only 30 percent in Maryland.

''We're developing a new way to define term limits -- one-term governors by default of what they did,'' says the University of North Carolina political scientist Tad Byle. His soon-to-be-published book is ''Governors and Hard Times.''

Why are governors being racked and pilloried by a system that made so many of them look like heroes during the 1980s? You can find many explanations.

One is declining American economic strength, highlighted by the recession but rooted even more deeply in our loss of international competitiveness. Now the pain is impacting the level of government where deficit spending is constitutionally forbidden.

A second is that a lot of voters expect government to provide more for less -- more money for school reform, more for prisons, more for the homeless and social programs -- without the consequent taxes.

A third is that some of the driving forces behind state spending seemed to go hog-wild in the '80s. New Jersey, for example, saw its tax revenues and spending double -- but failed to build up a rainy-day fund or use the good times to reform its property-tax system.

Governor Florio, thinking retrospectively in an interview with the National Journal, recalls that New Jersey in the '80s also gave out bank charters indiscriminately -- and now faces failures. ''We gave out more hospital certificates of need, and now we have an excess of beds. We put more money into the schools and still have some of the country's most underperforming school systems.''

The bottom line of the '80s, he notes, is that ''riches were just randomly bestowed on people without a sense of accountability.''

In some cases, today's state-level bitterness is also rooted in gubernatorial arrogance and super-partisanship. Governor Florio exemplified that when he said early on that New Jersey Republicans were ''irrelevant'' to the system. Governor Engler's ideological agenda and ''do-it-my-way'' refusal to compromise matches the pattern on the right.

Mr. Florio is now trying a political rebirth, carrying the seat of government (all his top officials) to town meetings in West Orange, Paramus and other communities. The next question for governors may be whether they'll tone down the partisan rhetoric that voters increasingly see as mean and meaningless.

Long-term plans to reinvent state governments will figure prominently in the solutions. But many of today's governors may not be around for any payoff. ''We need more people who don't care about being re-elected who'll do the right thing for their states,'' says Steven Gold, a student of state fiscal policies. ''Otherwise,'' he adds, ''the states won't bite the bullet.''

Neal R. Peirce writes on state and urban affairs.

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