State of the State speeches accentuate the positive

A State of the State address is no time for bad news, unless it’s your first year as governor and you have predecessors to blame. “This is a government with problems at its very core, and these problems have festered for decades,” said Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher in January, and it goes without saying that the opposition party (in this case, the Democrats) held the governor’s office for decades before Fletcher won it last autumn. Similarly, California’s gubernatorial midterm replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger, made his plans to alter the state of his state sound like the plot of one of his action movies: “I don’t want to move the boxes around; I want to blow them up.”

Forty-two governors delivered State of the State speeches this year, Texas being the largest state where citizens had to figure out for themselves how they were doing. (Not that Texans are known for self-doubt.) Most of them had records to defend, so they were far sunnier in outlook than Fletcher or Schwarzenegger. “The state of our state is strong–and getting stronger each and every day,” declared Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, even as he faced impeachment over a financial scandal. “Colorado is back,” Gov. Bill Owens announced, and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne assured citizens that “We’re on the road to recovery.” Not satisfied with rebound, Maine’s Gov. John Baldacci bragged, “We’re becoming the envy of every other state in the nation,” while Gov. Ruth Ann Minner topped that boast with an analogy from reality TV: “If state government were the TV show Survivor, Delaware definitely would’ve won the million bucks.”

If most governors gave their states the thumbs up, they did so in speeches of varying lengths. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave the longest address, at 9,653 words, while New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson was the pithiest speaker, requiring only 2,093 words to report on the Granite State’s condition. The Bay State’s Mitt Romney gave the third shortest speech, at 2,313 words. If a larger population means more ground to cover, California Gov. Schwarzenegger gets the prize for verbal efficiency, delivering one word for every 11,827 residents. South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds spoke nearly three times longer and uttered one word for every 97 constituents.

The speeches were delivered in the dead of winter, and harsh weather seemed to affect governors in different ways. “We’ve been blessed with a tremendous snowpack in the mountains,” Idaho’s Kempthorne said happily, looking ahead to an ample water supply. But Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty displayed signs of cabin fever. “Why do we live here in Minnesota?” he asked. “It’s been 25 below, it seems like we only see the sun for a few hours during winter days, and we spend a lot of time shoveling snow. There are other places to live.” Pawlenty then went on to list reasons that Minnesota’s a great place to live, of course, but none was as memorable as his setup.

Many governors started off by flattering their audiences. “Alaska’s greatest resource is our people,” declared Gov. Frank Murkowski. “We live in a state where people aren’t afraid to start carving on a mountain,” boasted South Dakota’s Rounds, referring to Mount Rushmore, presumably. “We’re one of the healthiest states in the nation, and the least obese,” gushed Colorado’s Owens. “We’re also proud that our capital city is the third most literate city in the nation.” But in South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford decided that a scolding was in order: “We eat the wrong things and don’t get enough exercise.”

After praising the people, many governors slid smoothly into self-congratulation. “We have spent a year twisting the wet towel of government tight, to wring out ounce after ounce of inefficiency,” said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. “For the first time in nearly 15 years,” New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey declared, “motor vehicle offices will be open on Saturdays.” Other accomplishments included lowering the legal blood alcohol level in Delaware; raising the minimum wage in Illinois; increasing the penalty for impersonating a police officer in Colorado (a response to a murder allegedly committed by a phony cop); and “installing systems that automatically turn out the lights in state offices at night” in Kansas.

Sanford, South Carolina’s nutrition-minded governor, bragged that the state corrections department started up its “own grist mill for grits.” (Apparently, grits doesn’t fall into the category of “wrong things” to consume. Either that or a bad diet is Sanford’s idea of punishment.) But New Hampshire’s Benson threw cold water on his state board of education’s attempt to improve teenage eating habits by banning soda machines in high schools. “This type of bureaucratic micromanagement is a dinosaur of the past,” he raged, leaving citizens to wonder how he felt about dinosaurs of the future.

Past achievements led naturally to new proposals, though the governors differed on how much they dared to ask from legislators. New York Gov. George Pataki had the most chutzpah: “I ask you to join me in taking action on the 45 specific measures I outline today.” (At least he gave his audience fair warning. As people settled into their seats, he asked, “Is everyone comfortable? Because I may be here longer than you think.”) West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise was polite, if not obsequious, in requesting a hike in the tobacco tax to help fund Medicaid: “I ask you to add another one cent per cigarette–just a penny.” Mississippi’s Haley Barbour wrapped the flag around his proposal to make jury duty more convenient, calling it the “Jury Patriotism Act.”

The ideas governors put forward ranged from big picture to small bore, but many were held in common. While Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan declared, “My top priority is to create jobs,” so did several others; a couple of governors echoed Idaho’s Kempthorne when he said, “Education remains the top priority for this state.” But Alaska Gov. Murkowski was alone in saying, “The top priority of this administration is the construction of a gas pipeline.”

Attracting the industries of the future was perhaps the most widely shared gubernatorial goal. Governors in Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin all set their sights on biotechnology. West Virginia Gov. Wise was more specific about his state’s biomedical niche: “We soon will be the world leader in developing new strategies and treatments for memory disorders.” Georgia’s Sonny Perdue suggested that his state could become “a world leader” in the emerging nanotechnology sector. By contrast, Maryland’s Bob Ehrlich’s exhortation to become the plain old “technology capital of the nation” sounded about as cutting-edge as a Mr. Coffee machine.

Being fierce competitors, the governors who mentioned other states were rarely complimentary. Wisconsin’s Jim Doyle dissed seven of them in the first few minutes. (“In Kentucky, they let prisoners out early…. In Alabama, they put mannequins in state patrol cars.”) New Jersey’s McGreevey bragged that “we have gained more jobs than all of our neighboring states combined,” then vowed “to compete with Massachusetts and California” in the high-tech arena. Touting “the nation’s newest chip-fab plant” in Albany, New York’s Pataki quoted gleefully from a Texas newspaper: “Upstate New York is a direct threat to Austin’s standing as a top-tier semiconductor research and manufacturing center.” Showing little sympathy for Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican, Pataki chortled, “We’ve set off the alarms, now it’s time to feed the fire.”

But Pataki should watch his back. “We want new jobs and new companies on the West Slope, not the West Side of Manhattan,” proclaimed Colorado’s Owens. “We want innovation in the Tech Center, not Rockefeller Center.”

In Michigan, Gov. Granholm made it clear she’s taking Richard Florida’s bookThe Rise of the Creative Class seriously by declaring that her state needs “strong regional economies anchored by cool cities.” She noted approvingly that “nearly 80 of our communities have local commissions on cool,” charged with finding ways to attract young, creative single people. “Employers will not come here,” she warned, “if the technology workforce has left us for New York or Boston or Chicago.”

South Carolina’s Sanford, however, ignored his rivals on this continent. In the race for jobs, he stressed, “We’re now competing with the likes of China and India.”

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The governors sprinkled their speeches with the wisdom of the ages, but judging by their source material, they didn’t want to seem too highfalutin. Indiana’s Kernan turned to “the great baseball philosopher Sparky Anderson” for this bit of advice: “I don’t dwell on the past. There’s no future in it.” Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry recalled the words of native son Will Rogers: “The best way out of difficulty is through it.” The governors of both Alabama and Georgia made use of the same folksy saying, though neither said where they got it: “You don’t drive full speed toward a cliff and hope that someone will build a bridge before you get there.”

Colorado’s Owens quoted Charles Darwin near the end of his speech (“It is not the strongest of the species that survive…but the one most responsive to change”), but lest he appear too secular, he closed by saying, “God bless Colorado.” In fact, only 14 of the 42 governors failed to end their speeches with “God bless [insert name of state here],” or some variant. Michigan Gov. Granholm opted for “Peace be with you,” and New Jersey Gov. McGreevey wound things up by referencing a homegrown deity: “To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, the sun is rising in a land of hope and dreams.” Though personally devout, Gov. Romney signed off with a nod to those who control his fate here on earth: “The people of Massachusetts must come first.”