Q&A with National Governors Association CEO Scott Pattison


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Workforce shortage is a ‘huge’ issue across the country, says Scott Pattison, executive director and CEO of the National Governors Association.

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Scott Pattison is executive director and CEO of the National Governors Association, a bipartisan organization of the nation’s governors that, as he says, “does a lot of basic think tank work.” The NGA studies and reports on a wide variety of policy issues affecting the 50 states and works to influence the federal government on ideas that can be implemented nationwide. Before taking the helm at the NGA in 2015, Pattison served for over 14 years as director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

He was recently in New Hampshire to meet with Gov. Chris Sununu as well as various other Granite State policymakers and businesspeople.

Q. What brings you to New Hampshire?

A. When I started this job a couple of years ago, the governors’ mandate to me, among other things, was “Get out. Make sure you’re visiting us. Make sure you’re finding out what’s going on in the states.” So I’ve been doing swings around the country, visiting with governors, telling them what we’re hearing, seeing and learning.

Q. What kind of things are you hearing?

A. There are all kinds of things going on in the states. I really feel that it’s an interesting time in political history. We continue to have issues at the federal level — there are certain things getting a lot of attention that may not be affecting people’s lives as much or just total gridlock — that type of thing.

But that isn’t necessarily the case in the states. There’s political infighting, but it’s different. The nature of being a governor is you’re accountable for solving problems, and I think a lot of governors are stepping up and doing things.

The example I like to use here is we had a meeting on opioids in Boston about four or five months ago and we really focused on the New England area. It was a great meeting, and we came out with a bunch of recommendations that are fairly substantive, but not really partisan or ideological and we presented them on the Hill yesterday.

Q. What were the recommendations?

A. Things you would expect. We really are focused on making sure there’s a fair amount of flexibility in how the money can be spent. Apparently there’s been a lot of research that you really have to customize some of the treatment, partly based on who you’re dealing with.

Q. Unfortunately, we’re all learning about that in New Hampshire.

A. It’s disappointing. I have in my own personal life, two friends whose children passed within the past year of opioids.

But I have to say, despite that, it is a good example of something where states and certainly in partnership with localities, they’ve really stepped up because they said, “We’ve got a problem. We’ve got to do something,” and I think you’re gong to start to see some progress. Frankly, I think you’re going to see – and I think this is a compliment to New Hampshire – that the places that have been hit hard are going to see improvement sooner.

Q. One of the concerns on opioids in New Hampshire is the state’s limited resources and that the federal government isn’t chipping in as much as expected to address the crisis. Is that something governors are seeing?

A. Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, testified about the crisis and verbatim pretty much said that. He said, “Thank you for the funds we’re receiving, but we really need more.”

We don’t have a specific policy on that because, frankly, because when you get into debates about numbers it gets too technical. But we have had a number of governors say that it’s such a significant issue that you really have to have resources.

Q. What kind of impact will the growing federal deficit have on states?

A. I think there’s no question that federal funds will be limited, particularly for the states. I was telling state budget officers two, three, four years ago that we were on a path that the incentives and the political pressures will get to a point where you’re going to be lucky if the federal government will give you money for anything, besides Medicaid and some other things that they’ll definitely continue to fund.

The states are really going to be in a tight resource period for quite a few years. Now the economy’s good, so things look good at the moment, but I worry about the next downturn. Every state is impacted differently, but I do worry that resources will be really tight. And, frankly, the elected officials will have to come to some tough decisions. It’s worrisome as we go forward.

Q. What kind of decisions?

A. There are significant liabilities on the balance sheets of certain states, for pensions and things like that. During a good period like now, you’re not having to deal with those liabilities the same, but as soon as you hit a downturn, the spotlight goes on and you see them and they’re much higher. What I worry about is that, with resources so tight, they’ll do the things they think they need to do, but those balance sheet issues for long-term liabilities just aren’t going to be dealt with.

I will say the nice thing about New Hampshire, and I don’t mind calling out other states like New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois on this, it is in much better shape relative to states like that and is trying to do something.

Q. For New Hampshire businesses, the number one issue is workforce, or lack thereof. Is that something you see nationally?

A. It’s huge right now. We do an annual initiative that’s chosen by the chair, and our incoming chair, the Democratic governor of Montana, Stephen Bullock, and that is his chair’s initiative. I just talked to Governor [Rick] Snyder of Michigan about workforce, and he said, “I need welders. We graduate no welders in our certificate programs because as soon as they learn some welding, they’re hired.” It’s a problem across the country.

There are parallels with New Hampshire and some of the western rural states that have the same issues. And, frankly, if we go into a bit of a downturn, it’s still going to be a problem, and the governors are worried about it.

Q. What kind of input did Governor Sununu give you when you met with him?

A. I got really good feedback. We talked about opioids. He talked about the recovery-friendly workplace initiative. He was very pleased, in fact, that other states are interested. We talked a lot about economic development, and, of course, workforce is a subset of that. We talked how you deal with the skills gap. I talked about what the other states are doing to try to attract jobs. And we talked about something that I think is really fascinating right now with governors: It’s almost like they’ve been discovered by the international community.

It is so fascinating to me. Foreign officials have always dealt with the federal government but they also want to deal at the subnational level. I think they realize that at the economic development level the governors are really critical. They are the ones who can make sure the permits get through. And I think governors are really good ambassadors for telling companies why they should still invest in the U.S.

Q. Is that a concern – attracting foreign investment?

A. I’ve met with some CEOs from Europe and Japan. What they tell me is – they don’t mean this in a rude way, but they say, “We have billions of dollars to invest. We don’t have to invest in the U.S. We’ve got India, China … I think that could be concerning, but the good part is that you do have governors who have, in almost every case, jobs and economic development at the top of agenda.

Q. How does the NGA get funded?

A. It’s an interesting variety. About 19 percent comes from the states, which pay based on population – that’s ever since we started in 1908. But we also get a lot of government and foundation grants. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy gave us a grant to get the governors’ energy advisors together. We met in San Antonio, and we pout out a report on the issues that they were concerned about. We’ve received grants from Homeland Security. For instance, we got one for election security. That’s obviously a big issue right now. And then we get foundation grants. And often we collaborate. 

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