WASHINGTON — As the National Governors Association kicked off its winter meeting Saturday, the group's chairman, Gov. Dave Heineman, sought to focus on how states can foster economic growth.
“The most important issues are the economy and jobs,” the Nebraska governor told reporters. “That's what our citizens care about.”
The first session of the three-day gathering was titled “Growing State Economies,'' also the subject of Heineman's primary initiative during his time running the association.
Heineman touted three summits that the group has organized — in Hartford, Conn.; Nashville; and Seattle — so that governors could get advice from business leaders and other experts on how to solve problems standing in the way of economic development.
The featured speaker at Saturday's opening session was a Nebraska native, Jim Clifton, chairman of the global human research company Gallup, based in Omaha and Washington.
Surveys show that the actual unemployment rate is much higher than the official statistic of a little over 8 percent, he said.
It's actually more like 20 percent.
And more than half of those people have given up hope of finding a good job, Clifton said.
His advice for the United States: work harder at turning innovations into business. He said innovation has value only if it comes with a customer.
“We have pushed all of the big multicolored chips onto that one phenomenon, innovation. … What if we're wrong?” he said.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, credited Heineman with putting the association's focus on entrepreneurship and said this weekend's sessions help states such as Iowa decide how to allocate their limited resources.
“Just giving some kind of incentive or tax credit is not necessarily the best use of your resources,” he said.
Tax incentives are one of many topics the governors are talking about.
In a perfect world, states wouldn't need any such incentives, Heineman said, but he noted that it was unlikely they'll be going away anytime soon.
“I don't think any of us are going to unilaterally disarm on that issue,” Heineman said.
Each tax incentive, he said, should be weighed for its own public policy value. Nebraska is considering tax incentives to lure new data centers.
“These data centers have the opportunity to invest another billion dollars in our economy, so we're going to try to do all we can to bring business to Nebraska,” Heineman said.
Governors also are concerned that uncontrolled Medicaid expansion could result in less funding for other priorities such as education, transportation and public safety, Heineman said.
The governors want more flexibility from the federal government in areas ranging from health care to schools. For example, Heineman said, the federal government should have a limited role in education.
“We appreciate the funding, with as few strings attached as possible,” he said.
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