Around the Institute

Republican Governors Discuss Economic Growth and Education

July 28, 2014  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full session of this McCloskey Speakers Series event, featuring five Republican governors giving their outlook for 2014.

Five Republican governors touted their states’ accomplishments in economic opportunities, education, and other pressing issues, despite Washington gridlock. The governors of Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Wisconsin spoke in Aspen, CO, as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series, during a convening of the Republican Governors Association at the Aspen Institute.

Cutting taxes to spur economic growth and otherwise incentivizing the private sector was a major theme of discussion. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback gave a personal account of how cutting taxes on the smallest businesses in his state worked (three-quarters of Kansas businesses have 10 or fewer employees). An independent contractor thanked him for the tax cut, telling him he would use the savings to buy a second work vehicle and hire an employee. Brownback responded to criticism that Kansas is not growing as fast as other states in the region. The state, he said, is “really moving it forward on private sector growth,” but down about 3,000 public-sector employees.

“I’m a pro-growth Republican, and that’s how you really build,” said Brownback.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker noted that his administration has reduced the tax burden by $2 billion (the state’s lowest rate is 4 percent), while neighbor Illinois has raised taxes dramatically. Meanwhile, Wisconsin was recently named the 14th best state in the country to do business, while Illinois ranked a dismal 48th, he said.

“The president and his allies largely measure success in government on how many people depend on the government,” said Walker. “I believe, and most Republicans believe, that we should measure success by just the opposite, not because we want them kicked to the curb but because we empower them to take charge of their own destiny.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said that he inherited a state with a $3.5 billion deficit. His administration cut taxes 40 times — last year by $500 million — invested in tourism, and recruited companies to the state, adding hundreds of thousands of jobs. Florida now has $3 billion in a “rainy day fund,” he added. “So tax cuts work.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said that unemployment went from 11.1 percent in 2011 to 5.3 percent now, the lowest in the state’s history. Like her Republican colleagues, she touted job skills training and STEM education as part of the formula, as well as attracting businesses to South Carolina, which is a heavy manufacturing state. Haley pointed to public assistance as an area where her administration has implemented creative changes.

“Everyone is negative about welfare, so we changed things,” Haley said. “DC says when somebody comes into the welfare office, check a box and hand them check. When we check the boxes, we say, ‘What do you do? What are you good at? What’s your skill set? By asking those extra questions, we have taken over 20,000 people off welfare and put them into jobs.”

Noting that “the data doesn’t lie,” Walker said that the average monthly unemployment rate in states led by Republican governors has been almost one point lower than in Democrat-led states.

On education, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said his state has made “significant progress,” particularly in Newark, where he described a school system that was spending outrageous amounts of money per pupil yet graduating only 23 percent of high school students. Using some $200 million in philanthropic funds, the school system has switched to a merit-based teacher pay system and has bought some ineffective teachers out, resulting in increased graduation rates and greater pre-K enrollment, said Christie.

In Wisconsin, the state reimburses more for literacy, one of the staples of a good education, said Walker. South Carolina schools teach financial literacy, said Haley, who was the accountant of her family’s business at the age of 13. Florida eliminated tenure, expanded charter schools, started a corporate scholarship program for low-income students, and adopted its own set of standards outside of Common Core, said Scott, who cited statistics about Florida students ranking among the highest in the country.

“It’s all about going back to basics,” said Haley. “We don’t need a whole new way to teach. More science, more math. And make sure it’s state run.”

Both New Jersey and the nation still face great educational challenges, said Christie, who said teachers are second in importance only to the home environment in terms of learning. But the teaching system is rife with problems, such as tenure; the last-in, first-out system of firing teachers; and teachers unions, especially New Jersey’s, which Christie called “a slush fund for political influence” that collects dues but puts nothing back for teachers’ benefit.

“The problem with our system today, and the reason I believe we are seeing declining achievement in reading and math across this country is because we have a public education system that has morphed into one that cares more about the comfort of adults than it cares about the potential of children,” he said. “It’s the most moneyed, most influential establishment of the public system… And if you don’t have a quality teacher, no matter what we do as governments, we’re going to fail. If we’re not willing to upset [the] apple cart, we won’t be the great power we were last 240 years.”

The governors also discussed health care and the border crisis, calling for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a more secure border, and criticizing the Obama administration’s efforts to place unaccompanied children who illegally cross the border with sponsors in the United States.