Gov. Tony Evers speaks on a panel at the National Governors Association meeting | Screenshot via YouTube
WASHINGTON — Governors of both parties from throughout the United States met here over the weekend to try to speak on a unified front about what their states need from the federal government.
But the waters were muddied by governors’ clearly divided political views about two major issues of the moment — voting laws and whether Congress should pass a massive climate and social spending bill. One main area of agreement: They like that the bipartisan federal infrastructure law is sending much-needed cash to their states for bridges, roads, broadband and more.
Governors “worked together to secure more resources so that we can fix our roadways and build a more resilient and equitable infrastructure system,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who made infrastructure a key part of her 2018 campaign, said.
On a panel titled “America’s Return to Work,” as part of a task force on community renewal, Gov. Tony Evers said he doesn’t believe that programs aimed at helping people who struggled with unemployment during the pandemic were a disincentive to work. He pointed to his state’s 2.8% unemployment rate, “which is the lowest in the history of Wisconsin.”
“We have to look beyond the reduction of incentives from the government,” Evers said, adding, “Connecting the dots around having a job in Wisconsin does rely on child care, does rely on transit, does rely on getting to work, frankly does relay on having ability to have a pathway.”
That’s why the state has been looking at connecting the inmates to university classes, Evers said, “so people coming out of correctional institutions have skills.”
The governors’ goal, he added, should be a plan that “creates a workforce that will be happy and productive and be able to contain their lives in a way that they have a good family and are good fathers and mothers.”
The National Governors Association winter meeting was the first time in two years the bipartisan group met in the nation’s capital, due to the pandemic, and while there were repeated mentions of working between the political parties, that overlap didn’t appear to extend very far.
With the governors gathered at the White House on Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris said that “in the spirit of bipartisanship” governors should think about states as laboratories of democracy, especially when it comes to voting rights.
“I would ask that in this coming year we work together to ensure that all Americans who are eligible to vote actually have meaningful access to the ballot,” Harris said.
Her comments and those over the weekend from Republican governors, touched on one of the bigger political disputes playing out in the states and in Congress — whether voting laws need to be expanded to allow eligible Americans more voting options, or tightened to prevent possible fraud.
False statements from former President Donald Trump, and some congressional Republicans, about the validity of the last election have led some GOP-controlled states to revamp their voting laws and more may do so this year prior to the midterm elections.
Many Democrats argue the various changes to state election laws will disenfranchise minority and rural voters, making voting more difficult.
Republicans generally disagree, saying the changes are needed to avoid any potential future fraud. The Department of Justice under the Trump administration found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Congressional Democrats have attempted to set minimum voting standards for every state, though GOP senators have blocked that legislation from advancing.
NGA Chair and Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed the 2020 presidential election in response to a question from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at a press briefing Saturday morning, saying he didn’t believe the election was stolen and respected the results.
“To me it’s all about the future. Anybody who wants to talk about the last election is going to lose the next election. And so that’s what I focus on,” he said, seeming to take a dig at Trump — who keeps releasing false statements about the last election while strongly hinting he’ll run again in 2024.
Hutchinson did, however, say states should change their voting laws as they see fit.
“Some of the states, which is their prerogative, have adjusted their election rules for both expanding voting access, but also to make sure that the votes have integrity,” he said.
Hutchinson on Sunday criticized Biden’s trip to Atlanta in early January, where the president urged Congress to pass voting rights protections. Hutchinson said the speech, focusing on a core Democratic legislative goal, wasn’t an example of bipartisanship.
“You got to even be more careful as president, versus whenever you’re in the House or the Senate, and is more important in that regard,” Hutchinson said. “So I would urge the president to really use the tone out there that reflects civility and bipartisanship across the board.”
Hutchinson last year signed his Republican controlled state legislature’s bill that changed the state’s voting requirements and would restrict polling locations and absentee ballots.
He also signed another bill that enacted strict voter I.D. requirements. The state will no longer allow people without identification to cast a ballot, even if they sign a statement that confirms their identity.
Build Back Better
Republican and Democratic governors also disagreed about whether Congress should pass Democrats’ $1.5 trillion climate and social spending package known as Build Back Better, currently stalled due to objections from West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III.
“I think there’s a difference of philosophy as to whether that is needed,” Hutchinson said.
Democratic lawmakers and the White House are in ongoing negotiations over how to pass a scaled-down version of the bill that could provide a bevy of programs, including universal pre-kindergarten, a cap on child care costs and programs aimed at curbing climate change.
Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a former U.S. House member, said the role of the NGA isn’t necessarily to solve those political and policy differences, but to find areas of agreement and try to speak with one voice on those issues.
On federal spending legislation, he said, that voice generally calls on the federal government to “maximize discretion for states and for governors.”
“While we aren’t always going to agree on what should be done — whatever vehicle and whatever party and whatever policy is moving — we want to make sure [it] can work at the state level,” Polis said.
“As language emerges, I would expect that we would be outspoken about giving governors and giving the states discretion in the ability to use funds as best needed rather than being strictly dictated from Washington.”
Wanting to stress the bipartisan nature of the National Governors Association, Hutchinson and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat and the vice chair of the group, spent an hour discussing the importance of working together.
“We’re problem solvers,” Hutchinson said, adding that there were certain policies that Republicans and Democrats could agree on.
Murphy agreed, but neither governor specified what policies both parties agreed on and could work together on.
“You don’t have to give up your principles in order to find common ground,” Murphy said.
Hutchinson said that if the president expects to pass his social spending and climate package, he’s going to have to work with Republicans. He said there were some parts of the bill that Republicans would likely agree to, but did not specify what those parts were.
Roads and bridges
One area Democratic and Republican governors firmly agreed upon was the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told governors over the weekend that he would work with them to quickly deliver the federal funding to their states. The administration released a guidebook Monday to outline the resources available to state and local officials under the law.
Governors, he said, were influential in “shaping the design” of the law and advocating to make it a reality.
“We saw governors from so-called red states and so-called blue states alike calling for investments like this,” Buttigieg said.
Governors of both parties praised the law during Buttigieg’s session.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who led an NGA infrastructure initiative when he chaired the organization in 2019 and 2020, said he was pleased that the group’s recommendations were included in the infrastructure law.
Hogan was particularly pleased with measures advancing public-private partnerships, he said.
The agenda for the governors also included a black-tie dinner with the Bidens at Mount Vernon on Sunday night followed by the Monday meeting at the White House.
Wisconsin’s Tony Evers was among the governors who attended the White House event.
Ruth Conniff contributed reporting to this story.
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