This post has been updated.
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Health-care reform. Same-sex marriage. Illegal immigration. The social safety net.
When it comes to some of the top issues facing the states, it might seem that the partisan divide among the country’s governors is as wide as it has ever been.
But one area where the state executives appear to have found common ground is on the issue of defense cuts – specifically, the $500 billion in automatic defense cuts set into motion by last August’s bipartisan debt-reduction deal.
“There has been some conversation about governors getting together to urge a delay in when the defense and other companies have to actually send out a notice about laying people off,” Markellsaid Saturday in an interview at the NGA’s annual conference. “My guess is you’re going to see Republicans and Democrats getting together suggesting this delay.”
Markell, previously the vice-chairman of the NGA, formally takes the reins of the organization Sunday; Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is the group’s new vice-chair. On Sunday afternoon, Markell announced his new Chairman’s Initiative, a program aimed at incentivizing businesses to hire people with disabilities.
Defense “sequestration” – the formal term for the bipartisan cuts called for by last year’s debt-ceiling deal – has emerged as an issue on the campaign trail, particularly as President Obama campaigned last week in military-vote-rich Virginia.
The first $50 billion of cuts is set to take effect in January 2013. Some defense contractors have said that in compliance with federal law, they will be forced to issue layoff notices to workers 60 days before the cuts are enacted – a date that works out to several days before the Nov. 6 election.
Markell said the timing of such a move could prove “devastating for a lot of states” and that the governors could move soon to call for a delay in when those layoff notices would go out – for economic, not political purposes, he said.
“I can’t be certain of it because I don’t know that we’ve taken a final vote on it, but I think in that case, it’s less about the politics and it’s more about reducing the level of uncertainty, because to the extent that people get these notices, they stop purchasing stuff because they don’t know if they’re going to continue to have a paycheck,” he said.
When it comes to finding a solution that would forestall the defense cuts, the governors appears to be in as much of a bind as lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“I think it would be unlikely that all the governors would get together otherwise on sequestration, because I’m not sure what we’d suggest to take its place,” he said.
It remains to be seen how the governors might go about urging such a delay, whether through congressional action or some kind of state-by-state action.
It’s also unclear how many governors are on board with the idea. Originally devised by Democrats as a means to pressure Republicans to agree to including tax increases as part of a “grand bargain” on the debt, the defense sequester instead has come to be used as a tool wielded by Republicans against Obama on the campaign trail.
Politically speaking, the issuing of layoff notices in the run-up to Election Day could be a boon to Republicans at the congressional and presidential level. But Republican governors — who, as Markell suggested, could see their state economies take a toll — remain a wildcard in the equation.
At Friday’s opening news conference, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is also chairman of the Republican Governors Association, did not indicate where he stood on the layoff-notice issue, but he did hit Obama hard on the defense cuts.
“I’d say it’s a pox on all houses and all parties, but the president is ultimately the leader, just like we’re the leaders,” McDonnell said. “If we don’t have a budget being done right in our states, we can’t blame the legislature. We have to take responsibility.”