By Stateside Associates

At the National Governors Association (NGA) Winter Meeting this past weekend in Washington, DC, a major focus for the governors was the revamping of the association’s policy process. In adopting a new policy process, NGA Chair Governor Dave Heineman (R-Nebraska) and Vice Chair Governor Jack Markell (D-Delaware) addressed the need to have governors more directly involved in NGA policy decisions. This idea was immediately put to the test during consideration of the NGA healthcare policy.

Traditionally, NGA policymaking has been a long, drawn-out process. Instead of focusing on the issues that states could speak with a unified voice, geographic and partisan gamesmanship and exhaustive wordsmithing at the governors’ staff level commonly hindered overall association progress. NGA staff was often in a cycle of policy revision, unable to concentrate on being the voice of the nation’s governors on Capitol Hill and before the Administration.

Under the newly enacted process, policies are only considered at the Winter Meeting.  This focuses attention on priorities for the following congressional session. (A more detailed description of the new NGA policy process, by Stateside Associates Senior Vice President Mark Anderson, can be found here). The change moves away from the inefficient or outdated policies, which made it challenging for the association to consider complex issues and tied governors’ and NGA staff’s hands when advocating for or against an issue.

This newly implemented process takes a big-picture approach—it focuses on the NGA tenets of avoiding federal preemption of state policy and preventing and eliminating unfunded federal mandates. If successful, the change will give NGA more leverage in national policy debates. In addition to revising the process, governors approved a completely new slate of policy positions. A second vote replaced the existing positions with the new ones. Together, these votes gave NGA staff a clean slate on which to lobby.

The governors’ resolve to speak with one voice and avoid inside the beltway wrangling was immediately tested during the meeting on the new NGA healthcare policy. The policy was originally considered by the Health and Human Services Committee, but failed at the governors’ staff level because of partisan disagreement (the conflict hinged on a statement regarding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act).

Under the old process, this would have either led to the governors passing a weaker statement on healthcare; keeping less effective policies in place; or even worse, having no statement at all. However, governors realized the need to make a strong, unified statement on healthcare policy, and decided to override staff and approve the policy as originally written. This is the first time in recent memory governors have shown such strength of conviction in coming to a unified policy statement.

Governors realize the need to cut the geographic and partisan gamesmanship at a staff level and focus on the issues on which they can agree. While this may make it challenging to work through the new process, all participants in NGA policy creation will learn to navigate it together. When the dust from the shake-up settles, NGA will emerge stronger and with a much clearer direction.