Five Governors Who Are 'Doing More with Less'

January 30, 1995|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Washington. -- As the National Governors' Association meets in Washington this week five Midwesterners are the stars in the ranks of the 30 Republican governors.

These ''invincible five'' walked unscathed through the incumbent-bashing of 1994, winning re-election by margins rarely seen in competitive two-party states: Michigan's John Engler (62 percent), Illinois' Jim Edgar (64 percent), Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson (67 percent), Minnesota's Arnie Carlson (63 percent) and Ohio's George Voinovich, who rolled up a phenomenal 72 percent of the vote.

Happy circumstance explains some of the victories. The Great Lakes states, following a decade of tough industrial losses, have been rebounding strongly from the recession. Unemployment is down, job creation up. Thankful voters are reluctant to rock the boat.

The successful Midwestern governors ran administrations free of major scandal. And they were ideally positioned for the hot-button issues of '94: All had resisted new taxes and rejected programs that would balloon their budgets. All ran as ''tough'' on crime.

But none of these governors talked much about the Contract With America, the platform with which the Republican Party captured Congress. They didn't runagainst government. They talked about slimming down the public sector, but they didn't make government employees the problem and then run against them.

Instead they used the language of reinvention -- pointing to smart and resourceful management to revamp bureaucracies, rethink programs, squeeze more value out of tax dollars spent, and still get results.

Governor Voinovich, for example, is a leader among the 50 governors in such strategies as ''total quality management'' -- the idea of delegating more authority to front-line executives and workers, increasing training opportunities for employees and then holding them accountable for results. In the campaign and since, he has been reiterating that state government has to ''work harder and smarter and do more with less.''

Why does such a theme fit in state capitols but not in Congress? Politicians self-select by the offices they choose to run for, suggests Robert Behn, head of the Governors Center at Duke University: ''If you run for Congress, you can push an ideological agenda, but you don't need to make anything work. For governors, it's different. Making things work is the business they're in.''

Michigan's Governor Engler illustrates the point. Early in his term, with a prospective deficit skirting $1 billion, he had to scramble for deep cuts. But he also started looking quickly for alternatives such as contracting out state services.

In 1993-94 Michigan addressed a roaring tax and finance crisis. The first step was to stop using the property tax to pay for schools -- to homeowners' immense relief. The lost funding was made up with a two-cent hike in the state sales tax, providing a $4,200-per pupil floor under all schools in the state. The voters, by referendum, agreed.

Governor Engler enraged liberals by ending general assistance welfare for adults. But he got a federal waiver for AFDC reform, offering such inducements as child care, transportation and some continuing welfare payments to recipients who are able and willing to move into jobs. The reform seems to be saving money -- $100 million, the governor claims.

This year he is asking the legislature for a variety of tax cuts and pushing such plans as using Michigan Strategic Fund moneys to buy up burned houses and other eyesores in a try to turn devastated urban areas into economic assets.

Governor Voinovich helped rescue Ohio from its recession-bred budget shortfall by such steps as budget cuts and forcing the public universities to manage themselves more efficiently. He cut back on general welfare, pleased business by starting long-overdue reform of Ohio's workers' compensation system and moved to increase aid to children, including a quintupling of Head Start outlays.

This year, with a fresh federal waiver, Mr. Voinovich hopes to go ahead with an ''OhioCare'' health-reform plan which will put hundreds of thousands of poor and low-income people into managed-care systems, freeing many to leave welfare without losing medical benefits.

Clearly, these specific kinds of reforms, directly responsive to people's concern about bloated and unresponsive government, are strong voter-getters for the candidates who push them forward. But they don't get much press or television attention, especially outside their own states. Instead, we are fed hot, media-inflamed political-combat stories out of Washington.

The Midwestern governors show that there are ways government can fix problems and deliver services, even while slimming down. The longevity of a Republican Congress may depend on how soon it, too, learns that lesson.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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