Sarah Arnett, a Georgia State Ph.D. in public policy, has developed an index of state fiscal solvency that she presented at a meeting of the Association of Budgeting and Financial Management.
Some people have noticed that New Jersey – where GOP wunderkind Chris Christie is governor – ranks last among the 50 states. Putting lipstick onto this pig, Americans for Prosperity says, “Under Gov. Christie, modest pension and benefit reforms have been enacted. . . . Still, this report is indicative that New Jersey has a long way to go.”
Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute puts it this way:
And while Chris Christie may have taken a few steps to rein in excessive compensation for state bureaucrats (causing me to become giddy with infatuation), he still has a long way to go because the Garden State is in last place in this comprehensive new ranking of fiscal responsibility.
In both cases, the commentators attempted to cover the wound with a salve. New Jersey may be in bad shape, they say, but the big man is moving the state in the right direction. Possibly, the state will be 49th or even 48th next time. I thought to take a different tack, exploring the difference that a red governor makes in a blue state.
First, to put the issue into perspective, I constructed an index of my own, of the partisan orientation of state government. My index is equal to the average of three underlying measures:
- How many years of the prior 10 has the state had a Republican governor, as opposed to a Democratic or an Independent governor?
- By what margin, on average, have the Republicans or the Democrats controlled the upper house (Senate) of the state legislature, during the prior 10 years?
- By what margin, on average, have the Republicans or the Democrats controlled the lower house (usually, the House of Representatives) of the state legislature, during the prior 10 years?
In the case of New Jersey, at the time Dr. Arnett constructed her index of state solvency, the state had a Republican governor for three of the prior 10 years. Also, the Democrats had large but less than two-thirds majorities in both the state Senate and the House of Representatives during each of the prior 10 years. So, the state was pretty much a Democratic state. Christie was and remains an elephant amongst a herd of donkeys.
To be more specific, in the component for governors of my index, for each year of the prior 10 a state has a Republican governor, it gets a plus 1, and for each year it has a Democratic governor, a minus 1. Any years with an Independent governor is given a zero (as though giving a zero means something). These numbers are then added and divided by 10 to give a scale that ranges from minus 1 to plus 1 where minus 1 represents only Democratic governors and plus 1 only Republican governors.
In the components of my index for each of chamber of the state legislature, for each year of the prior 10 a state has a two-thirds or higher Republican majority, it gets a plus 1, and for each year it has a two-thirds or higher Democratic majority, a minus 1. In years in which neither party has a two-thirds majority, that chamber gets a number between minus 1 and plus 1 reflecting the size of the majority. A chamber that, in a particular year, has exactly a 50/50 split gets a zero. These numbers are then added and divided by 10 to give scales that range from minus 1 to plus 1 where minus 1 represents all two-thirds or higher Democratic majorities, and plus 1 all two-thirds or higher Republican majorities.
I then averaged the scales of my components, three for all states except Nebraska and two for Nebraska, to get my index of the partisan orientation of state government.
In the case of New Jersey, while the Democrats have controlled both chambers of the state legislature each year of the past 10, they have had less than two-thirds majorities. The component scores for each chamber were thus not minus 1, but minus 0.41 for the state Senate and minus 0.68 for the state House. The state’s overall index of partisanship was minus 0.46.
In the accompanying chart, you can find the dot representing New Jersey by, first, looking to the bottom of the chart (where “50,” being the lowest rank, is placed) and, then, looking to the left. You can see that while state government in New Jersey is relatively Democratic, it is not the most Democratic state government. That honor belongs to West Virginia. West Virginia may be a red state when it comes to Presidential elections nowadays, but it has a decidedly blue state government.
Over on the right side of the chart are the relatively Republican state governments. Two – Idaho and Utah – have scores of plus 1. A total of six have scores higher than plus 0.75. Thus, there are more rock-ribbed Republican state governments than there are Democratic. Contributing to the dearth of solidly Democratic state governments is the tendency of the people in blue states to elect Republican governors. During the prior 10 years, these cross-dressers included Linda Lingle of Hawaii, Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island, Jim Douglas of Vermont and – most obviously – Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming are three counter-examples. Blue governors in red states.
The tendency of Americans to vote for divided government has received some attention. One rationalization is that many people want both what is offered by the compassionate “mommy party” of the Democrats and by the disciplinarian “daddy party” of the Republicans. These people, it is said, want the programs offered by the first, and the fiscal solvency offered by the second. As is evident in the scatterplot, there is a positive correlation between the degree to which state governments are Republican, and their rankings in the new index of state solvency.
But, there is more to state government than balancing the books. State governments tax and regulate, provide for roads, schools and public safety, and also provide a social safety net. The overall impact on the quality of life could be said to result from the mix of policies of state government, and the efficiency with which state government operates. We might imagine that the bad effects of taxes are off-set by the good effects of roads, schools and public safety, when the taxes are spent on those priorities. But, we might suspect that highly progressive taxes, complicated tax structures, onerous regulations, and overly generous welfare programs, result in more harm than good.
To look at the impact of the partisan orientation of state government on the quality of life, I correlated my index against the CNBC Top States for Business and the Forbes Best States for Business rankings.
The CNBC rankings are based on 51 underlying measures organized into six components (education, infrastructure, innovation, business friendliness, access to capital and cost of living). The Forbes rankings involved 35 data points organized into a different set of six components (business cost, labor supply, environment, economic climate, growth prospects and quality of life). Both of these sets of rankings tell us that the more Republican are state governments, the better is the overall quality of life.
To return to the original question – what difference does a governor make – the answer would appear to be not very much if the legislature is solidly of the other persuasion. In the case of Mitt Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he famously vetoed several provisions of Romneycare, which the legislature – each chamber of which had a greater than two-thirds Democratic majority – promptly over-rode. In the case of Chris Christie, his veto of an increase in the state’s minimum wage was effectively over-ridden by the state legislature when it put the matter before the people in the form of a ballot question.
The real impact of governors may be whether they are transformational, not merely whether they are re-elected. In particular, with red governors in blue states and visa versa, do they change the partisan orientation of their states, or do they leave office with essentially the same partisan orientation with which they entered?
 I got almost all the numbers for the partisan composition of state legislatures from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Nebraska has a unicameral state legislature. That body is characterized as non-partisan. I found the political affiliation of its members in the state’s biennial Blue Book.
 Yes, the correlation is statistically significant.
 See footnote 2.