The most powerful governor in America?

Deval Patrick, according to one nationwide analysis, holds the strongest governorship in the country. Does he have what it takes to wield that power?

Not so many weeks ago, it seemed likely that Deval Patrick was going to bring a jolt of new power to the Massachusetts governor's office. He was carried into office by an active, enthusiastic organization; he won by a large margin; and unlike Republican governors of recent years, he didn't start off immediately hobbled by the Democratic Legislature.

Governor Patrick made it clear on his first day in office that he was thinking like a muscular governor: He told reporters that he would seek direct control over independent quasi-public authorities such as the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority -- a goal no governor has achieved, though many have tried. (1).

But after a string of missteps and misfortune, Patrick suddenly seems to be at the helm of a diminished governorship. Headlines about lavish spending for office furnishings and a state car -- and about an ill-advised phone call on behalf of his former business associates -- have hurt his image. News that his wife is suffering from exhaustion and depression means that Patrick will have important family priorities to attend to in coming months.

Clearly, if there were a power-meter for Massachusetts politicians, Patrick's reading would be down several notches from where it was when he took office in January. And yet a governor's power takes many forms. There is the personal influence often referred to as clout, which can be augmented or squandered, and there is the fixed, constitutional power of the office. And it's worth noting that when it comes to the latter -- the inherent powers of the governorship -- the Massachusetts governor is among the strongest in the nation.

Sometime this summer we can expect to see the power of the office on display. In final negotiations over the budget, Patrick, unlike many other states' governors, has both the power of a line-item veto and the partisan political support in the Legislature to back it up. The recent Republican governors had veto power, too, but the Democratic Legislature consistently overrode them. That won't be so easy now. All Patrick needs is a third of the Democrats in one chamber to stand with him and he carries the day.

"Patrick both initiates the budget process and he concludes the budget process," says former Senate president Tom Birmingham. "He should be by far the most powerful player."

But that is only to say that Patrick will be, as an embattled President Bill Clinton once asserted himself to be, "still relevant."(2). The more important question is, can Patrick effectively wield those powers he's given -- along with those derived from force of will and personality -- to make improvements in state government? As his wobbly start makes clear, it's not an easy job for a rookie. But it's one of the paradoxes of Massachusetts politics that the governor is given great power and yet sometimes can barely make a ripple in what has been called, as Patrick recently noted, "the capital of the status quo."

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Measuring political power is an inexact science. The way power ebbs and flows between different power-centers in government often depends on where the most forceful personalities in state politics are operating at any given time.

But state constitutions and statutes have a lot to say about the balance of power. Most states, suspicious of executive power, started out with weak governorships by design. Many have evolved in recent decades toward strong-governor systems.

Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the nation's governorships since the 1960s, says Massachusetts is a classic example of a strong-governor state. But that is a fairly recent historical development.

Massachusetts Governor John Volpe led a successful push for a constitutional amendment in 1964 to lengthen the governor's term from two years to four. That same decade saw a strengthening of the governor's powers over judicial appointments and a new requirement that the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team, which removed the lieutenant governor as a potential rival.

In the early 1970s, Governor Francis Sargent created today's cabinet system, giving the governor more direct control over state agencies. A beneficiary of the Beacon Hill power-shift was Michael Dukakis, who became a hands-on activist governor over three terms spanning 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Beyle, in a ranking of the power of the governorship in all 50 states, makes the distinction between "personal powers" of governors -- factors that vary from person to person, season to season -- and the "institutional powers" that are set in place by law. Examples of measurable personal factors are how large a governor's margin of victory was on election day, and where he stands in public opinion polls. Whether a governor has strong budget controls, appointment authority, and veto powers are examples of institutional powers. (He recently updated the rankings for a new edition of "Politics in the American States: A Comparative Analysis," due out later this year from CQ Press.) (3).

"In terms of institutional powers, Massachusetts is at the top," Beyle says. In a combined ranking of Patrick's personal powers (as of February) with institutional power, Massachusetts comes out in the top ten.

Among the institutional factors Beyle considers are "tenure potential" (some states limit governors to one term; Massachusetts doesn't have term limits), how many other executive branch officials are elected (separately elected officials -- such as the treasurer, secretary of state, and auditor in Massachusetts -- mean the governor has to deal with competing power-bases), and whether the governor has untrammeled powers to appoint heads of executive agencies (in some states the legislature has advise and consent powers over cabinet appointments).

In Massachusetts, the governor's appointment power is not as strong as many governors have wished, given the nearly two dozen quasi-public agencies and authorities that operate, some say, as a "fourth branch of government" in the Commonwealth. Because board members don't serve terms concurrent with the governor's, it can take years for a new governor to replace holdovers from the previous administration on the boards of such power centers as the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Patrick gets a low rating in one of Beyle's "personal powers" categories. Because Patrick has not had previous experience as an elected official in the state, he may lack the kind of network of powerful allies of someone who has been climbing "the ambition ladder" for years. The underlying assumption is that as Patrick learns on the job and develops his own network he stands to consolidate his strength.

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Of course, the "personal power" that is impossible to quantify has to do with how well Patrick gets along with other Beacon Hill power brokers. Birmingham notes that ranking the formal powers of governors tells only half the story. Massachusetts may well have a strong-governor system -- but it also has a full-time, year-round Legislature that has grown accustomed to a central role in state government. And part of the perennial drama on Beacon Hill is the contest between the executive branch and the Legislature for the upper hand -- a contest that some say has tilted too far away from executive power in recent years.

"We have had a power grab by the Legislature" through the 1990s, says Eric Kriss, who served as secretary of administration and finance in the Mitt Romney administration. Kriss says the budget battles this spring will be the first test of whether Patrick can change the balance. He contends the Legislature has made "unwarranted assumptions of executive power" by "micromanaging" the budget process.

"It used to be there was an allocation of money for a broad purpose," Kriss says, such as "build highways." It would be the administration's job to decide how and where to spend the highway money. But in a trend that started in the 1960s and intensified in recent years, he says, lawmakers have become more insistent on rewriting the governor's spending plan line by line. Patrick has already set off alarm bells in the Legislature by eliminating in his proposed budget many of the specific categories (known as earmarks) that lawmakers prefer to bargain over.

Birmingham and others don't rule out the idea that strong executive power can meet strong legislative power and produce good results. Peter Nessen, who served in the Weld and Romney administrations, points to the early 1990s as a model. William Weld started out as an engaged and formidable governor. The Senate was ruled by the strong hand of Boston Democrat William Bulger. Cambridge Democrat Charles Flaherty was speaker of the House. By 1993, Weld and several strong Democrats, including Birmingham, had enacted a complete overhaul of the education finance system.

"The last time you can look back at the executive being strong, the Legislature was also strong," Nessen says of that period. And because of the cooperation that briefly prevailed, "you got some very interesting advancement."

Former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, now director of the Institute for Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, says institutional powers don't have much to do with what really matters. "All those powers don't mean much" if the governor doesn't have the political skills to make changes in government programs.

"I suppose most people feel the most powerful on election night when they win," says Shaheen. "But the way I would define powerful, it's in the context of 'what do you accomplish?' I would say I felt best about the job I was doing at those points when we were able to get things done -- when we got the health insurance program for children working, when we passed an expansion of public kindergarten, when we got a budget passed."

In the end, the institutional powers can take a governor only so far. Success for Patrick may mean becoming more a part of the culture of Beacon Hill that he assailed as a candidate.

"The governor has loads of ways to influence people," explains Birmingham. Every year, for example, the Legislature authorizes an upper limit of money that can be spent for large capital improvement projects -- schools, roads, bridges. "The governor has the absolute final say on what capital projects go forward," Birmingham notes. "Those projects mean an awful lot to individual legislators." That doesn't mean the process should turn into a "bazaar," he says, "but there are, you know, accommodations that can be made."


Dave Denison is a contributing writer for CommonWealth magazine.


Annotations, amendments, and digressions:

(1) Governors who stay around long enough can gain influence over these boards -- by having a majority of their own appointees. But state law makes it difficult for the governor to have direct control. In 2001, Gov. Jane Swift tried to fire two members of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court later ruled she did not have proper legal cause to do so.

(2) It should be noted that Patrick's power in the budget battles is more likely to be a negative power -- if he uses the veto. It's a higher challenge for the governor to keep things in the budget than to strike things out. To exert positive power he needs a majority bloc of legislators or a few key allies on the conference committee that will make the final budget decisions.

(3) Beyle's four personal powers are: 1) how large the governor's margin of victory was, 2) how much previous state government experience the governor has, 3) how early or late in a term the governor is and whether another term is possible (or ruled out by term limits or a declaration to not run for re-election), and 4) a governor's approval ratings in public opinion polls.

Beyle's six institutional powers are: 1) how many separately elected executive branch officials there are, 2) how long the term is (two years or four) and whether there are term limits on the governor, 3) the governor's appointment power over six major functions of state government (corrections, health, highways and transportation, K-12 schools, public utilities, and welfare), 4) budget powers, 5) veto power, and 6) whether the governor's party controls one chamber of the legislature, or both, or none.

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