I enjoyed a front row seat at the 111th Winter Meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, DC. The event brought together dozens of governors from U.S. states and attracted nearly 2,000 attendees with backgrounds in finance, criminal justice, technology, energy, health, trade and more. Over the years, the NGA meeting has evolved beyond a domestic affair to become truly global. This year’s meeting saw representatives from countries including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Egypt, the Philippines, Croatia, Slovenia, and others. For The Rockefeller Foundation, it is an opportunity to share our priorities with leaders and senior staff at the highest levels of state, federal and national governments. More importantly—it is a non-partisan event with elected officials and leaders from across the political spectrum, which is exactly where The Rockefeller Foundation wants to be on the U.S. domestic issues we care deeply about—economic equality and mobility, fair wages and benefits for working people, access to affordable housing, food security, and quality healthcare especially for mothers and children.
Here are five takeaways from the NGA Winter Meeting:
There was a strong and consistent emphasis on job creation across the country. The opening plenary panel and discussion of the conference was headlined, “Good Jobs for All Americans.” The panel stressed the importance of constant re-skilling of the workforce as a necessity for the future. Governors and panelists tied this to a healthy democracy, too, as the effects of shifting labor force needs are not evenly distributed across geographies, ethnic backgrounds, and age groups. There have been a few NGA workshops related to the topic over the past few months with more to come. This year-long emphasis in no small measure because of the efforts of NGA Chair and Montana Governor Steve Bullock will conclude with what NGA has titled, “Governors’ Guide: A Roadmap for Providing Good Jobs for All Americans.”
The tenor of discussions at this year’s meeting was informed by the fact that almost half of the governors were newly elected – 22 of them, in fact, a U.S. record. As a result, the conference agenda covered a wide array of topics – from jobs to education to trade – as new governors work quickly to shape their own knowledge and initiatives. As I compared the experienced governors with the new ones, I realized anew that the latter group have a lot of policy detail to master. In a couple of years, most of the 22 new governors will sound as knowledgeable and authoritative as the veterans. As a former political aide myself, I also got a little chuckle seeing their new staffers hustling about, not always sure what to do as they are still getting to know their new bosses who are only weeks on the job.
It was heartening to observe how seriously governors and staff are eager to make a difference. Throughout the conference, they would ask what more they should be doing on policy X or Y, many taking notes at my suggestions. One of the more interesting discussions I had was with pursuing the benefits of the new Opportunity Zones provision, which confers preferential tax treatment on investments into distressed communities across America. The governor has many Opportunity Zones throughout his state, and he has worked intensively over the past year to get work going in the Zones. He is proud that he has activity in every region of the state, now. He could cite from memory the numbers of how many of his designated Zones have early stage Opportunity Zone work going on in them.
Some governors have figured out ways of working with the Trump White House where, perhaps, legislators have not. There was a riveting panel on the recently enacted federal criminal justice reform bill. Right and left had come together on a reform package. The key question was whether President Trump would sign the reform bill into law. Even though the question was about federal legislation, not state law, state governors were key players in promoting it. I loved Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi’s stories of learning to talk to the President in a way that connected. When the President remained skeptical, the Governor renewed the discussion on other occasions until President Trump finally came on board.
My overarching conclusion is that I love governors! Like mayors, they are problem solvers. They have to be in order to remain in office. As a result, most governors are refreshingly non-partisan. If I didn’t know a particular governor was a Republican or a Democrat, I couldn’t always tell their party affiliations by the content of the conversation. Most of their conversations were grounded in a fairly intimate knowledge of their states, and wanting to do as much as possible to respond to its citizens’ needs.
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