State Government Affairs
State Flags Ready for a Refresh
September 6, 2023 | Bill Kramer
With the combination of 42 states passing new budgets and an affordability crisis sweeping across the United States, governors have many issues to emphasize this year. To ascertain the most important issues for governors, we sorted through State of the State or budget addresses in every state and noted big policy ideas cited by governors. We then sorted those issues into policy categories and totaled them to determine the most prevalent policy priorities. The results are summarized by broad categorization in the chart below.
Compared to last year, issues in Health & Public Safety remained at the top of the chart, Budget & Taxation, which held last year’s second most popular spot, remains a prevalent issue as new state budgets are passing, but moved to the third most important issue this year. Education policies jumped to the second most cited for 2023. Two categories that were popular last year but were removed from this year’s chart for lack of popularity were COVID-19 and election reform issues. Both of these issues had their roots in 2020. State restrictions regarding COVID-19 are a fraction of what they were at the height of the pandemic and while election reform issues are still being debated in state legislatures, we’ve consolidated that issue into “Election Security & Voter ID” under the “Law & Legal” category.
The chart below breaks down the issues in each of these larger policy categories that were cited by governors, allowing us to examine these broad policy areas with a more granular view. The chart is organized by broad policy category with the most cited at the top (issues related to Health & Public Safety) and the least cited at the bottom (issues related to Commerce & Industry).
While most governors have delivered their State of the State address, please note that Governor Newsom of California elected to not give a formal address this year. Other states not counted include Louisiana, where the address is scheduled on April 10, and Arkansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon, whose governors have yet to announce their State of the State Addresses at the time of this writing.
While our chart shows the full range of topics mentioned in the governors’ addresses, action on any issue, especially in states with split-party control, is not guaranteed. This analysis, however, can provide an overview of legislative trends and issues likely to come up across the country. Issues prioritized by governors can differ from the issues that legislative leaders might prioritize. To compare the differences in the forecasted priority issues, please see our 2023 legislative leadership priority analysis here.
The broad category of Health & Public Safety is again the most popular category this session and includes several hot-button issues along with traditional health care issues, such as addressing mental health care, opioid and addiction treatment, and healthcare costs. This category also includes legislative priorities regarding Medicaid, both sides of the firearms issue, and reproductive health care. After the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision last year, overturning Roe v. Wade, reproductive health care is now in the hands of the states. While many states had older laws on the books or trigger laws in case Roe was overturned, this is the first full legislative session where state lawmakers will address a post-Roe landscape. While Illinois, Michigan, and Washington’s governors intend to increase access to reproductive health care, other states are taking a broader approach to limit reproductive care.
Mental health and addiction treatment is the area of utmost concern for the majority of governors this year — governors mentioned this issue a total of forty times throughout their speeches. Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy (R), plans to tackle the opioid and fentanyl epidemic through investments in addiction and mental health care measures, saying “we must also be focused on treatment as well … we’ll continue our work to end the stigma around addiction so that people who are struggling will seek help, and get it.” In Maine, Governor Janet Mills (D) is proposing “a historic $237 million in combined state and federal funding for substance use disorder and mental health services.” In other states, funding robust and adequate mental health care for all age groups takes top priority. Governor Kelly’s (D) Kansas budget proposal expands “mental health intervention teams in … schools [and] ... provide funding for adult psychiatric services in the Wichita area,” to provide mental health treatment for every age demographic.
In a continued overall trend, governors are proposing a generous portion of healthcare funding be used to address the high costs of healthcare and fill gaps in the quality of urban and rural care, especially in Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Education issues are the second most popular category this year, moving up from third in 2022. As the emergency aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic are dropped, thirty-five governors include major education initiatives in their 2023 priorities — from teacher pay to school choice. Across the country, governors are proposing larger increases in teacher salaries compared to incremental changes in the past. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) recommended investing, “over $20 million into recruiting, developing, and retaining teachers and student teachers, including $10 million for our local, homegrown educators, to bolster our educator pipeline and ensure it’s sustainable for the future.”
A growing issue is school choice and universal education savings accounts (ESAs). ESAs give parents the right to opt into private schools or homeschooling for their children using taxpayer dollars. School choice appropriations are in eight governors’ budget proposals this year. Governor Reynolds (R) highlighted that in her school choice bill for Iowa, each student’s account will receive $7,598, “which is the amount of funding the state provides for each child who attends a public school.”
The third most mentioned priority in the State of the State addresses this year was Budget & Taxes. States are still seeing unprecedented revenue surpluses, while the cost of living and inflation rises, prompting governors to bolster their state’s rainy day accounts and reduce or remove taxes. Twenty-seven governors proposed new tax reforms, the most prominent being severe cuts or removal of state income, property, and grocery or sales taxes. As Hawaii Governor Josh Green (D) explained “every income bracket in Hawaii will be paying less state income tax … directly lower[ing] Hawaii's cost of living for every resident.”
With larger funding available from surpluses, the federal infrastructure law, and remaining ARPA funds, twenty-one governors have the capital to undertake larger postponed infrastructure projects. Crumbling roads and sewers are pre-eminent concerns in South Carolina as Governor McMaster (R) recommends using remaining ARPA funds for outdated sewers and $850 million to complete roadway projects. Another infrastructure project governors are prioritizing is broadband internet capabilities. Governor Cooper (D) announced that he will ensure that every North Carolinian home “has access to high-speed internet” using funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The fourth most popular category this year is Employment & Labor. By far the most popular issue area in this category is workforce development and job training. Thirty-eight governors stressed improving education and training for more technical jobs. Governor Wes Moore (D) proposed his workforce plan saying, “Every business across the country says their number one factor for relocation, for growing their companies where they are, is a trained and educated workforce.” States are looking to set up their economies for the future by expanding and retaining potential employees.
Technical trade educational paths are receiving more attention from governors, giving high schools, technical colleges, and universities scholarships and development plans to increase the technical trade workforces in their states. Apprenticeship programs are one of the most prevalent plans governors have put forward to address the workforce shortages. Missouri Governor Michael Parson (R) asked the legislature to allocate $3 million dollars to Apprenticeship Missouri to expand “apprenticeship opportunities with a focus on IT, public health, education, and public safety.”
This year, affordable housing policies rank high on eighteen governors’ lists and is the number one issue under the Social Programs section. A lack of affordable housing affects several other issue areas like Employment & Labor, Transportation, Economic Development, and more. States are taking different approaches to the housing crisis. Connecticut is not relying on subsidies and instead wants more participation from cities and towns so developers can begin building homes. Utah Governor Spencer Cox (R) emphasized building more “single-family starter homes” in Utah to solve the housing shortage.
In a new trend this year, many governors are prioritizing “pro-family” policies, which we’re filing under Child Care & Welfare. The term encompasses a combination of adoption, tax, and Medicaid measures to make having and raising a child easier in states. These social policies coincide with the new state control of reproductive health care aforementioned in the Health & Wellness section. For example, multiple states are increasing prenatal and postpartum Medicaid benefits, giving tax cuts and larger benefits to foster and adoptive families, or even removing taxes from any baby product. Governor Reeves (R) of Mississippi wants to “lead the nation in supporting mothers and babies” as he proposed, “increasing support for pregnancy resource centers … reducing the existing adoption backlogs … updating child support laws so that fathers must support their children from the moment their life begins – at conception.” Other governors are following suit in supporting mothers, children, and families through these comprehensive social measures.
The following policy areas were also included in our analysis:
Law & Legal issues include criminal justice reform, redistricting, and marijuana legalization.
Energy & Environment issues focus on broad issues around climate change, as well as a few specific mentions on water, energy, and air policies.
Commerce & Industry issues focus on general economic development efforts, while regulatory reform and technology issues receive a few mentions.