The National Governors Association conference ended Sunday with a focus on collection of state taxes on Internet sales, a proposition favored by most governors nationwide, after avoiding official engagement in an area of past gubernatorial agreement that has disappeared, Common Core standards.
The two Tennesseans most prominent in the three-day NGA conference — host Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a featured speaker this year who was NGA chairman 28 years ago – are both advocates of the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” pending legislation in Congress that would authorize states to collect sales tax on online sales.
“To me, it’s states’ rights,” said Alexander in his speech to the NGA. He voted for the bill, which has passed the U.S. Senate, but stalled in the U.S. House. Alexander said the issue may come before the House “in the next couple of weeks.”
Directing his comments to Republican governors in particular, Alexander said, “This is a good time to call your Republican congressmen and tell them, ‘Let us make our own decisions’.” As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, current federal law forbids state sales tax collections on Internet sales unless the retailer making the sale has a “physical presence” in the state.
In the NGA meeting’s closing session Sunday, Hubert Joly, president and CEO of Best Buy Inc., told the governors that a Senate move is afoot to bypass the House’s refusal to act on the Marketplace Fairness Act by attaching it as an amendment to separate, House-passed legislation to renew a federal law that generally bans state Internet taxation.
Joly said the current federal law is unfair, effectively giving Internet retailers a price advantage – about 8 percent nationwide, on average, he said — over “brick and mortar” retailers who operate within states and collect sales taxes.
Citing Alexander’s comments, Joly declared, “I believe if we all work together, we can push this over the finish line.” He was applauded by the governors on hand, including Haslam.
Common Core standards were embraced by the NGA on a bipartisan basis in 2009, setting the stage for approval in 44 states and enactment of federal “Race to the Top” legislation backed by President Obama that provided federal incentive money for states – including about $500 million for Tennessee – that enacted state laws incorporating some of Common Core principles.
But Common Core, which sets standardized goals for student achievement, has since fallen into extreme disfavor among both conservative Republicans and some Democrats and efforts are underway to retract state approval. Tennessee’s Legislature earlier this year approved a bill that postpones testing tied to Common Core for a year – over the objections of Haslam, who has repeatedly and emphatically backed the standards that set uniform competence levels in math and language for students.
At the NGA conference, the topic was not officially on the agenda. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told the Associated Press that even the words “Common Core,” have “become, in a sense, radioactive.”
But it did come up, at least peripherally. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, this year’s chair of the NGA, has signed into law a bill repealing Common Core standards in her state and mentioned the idea of “repeal and replace” in one panel discussion. Haslam, who vigorously and successfully opposed outright repeal legislation in Tennessee, replied that the NGA’s past action merely provided guidelines.
“Every governor will decide what the right thing is for his or her state,” he said. “I would argue here that this is a case of NGA playing the right role.”
Alexander, in his speech and follow-up comments to governors posing questions afterwards, strived for a middle ground.
The senator, who has been faulted on his Common Core stance by Republican opponents in his ongoing campaign for a new term, criticized both Democratic President Obama and former Republican President George W. Bush for trying to impose federal control over education – Obama through “Race to the Top” and Bush for the federal “No Child Left Behind” law. In both cases, federal funding was tied to state compliance and thus has governors “over a barrel.”
Both federal laws were steps toward a “national school board” that would usurp state and local control over education, Alexander said. He said it would be better if the federal government simply provided money to states to use as they choose on educational endeavors.
The “big pushback” against Common Core is understandable, Alexander said, because of “the perception — which is a fact — that Washington is in effect requiring states to adopt certain standards, certain performance levels, certain teacher evaluation systems.”
On the other hand, Alexander declared his support for setting higher standards for student achievement, the stated goal of Common Core backers.
On another state-federal relations front, the governors generally voiced concern about Congress’ failure to reach an agreement on continued federal funding of highway construction and maintenance support to states.
In her closing remarks, Republican Fallin hailed the NGA for “the great work we can do together in a bipartisan way” and her successor as NGA chairman, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado promised more efforts “across the political spectrum” in the year ahead.
And they jointly hailed Haslam, Fallin praising the Tennessee governor for “a wonderful time” provided in out-of-session gubernatorial gatherings and Hickenlooper declaring him “an amazing host.”
Haslam and Alexander, both seeking reelection this year, praised one another in their public comments at the event.
Alexander said that, as a senator, he constantly has in mind, “how can I give Bill Haslam more tools to be a better governor.” Haslam declared that Alexander is more knowledgeable on education issues than most anyone in the nation.
“You all should be jealous of Tennessee for a lot of reasons. One of them is that we have a U.S. senator who used to be a governor,” Haslam told colleagues.