How Washington Ruined Governors

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, third from left, listens to Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, during a meeting of the National Governor's Association. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, third from left, listens to Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, during a meeting of the National Governor's Association. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Even for longtime advocates on both sides of the emotional gun-control debate, the events of March 8 were enough to induce whiplash.

On that day, South Dakota became the first state to explicitly authorize school employees to carry guns, when Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed legislation sent to him by Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. The bill represented a resounding victory for the National Rifle Association.

That same day, after an exhaustive debate approximately 525 miles away in Denver, the Democratic-controlled state Senate, joining the Democratic House, gave preliminary approval to Colorado’s most sweeping gun-control package in years—including measures to impose universal background checks on gun purchases and to prohibit the sale of ammunition magazines containing more than 15 rounds. Despite strong opposition from gun-owner groups and Republicans, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the legislation later in March, capping a decisive victory for gun-control supporters.

That sort of jarring juxtaposition has become increasingly common across the United States. Exactly one week after Colorado and South Dakota split on guns, the Republican-controlled Legislature in North Dakota approved the nation’s most restrictive abortion law on the same day the Democratic-controlled Legislature in Maryland, fulfilling one of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s top priorities, voted to repeal the state’s death penalty. One day before that, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, catching a rising wave among GOP state executives, proposed to eliminate the state’s personal income and corporate taxes, replacing the lost revenue with a vastly expanded sales tax. And just two days earlier, Colorado’s House gave final approval to legislation authorizing same-sex civil unions, while gay-marriage legislation cleared committees in the Minnesota House and Senate, both controlled by Democrats.

Some of these initiatives will not become law. But in their ambition, and proliferation, they show how the same pressures that have polarized the parties in Washington are reshaping policy-making in the states. Across the full range of economic and cultural issues, Democratic and Republican state officials are pulling apart far more than they did as recently as two decades ago. On gun control, gay marriage, immigration, taxes, and participation in President Obama’s health reform law, among other issues, states that lean red and those that lean blue are diverging to an extent that is straining the boundaries of federalism. “I can’t recall any time in American history where there was such a conscious effort to create such broad divisions, without any sense of how it is all going to turn out,” says Donald Kettl, dean of the public-policy school at the University of Maryland and an expert on public administration.

In many places, this widening gap is recasting the role of governors. Well into the 1990s, state executives considered themselves more pragmatic than members of Congress; they regularly shared ideas across party lines and often sought to emerge nationally by bridging ideological disputes. Some of that tradition endures. But now, governors are operating mostly along parallel, and partisan, tracks. On each side, they are increasingly pursuing programs that reflect their party’s national agenda—and enlisting with their party on national disputes such as health care reform. “Everything has been infected with the national political debate,” says Bruce Babbitt, who served as Arizona’s centrist Democratic governor for two terms and later as President Clinton’s Interior secretary. “And it’s really destructive.” Tommy Thompson, who launched a flotilla of innovations emulated by governors in both parties during his four terms as Wisconsin’s Republican chief executive, agrees. “Anyone who looks at this in an impartial way has to say we have become a more partisan nation,” he says. “I think we have [become] much more doctrinaire with our philosophies and much more locked into our positions.”

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