Happy days are almost here again: Republican governors send an upbeat message

By Tom Baxter

State-of-the-state messages often come with a heavy load of navigational imagery.

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a pilot, portrayed the state as a plucky little plane, weaving between the storm clouds. In his second state-of-the-state message last week, Gov. Nathan Deal exhorted the legislators to think of themselves in a league with Columbus, da Gama, Vespucci and Magellan – brave explorers who set their course by the stars and plunged confidently forward into the unknown. In the advance text, the speech was titled “Charting the course to prosperity.”

It would be nice if one year, the governor would trim his metaphorically sails somewhat and compare himself to a harried Atlanta commuter trying to make it back and forth between home and work. That would not only mirror the experience of many voters, it would better describe the way government really works.

For all the big talk of stormy skies and high seas, much of the business of governing –since taking office – is just start, stop, start, stop, with only limited opportunities to really move forward. This is especially in an economy like the one Deal has contended with. Conservatives may talk about budget difficulties as an opportunity to make government smaller, but  even the most committed feel the pinch of a budget as tight as the current one.

If  the governor had gone with the commuter metaphor, he might have said that he intends to ease off on the brakes a little this year. A modest increase in education spending and some new outlays for reservoirs and harbor dredging don’t add up to a prosperity budget, but it was the most upbeat message Deal has been able to deliver since he took office.

And he’s not alone. The most impressive evidence the economy really has turned around comes not from any White House press release, but from the early-year budget plans of Republican governors like Deal.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is asking for a billion-dollar increase in education spending, nearly equal to the amount that was cut last year. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is proposing a $2 billion bond issue to fix the state’s roads and bridges, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is said to be preparing a budget which will include money to provide incentives for industrial recruitment among other things.

The most symbolic example – to use her terminology – is Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. When Arizona was at ground zero in the housing bust in 2009, Brewer spearheaded a plan in which the main state capitol buildings were sold and leased back to the state to raise cash.

Arizona’s “gleam is back,” Brewer told legislators last week, but there was “just one problem”: The state didn’t own the building they were sitting in. So she proposed paying off the note and buying them back.

Democrats, who opposed the original deal, howled that this would involve paying out $24 million in early payment penalties, while the money could be spent on more pressing needs. But Brewer argued the cost was justified to “fortify that symbol” of the state’s recovery.

Besides indicating a brighter revenue picture, this somewhat more expansive attitude is a sign elected Republicans aren’t quite as much hostage to the most virulent anti-government sentiment in their party as they were a year ago.

All the Southern Republican governors elected in 2010 rode the Tea Party tide into office, but since then they’ve divided into two categories. Florida’s Scott and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have been the most outspokenly ideological in their approach to governing, and have garnered far more national attention than their peers. They’ve also had the lowest approval ratings within their states.

The second group — Haslam, Bentley and Deal — have talked their share of red meat on issues like ObamaCare and immigration, and basically stood aside in their first year and let their Republican-majority legislatures do as they wished. But they’ve been generally more cautious. Bentley made the signature comment for this group after he supported passage of the state’s tough immigration law but distanced himself from it almost immediately. He didn’t want to be the face of anti-immigration laws nationally, he explained.

Even Scott, the ultimate outsider, has toned things down and worked to regain the trust of Republican legislators since his plunge in the polls in his first months in office, so much so that they’re considering giving him powers Jeb Bush and his predecessors were denied.

As for Deal, he wasn’t able to settle his party’s intramural squabble in the state Senate, but he might count that as a learning experience. Otherwise, his first week with the legislature back in town was much more upbeat than his first. It’s been said that Deal’s biggest advantage so far has been that he isn’t Sonny Perdue. Maybe by the end of this year, they’ll be saying it’s that he isn’t Nikki Haley.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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