Most Governors Rate Fair to Poor Fiscally

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Only two of 42 governors rated received a grade of "A" in a new assessment of their fiscal policies released Friday. Twenty of the 42 received grades of "D" or "F."

Stephen Moore, senior fellow with the Cato Institute, said Cato's 2002 "Fiscal Policy Report Card on America's Governors," is neither political, nor a popularity contest.

"Of course we like Roy Barnes and Bill Owens quite a bit, but they did not achieve high grades because we like them," he said. "They received high grades because of their superior performance in terms of cutting the budget, holding the line on spending, and tax reduction."

Barnes (D-Ga) and Owens (R-Colo.) were the two highest scoring governors for their respective parties. Barnes was the only Democrat to receive a grade higher than "C." Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) received the other "A."

The report card is based on 17 objective criteria regarding fiscal and economic performance. Governors are given two grades, one on spending another on taxes. The scores cover both actual changes as well as recommendations made by the executives but not enacted by legislatures. Finally, the grade considers taxing and spending measures vetoed by the governors.

Barnes said the tough economic times governors have faced since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shouldn't force a state's finances into disarray.

"I've been through every recession in modern times," said Barnes, who began his political career in 1975. "This is the deepest [recession] for states that we've had. But it also tests whether our ideologies, our practices, our procedures and really our determination is where our mouths have been all these years."

Barnes has ordered three spending cuts of 10.5 percent in order to keep the Georgia state budget in balance. Since his election in 1999, he has proposed property tax cuts totaling $249 million, and has increased the state's revenue shortfall reserves to $950 million.

The state ended its fiscal year June 30 with a planned $200 million surplus, which will be dedicated to education spending in the current fiscal year. Barnes said devoting planned surpluses to education has led to Georgia being one of the only states in the southeast without a teacher shortage.

The Cato Institute calls Owens' first four years in office "a sterling record of fiscal accomplishment."

In that time, he has been an advocate for the Colorado Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, which restricts the growth of state government to the same rate at which the state's population changes plus inflation. As a result, Colorado taxpayers have received rebates during all four years of Owens' term, and the state has still maintained "healthy" budget surpluses.

"We need to run government like a business. I don't know of any business in the country that, when sales drop and times are tough, they simply choose to raise prices to meet that challenge," he argued. "Government has to run, actually, like a family. When your family revenue is a little down, you work harder, you're more efficient, and, in fact, sometimes you cut spending. That's what we've done in Colorado."

Owens used his line item veto to eliminate 100 times the number of spending provisions from the Colorado state budget than the two preceding governors combined had deleted.

Moore said other states could definitely learn from Owens' and Barnes' philosophy.

"The lesson is that states cannot tax their way to prosperity, and states that try to raise taxes are going to find themselves in bad economic trouble," he concluded. "The most important thing that the federal government can do to help the states is to get the economic prosperity back to where it was in the late 1990s.

"That means cutting taxes, expanding free trade, doing all the things that will get the stock market back up, [and] will get people back to work," Moore added.

Govs. Bob Taft (R-Ohio), Donald Sundquist (R-Tenn.), John Kitzhaber (D-Ore.), and Gray Davis (D-Calif.) received the four "Fs" given. Eight remaining governors were not graded because they have only been in office a short time.

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