Invest in infrastructure, protect education spending, work cooperatively with businesses and unions to build a better economy—that’s the agenda that Democratic governors, in Washington for the National Governors Association winter meeting, outlined on Friday during a roughly two-hour forum on the economy.
It’s a dramatically different platform from their Republican counterparts, most notably New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who argue that deep spending cuts and a battle against benefits for government unions are the way to handle their states’ gaping deficits. And although the Republicans’ efforts have brought them national headlines, Democrats say they’re satisfied that their quieter, more moderate path will help the economy more in the near and long-term.
“I can tell you our entire day has been focused on creating jobs and partnering with business, partnering with labor, in order to create jobs,” Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland and the Democratic Governors Association chairman, told National Journal after the forum. “I think they’re obsessed with settling old ideological scores or dragging our country back to the days of [former presidents Herbert] Hoover or [Calvin] Coolidge.”
The forum, which featured an array of Democratic governors sharing the stage with business and union leaders, underscored the chief executives’ belief in the virtues of some government spending, or as they put it, investments. Cutting spending, argued Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, would harm critical programs like early-childhood education.
“Really in these tough economic times, we don’t want to be cutting back on something so fundamental because it harms our ability to compete,” he said.
Quinn is one of the few governors, Republican or Democrat, to use a major tax increase to bridge the state’s budget deficit, raising the income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. In an interview, he bristled at the notion that, as the GOP would characterize it, his decision amounted to avoiding the tougher option of cutting spending.
“Tough choices? I made lots of tough choices,” he said. “But we’ve grown more jobs than both Wisconsin and New Jersey put together.”
Of governors like Christie and Walker, Quinn said: “These guys are on ideological crusades. They’re the fad of the moment. The bottling is, what’s the outcome? What have they produced? How many people are working?”
Other Democrats also questioned why, far from not doing the basics, governments no longer did the “big things.” The interstate highway system, suggested Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, would never be built today.
“Going to the moon? Forget it.” he said. “We can’t even go to Los Angeles.”
Perhaps the most glaring aspect of the forum was the absence of any discussion of union benefits or union members' right to collectively bargain, an issue that has become part of a national discussion following Walker’s effort to strip them of some of their bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Many Democratic governors, like O’Malley or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have talked openly about the need for some of the groups to take reductions in pay or benefits.
It’s part of what they described as a pragmatic vision for state governments, one that works with unions and corporations instead of battling against them publicly. Many, like Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy or Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, said catering to businesses is one of their most important jobs.
“We have to get in their heads and focus in on things they care about,” said Markell.