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Governors Tell Washington: Find a Compromise on Debt Limit

Govs. Scott Walker, R-Wis., and Jack Markell, D- Del., speak with Ray Suarez on the impact the debt limit debate could have across the country. They join the NewsHour from the National Governors Association’s Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, where these and many other questions are being debated.

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    Now, how might the debate in Washington impact states across the country? It's one of the questions being examined at the National Governors Association's annual meeting, which kicked off today in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    And now we are joined now by two governors attending the conference, Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Democrat Jack Markell of Delaware.

    And, gentlemen, embedded in all these debates, both in states across the country and in Washington, there seems to be one overriding question: What is government for?

    Governor Markell, why don't we start with you? What is government for?


    Well, what we really have to do these days is just focus on a handful of key issues.

    That really means helping put people back to work. Government is not going to create the jobs, but government has got to create the environment. What businesses are looking for are governments who create great schools, but reasonable taxes, great quality of life, a lot of responsiveness.

    We're also looking obviously to make sure that we do continue to improve the schools. And we have got to make sure that we have a reasonable tax load. So those are the main things. We have got to make sure that our taxpayers — that we're good stewards of our taxpayers' money. That's what they are looking to us for.


    And, Governor Walker, let me turn to you with that same question. What is government for?


    Well, I — yes, I think if you were to join us out here — Jack and I were talking about this earlier and other governors talking — Democrat, Republican alike, at least as governors in the states, we are doing exactly what they should be doing in Washington.

    And that is working together to get things resolved. The two big issues we hear about are balancing the budget and putting more people to work. When you balance the budget and put people to work, you help with education, you help with quality of life, you help with the basic safety net.

    Governors in each of the states, respectively — about 40-plus states have had deficits, and we're turning them into balanced budgets, because we have to in the states. They're just not doing that in Washington. And I think it goes back to those core principles. Make sound structural decisions that put the budget in place, so that it is balanced, and ultimately do things that do not hurt, and, ideally, help the economy, because more than anything else, we have got to get people working again.


    Well, Governor Walker, do people want or endorse the notion of smaller government at the same time as they want government services?


    Well, I think they want a balance.

    Outside of government, there isn't the false choice we often hear of government that you either have to jack up prices or cut the quality of services. In the private sector, particularly in the last couple of years, you have seen employers, particularly in small businesses, find a way to balance the two out, become more efficient, become more effective, and find ways to streamline things, so that ultimately they can still provide an affordable product at a quality level that people expect.

    In government, we need to find better ways to do that as well. And, again, that's what we are doing in the states. Democrat, Republican governors alike, we have been talking about best practices here today already. We need to find a way to make structural changes at the federal level, just like we have been doing at the states, so that it is not just a short-term fix, because that is really what got us into this problem.

    Republicans and Democrats alike have been deferring things in Washington off into the future. Well, the time to act is now. And my hope is that they will follow our lead and in the states respectively.


    Governor Markell, does it make it hard to be in charge at a time of straightened circumstances, when people tell public opinion researchers very sincerely they want smaller government, and then howl when you try to cut back?


    It is a very challenging time, and especially — we also have to remember Hubert Humphrey once said that the greatness of a nation is measured in how we treat those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, and the shadow of life, the very young, the very old, those who cannot care for themselves.

    So what we are really trying to balance here is we have a responsibility to protect those who are most vulnerable. We also want to put each of our states in a position where we are poised to grow and to help as many families as possible enter the middle class and go as far as they can possibly go, while, at the same time, balancing our budgets.

    This has been — these have been very difficult times to be governors. But if you focus in and you really focus in on the idea of putting more people back to work especially, that will help solve so many of the other challenges that we face.


    Governor Walker, you have made headlines across the country. You came to office in Madison vowing to change the direction and — of government spending very quickly. Were the people of Wisconsin ready?


    Well, I think what we weren't ready for — and I have said this before — I have had to make a change — was to spend more time in January and February building the case.

    But I think what we weren't prepared for was the national focus, the national attention, the national money that came in when we were trying to fix the problem and do it in the way that many small business owners do, and that is to identify the problem, identify a solution, and then act on it, never realizing how much money and influence and ads that would come in from across the country.

    What you are seeing, though, now is not only in other states, like Ohio, but you even see New York State — Governor Cuomo has done some similar things. In Massachusetts, they have done similar things . I think earlier today, Jack and I heard a story from Governor Christie where he worked with the Democrats in the legislature there to make some changes.

    Each state is different, so, respectively, we have got to do things slightly differently. But for us, we are already seeing the benefits. We — school district after school district, local government after local government in the last few weeks has talked about the fact that because of our reforms, many of them are not only avoiding layoffs. They're actually bringing more teachers back in. They're lowering classroom size. They're even setting money aside for merit pay.

    Our hope is that we can continue to see those signs all across Wisconsin. When you do that, it not only helps us balance the budget. It makes the government work better. And it allows us to continue the trend of the 26,000 new private sector jobs we saw created earlier this year, about half of which are in manufacturing, which is a core industry for us.


    Governor Markell, you have been publicly on record criticizing the race to the bottom among states. But you had to make hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, too, didn't you, social services and other agencies?


    We did.

    I mean, it's been very challenging. And I think, on the issue of the pension health care reform, we had many of the similar issues. We took a different approach than Governor Walker took in Wisconsin. We have collective bargaining in our state. We didn't try to get rid of that. We actually brought the unions to the table.

    We asked for their ideas and their participation. We actually exceeded the savings target that we — that we set. But we thought it was important that we do have them on the table, recognizing that — if you look at it from this perspective, if you ask any business, what is the most important asset to your business, most will say it's the people who come to work every day.

    And, similarly, in state government, it might be the people who are caring for our patients in the state hospital in the middle of the night. It might be the people driving the trucks to plow the snow while the rest of us are sleeping. And in Delaware, the approach we took is, we had them come to the table. We worked out an approach together.

    We ended up, as I say, saving about $130 million over five years on pension and health care. But that being said, this continues to be a very challenging time. We don't have a strong national economy at our backs yet. And no matter what party we're in, what part of the state we are in, we have just got to continue to focus and how can we facilitate businesses being successful in our state, so they can put more people to work.


    Governor Markell, do you support raising the federal government's debt limit?


    Oh, I do.

    I mean, I think it would be — it could be catastrophic if the debt limit doesn't get raised. And if they're not able to get things together in Washington, it's not going to be good for any governor across the country. I don't think it's going to be good for the American people.

    So I'm very hopeful that Republicans and Democrats alike, the administration and those in the Senate and the House will all be able to figure this out, because I think the idea of not — the idea of this country defaulting on its debt could absolutely be a terrible, terrible thing for our country.


    Governor Walker, same question. Do you support a raise in the federal government's debt ceiling?


    Well, my hope is, if we pursue that, we ultimately have some long-term structural changes, so that we are not revisiting this just a couple years down the road.

    Again, many of our states, Democrat, Republican governors alike, can make long-term structural changes, so that we are really thinking less about the next election and more about the next generation.

    But the other part is, we want to make sure we do it in a way that helps the economy. The biggest single thing — and Jack and I were on a panel a couple weeks ago at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And we hear it repeatedly in each of our states and across the country on a national basis. The biggest single thing of standing in the way of employers, big and small and everyone in between, adding more jobs, is uncertainty.

    To the extent that we can get past this debate, we can have some sanity in Washington again, we can start getting back to a point where employers understand and have certainty as to what the future holds, I think that would be optimistic for us putting people back to work.

    The longer this lags on, and the less certainty they have, the more challenging it is. So, I think all of us who care deeply about putting our people back to work want to have certainty, want us to move forward.


    Before we go, I would like to hear from both of you about your own uncertainty. As this Washington debate bumps along, aren't you catching your breath a little? Don't your own budgets depend in part on federal government spending plans for '11, '12 and '13?

    Governor Markell?


    They certainly — it certainly does.

    And that being said, we can control what we can control. So when — I wake up every day focused on working with businesses in Delaware, trying to make them more successful, so they will put more people to work, working with teachers and other school-based personnel, administrators to make sure that our schools are as good as they can be, because that is the only way to have a strong economy going forward.

    And, of course, we work carefully — closely with our congressional delegation and with other governors, so that we're reaching out to Congress to make sure that, as costs get shifted around, they just don't get shifted to the states, because we all serve the same taxpayers. And just shifting an obligation from a federal tax payer to a state taxpayer really doesn't achieve very much. But we're absolutely — yes, this is a critical issue for states across the country.


    And, Governor Walker, let me get a quick response from you as well.


    Yes, I think there is a similar concern regardless of party.

    Jack and I and others today talked about this, certainly concern about not only spending changes, but in terms of what kind of tools they give us to react to whatever those might be. Combine that with the fact of the economy. It certainly has a direct impact if they don't get this worked out on municipal and state bond issues.

    And in the larger context, it has an impact on the economy. If things are unstable, it's going to be hard for us to put people back to work. I'm optimistic we are going to get this done and get back to stability and get back to putting people to work in Wisconsin and Connecticut and all across the country.


    Governors Walker and Markell, gentlemen, thank you both.


    Thank you.

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