Fallin and Hickenlooper Seek Slices of Common Ground

The National Governors Association chair and vice chair wrestle with the red-blue divide.

Chair of the National Governor's Association (NGA), Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, speaks to the press outside of the West Wing as NGA vice chair, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (R) looks on after members of the NGA met with US President Barack Obama at the White House on January 14, 2014 in Washington. 
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Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 24, 2014, midnight

Na­tion­al Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation Chair Mary Fal­l­in, the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor of Ok­lahoma, and NGA Vice Chair John Hick­en­loop­er, the Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor of Col­or­ado, sat down re­cently and talked about health care, en­ergy, the dif­fi­culty of set­ting a com­mon NGA course while red and blue states are di­ver­ging so sharply — and the leg­al­iz­a­tion of marijuana in Col­or­ado and its in­flu­ence on the kind of busi­nesses and res­id­ents will­ing to re­lo­cate there. An ed­ited tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion fol­lows.

We are see­ing a sharp di­ver­gence in states with Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors. How does that af­fect the NGA’s abil­ity to op­er­ate?

Fal­l­in: I think there’s a healthy re­spect between our gov­ernors that we un­der­stand there will be things that we will just agree to dis­agree upon. But on those things that we can come to­geth­er and agree upon, we can get some great things done.

Where do you find the most com­mon ground now?

Hick­en­loop­er: Health care is the clas­sic di­vis­ive is­sue. And yet every gov­ernor wants bet­ter-qual­ity health care for as many of our cit­izens as pos­sible, and we want it at the low­est pos­sible cost. So let’s not get in­to a battle about the Af­ford­able Care Act or spe­cif­ic le­gis­la­tion. But let’s say what are those places in Medi­caid or in Medi­care where we can find bet­ter qual­ity for less money, and how do we share that in such a way that each gov­ernor can use the be­ne­fits?

Isn’t that ig­nor­ing the ele­phant in the room? Are you com­fort­able with states di­ver­ging as much as they are on so many fun­da­ment­al is­sues?

Hick­en­loop­er: States have al­ways di­verged. And cer­tainly we are in a peri­od of great, great di­ver­gence. But is the coun­try worse off? I don’t know. Are we ab­so­lutely cer­tain that Demo­crats are right, that this is the right way to go? Maybe the Re­pub­lic­ans are right. Maybe a more loc­al­ized ap­proach will be bet­ter. Our form of gov­ern­ment in this coun­try forces us to prove that out.

Fal­l­in: As gov­ernors, we look at oth­er states for best prac­tices. We’ve had 52 dif­fer­ent meet­ings this year with­in the NGA and our staffs to come to­geth­er to dis­cuss what we can and what we can’t do.

When you look at im­prov­ing post­sec­ond­ary at­tain­ment, what are the keys?

Fal­l­in: My ini­ti­at­ive [this year] is about work­force com­pet­it­ive­ness and edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment levels. We’ve laid out a very ag­gress­ive pro­gram to look at what the needs are in our busi­nesses, to look at our pipelines of edu­ca­tion and our path­ways to prosper­ity to be able to find those high-wage jobs.

Are there com­mon strategies ap­plic­able state to state?

Hick­en­loop­er: Sure. [For ex­ample,] Gov­ernor Fal­l­in’s talk­ing about look­ing at com­munity col­leges and [for­ging] a closer con­nec­tion between what dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries need in terms of train­ing and job pre­par­a­tion, so that kids who fin­ish those pro­grams have a job wait­ing for them. I think it’s also fair to look at the over­all high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem. [One thing] we all have to wrestle with is that kids gradu­ate from, say, the Uni­versity of Michigan and move to Tulsa to get an oil and gas job, or they move to Den­ver. So there’s no [in­cent­ive] for the states to put that money in and in­vest in those people, be­cause they’re so glob­al. So we’re try­ing to fig­ure out: How do you get the self-in­terest of the states to align with that of those in­di­vidu­als want­ing an edu­ca­tion? Also, how do you get more trans­par­ency, more ac­count­ab­il­ity? Eighty-nine per­cent of uni­versit­ies in this coun­try think they have pre­pared their stu­dents for jobs, and [only] 46 per­cent of busi­nesses think that people com­ing from col­leges are ad­equately pre­pared. It’s a dis­con­nect.

A large num­ber of stu­dents start at com­munity col­lege but nev­er fin­ish. Do you see best prac­tices de­vel­op­ing on com­ple­tion?

Hick­en­loop­er: What we’re do­ing right now is [giv­ing] our [high­er-edu­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions less money] from the state for fresh­men than for sopho­mores, and then they get much more money for ju­ni­ors and seni­ors. So it’s a pro­gress­ive in­cent­ive to say that the more kids you can keep in your uni­versity, the more money you get.

Fal­l­in: We ac­tu­ally set goals in Ok­lahoma that we wanted to in­crease our gradu­ation rates by cer­tain num­bers. The first year we set that goal, we ac­tu­ally beat it by 71 per­cent. It’s im­port­ant that you have meas­ur­able goals and per­form­ance meas­ure­ments with­in your edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems.

What are the key re­quire­ments in state and fed­er­al policy to max­im­ize the en­ergy boom’s po­ten­tial?

Fal­l­in: I think one of the policies that if not all, then most, gov­ernors agree upon: We sup­port an all-of-the-above en­ergy policy, be­cause all of us be­lieve that it’s im­port­ant for Amer­ica to reach some sort of en­ergy in­de­pend­ence. [We need] fair en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions. There are many times that pro­cesses be­come so long in just [is­su­ing] per­mits that people give up. Or they just don’t want to in­vest, or it costs too much.

Is fed­er­al policy in­hib­it­ing our abil­ity to max­im­ize the be­ne­fits of oil and gas pro­duc­tion?

Fal­l­in: At times. [For ex­ample,] the Key­stone pipeline. I think it would be a great be­ne­fit to Amer­ica, but fed­er­al policy is hold­ing that back.

Hick­en­loop­er: There’s a ba­sic trust that any in­dustry has with the pub­lic, and I think there’s been some loss of trust in the oil and gas in­dustry over the last 20 years. The in­dustry re­cog­nizes that and is work­ing ag­gress­ively to really re­build that trust. Ap­pro­pri­ate reg­u­la­tion is not a small group of people de­cid­ing what the rules are go­ing to be, but an open and trans­par­ent pro­cess. An af­flu­ent so­ci­ety is go­ing to con­stantly de­mand clean­er air, clean­er wa­ter, and that’s go­ing to con­tin­ue. So how do we do that in such a way that we put the least bur­den on our in­dus­tries as pos­sible? 

The gov­ernor of Wash­ing­ton, liv­ing through the na­tion­al sweepstakes with Boe­ing de­cid­ing where to build its next man­u­fac­tur­ing plant, said he wished states were not com­pet­ing with each oth­er by of­fer­ing these big in­cent­ive pack­ages. Is a non­ag­gres­sion pact pos­sible?

Hick­en­loop­er: You’d get every­body but Texas, I think.

Fal­l­in: I’m one of those people who be­lieves in the free mar­ket and let­ting the mar­ket­place work it­self. So if I can cre­ate in Ok­lahoma a busi­ness cli­mate that is more con­du­cive to in­vest­ing and do­ing busi­ness, it’s all fair in com­pet­i­tion.

Is it pos­sible we’ll go on in­def­in­itely hav­ing large num­bers of people sign­ing up for Obama­care in Col­or­ado, and people in oth­er states think­ing it’s the wrong way to go?

Fal­l­in: Dif­fer­ent states have dif­fer­ent budgets — they have dif­fer­ent con­sti­tu­tions.

Hick­en­loop­er: Cer­tainly, [the split] will per­sist for a while. One of the big pushes I got when we ex­pan­ded Medi­caid was a bunch of our em­ploy­ers said, “I need my em­ploy­ees to have some sort of re­li­able health in­sur­ance.” It’s not just fast-food res­taur­ants and call cen­ters; it’s also small man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­nesses. One of the real ques­tions is wheth­er states that didn’t ex­pand their cov­er­age to many people who are work­ing — wheth­er their busi­nesses are go­ing to come back to Gov­ernor Fal­l­in and say, “Hey we want to get in.” Or wheth­er they are go­ing to look at us and say, “Hey, you spent all this money, and they’re not health­i­er, and we think you made a mis­take.”

States are mov­ing in very dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions on so­cial is­sues like gay mar­riage and gun con­trol. Does this af­fect who wants to live there or loc­ate a busi­ness there?

Fal­l­in: Yes.

Hick­en­loop­er: No.

Fal­l­in: That’s the beauty of Amer­ica. We’re a di­verse na­tion, of di­verse ideas and di­verse people. We have com­pan­ies that moved [to Ok­lahoma] be­cause they liked the fact we’re a right-to-work state, or they liked that we sup­port the Second Amend­ment. There may be oth­er people that may want go to [Col­or­ado] be­cause they like the Rocky Moun­tain high. [Laughter.] We all get along to­geth­er.

Hick­en­loop­er: I think for a very small group of people, it does [mat­ter]. The real battle [is about] the cost of a house, the qual­ity of life for their fam­il­ies, the pub­lic schools.

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