Nation’s governors gathering in TN for 3rd time (with a note on 1951)

Tennessee will host a gathering of state chief executives from across the nation this week for the third time since the National Governors Association was founded in 1908.

“I look forward to a great weekend of substantive conversation as well as the chance to showcase Tennessee and all we have to offer to my colleagues,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in a press release.

The NGA met in Gatlinburg in 1951, when Gordon Browning played the role of host governor, and at Nashville in 1984, when Lamar Alexander welcomed fellow state CEOs.

Alexander is one of two Tennessee governors who have served as chairman of the NGA, holding the post in 1986, his last year in office. The other was Buford Ellington, who served in 1969, his last year in office.

Vice President Joe Biden is also slated to deliver a keynote address at this year’s meeting, which officially begins Friday at Nashville’s Omni Hotel — although there are preliminary events on Thursday — and runs through Sunday.

Alexander, who highlighted his role as NGA chair in a subsequent unsuccessful race for the presidency, is this year running for reelection to his Senate seat. But several governors with reported presidential ambitions are expected to be on hand, including Republican Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas and John Kasich of Ohio.

On the Democratic side, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland has indicated interest while Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jerry Brown of California are subjects of some speculation, although most Democratic attention is focused on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the wife of former President Bill Clinton, who served as NGA chairman while governor of Arkansas.

The NGA bills its conferences as allowing governors to “share best practices, speak with a collective voice on national policy and develop innovative solutions that improve state government and support the principles of federalism.”

Speaking with a collective voice on state-federal issues has been a primary concern since NGA was founded. Recent examples have included gubernatorial support for federal legislation giving states the right to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases, which has stalled in Congress, to the push to approve Common Core standards for schools.

This year, Haslam chairs the NGA Health and Human Resources Committee, where a matter of federal-state interest is Medicaid expansion, funded primarily by the federal government but requiring state approval. Haslam is still negotiating with U.S. Health and Human Services officials on whether Tennessee will expand Medicaid.

At last year’s NGA meeting, the committee talked about prescription drug abuse as a featured topic. Haslam subsequently and successfully pushed legislation limiting non-prescription purchases of drugs that can be used in making meth and other measures aimed at reducing abuse of prescription drugs used illegally.

Many governors have pushed similar measures. Besides public sessions devoted largely to speech-making, NGA meetings also have “governors only” closed sessions, touted in an NGA press release as providing “an opportunity to exchange ideas about challenges facing states in a private, off-the-record setting.”

As Haslam said, there will also be some showcasing. Haslam will lead the governors and their spouses on a private tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Tennessee governor’s residence and the Hermitage, home of former President Andrew Jackson. They will also have private concerts by country music starts Trace Adkins, Vince Gill and Amy Grant.

In 1951, Browning in his welcoming remarks in Gatlinburg, available online at the NGA website, jokingly touched upon the subject of federal-state relations that remains a central issue for the governors today.

“We think we have arranged as best we could for your enjoyment, even unto the weather, for which we claim credit, since it is this kind. Were it otherwise, we would blame it on a federal bureau, of course,” said Browning.

He then declared, “Tennessee has never had a more proud moment than this,” comparing East Tennessee’s mountains to the biblical Garden of Eden and lauding Tennesseans generally as “a people who are probably the most pure of the original stocks that you will find left in America.”

An NGA transcript of proceedings indicates Browning’s only initiative during the proceedings was a motion, unanimously approved, to have the governors collectively send Cordell Hull a telegram congratulating the former U.S. secretary of state on his 80th birthday.

Note: The transcript of 1951 proceedings is HERE. The NGA chairman that year was Ohio Democratic Gov. Frank J. Lausche, who in a long and interesting speech at the outset declared education improvement a priority for governors in his keynote address but devoted much of his commentary to the growth of government at both the state and national levels at the expense of local government powers.

“With money goes power. With power goes control. In the increasing of central control lies a grave danger to the American type of democracy- a type based upon local self-government, local control, and direct citizen participation,” he said.

(Curiously, the transcript of 1984 proceedings when the NGA last met in Nashville is not available online – though the 1986 session at Hilton Head, S.C., when Alexander was chairman, is HERE.)