July | August 2017


Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a 2003 CSG Henry Toll Fellow, serves as the 2016 national president of The Council of State Governments. With a focus on strengthening the economy in his state, Markell has led efforts to ensure workers are adequately prepared for the jobs of today. He believes that an effective partnership with the federal government—using
a combination of federal resources to complement state innovation—can help achieve just that.
by Carrie Abner

Why is the state-federal relationship so important?

“Many national policies, from health care reform to protecting the environment, only work effectively when implemented well by states, and state initiatives work best when complemented by federal resources. That doesn’t mean that we should require each other’s support to move forward on a given policy, but it does mean that good policy requires a strong working relationship between state and federal officials.”

How has the state-federal relationship changed since you took office in
2009 as the governor of Delaware?

“In recent years, we have experienced a couple of new challenges that are only starting to be resolved. First were the across-the-board budget cuts imposed by sequestration, which reduced the support we received without regard to the importance of a given program, without reducing the demand for public services. Recent budget agreements in Congress have helped address those issues. In addition, the threat of federal shutdowns and use of short-term continuing resolutions to fund the government have created uncertainty for states and made it difficult to plan, such as in construction on our roads and bridges, where projects can take years and require financial support over an extended period of time. I’m hopeful that we will see fewer crises moving forward.”

States often have been called the laboratories of democracy. Does the
current state of federalism affect states’ abilities to create innovative policy
strategies to address the needs of constituents?

“The ability of states to serve as laboratories of democracy remains as clear as ever. The federal government is at its best when it incentivizes states to find innovative solutions, and I believe this is leading to progress in some key areas. Delaware was among the states to receive grants through the Early Learning Challenge, which awarded money to improve educational opportunities for our youngest children. That complemented an innovative state initiative to drive improvements across the state. Today, thousands more low-income children have access to high-quality early childhood education programs.”

Are there ways in which states are paving the way in a particular policy area?
What might the federal government learn from states in this area?

“We are seeing good progress across a number of states in reforming our criminal justice system, recognizing that the lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality that led to harsher sentences for a wide range of crimes isn’t working. It hasn’t made us safer and it’s hugely expensive. In Delaware and elsewhere we are focusing on the need to ensure ex-offenders are more likely to get a job and contribute to the community rather than get back into trouble after their release. We’re also reducing the number of pre-trial detainees and taking a hard look at minimum mandatory sentences. Bipartisan support for action exists in this area and I hope Congress will follow suit.”

What might improve the state of federalism from your perspective?

“From the state perspective, the best way for the federal government to support our relationship is to set goals for states to meet and provide flexibility for states to reach those goals, whether it’s reducing dirty air emissions, reducing health care costs, or many other policy objectives. States must hold up our end of the bargain too, however. We should advocate loudly for policies we want, but also not overstep our bounds by taking responsi­bility for issues that are in the federal domain or avoiding implementation of federal laws.”

What challenges exist to making these improvements?

“The challenges are mainly political. Sometimes, it is politically beneficial for state or federal leaders to have an adversarial relationship with each other when they are from opposing parties, or even from different elements of the same party. We need to put good policy first and leaders in the Democratic and Republican parties need to support members of their party who work across the aisle.”

In what ways are states like Delaware forging partnerships with the federal
government to benefit constituents?

“A great example is the Pathways to Prosperity program underway in a number of other states. In Delaware, we have used Career and Technical Education funding to support thousands of high school students enrolled in pathways ranging from computer science to health care to engineering to culinary arts. Students take hundreds of hours of courses that teach them relevant skills and receive workplace experience and college credit, which means they graduate more prepared for college or career. Importantly, the federal resources are flexible enough to allow us to provide grants to school districts to support these pathways.”

During your tenure, you have focused a great deal on education and workforce development, leading your state from being among the lowest-ranking states
to one of the highest-ranking states in terms of job creation.
How have you accomplished that?

“First of all, we must give credit for job growth to those who really deserve it: the entrepreneurs and business leaders who are taking smart risks, finding new markets and delivering great value to their customers. The most important way to support a strong economy in today’s world is to ensure we have a skilled workforce that can meet the needs of employers in growing industries. We’re focused on bringing together schools, institutions of higher education and the business community to align what students are learning with relevant workplace skills and to create retraining opportunities for workers looking to switch to new careers such as computer coding. Having a strong business climate means pushing for fewer and clearer regulations, so we modified or eliminated 140 state rules. And it means ensuring a high quality of life to attract businesses and workers to live in Delaware, which is why we’ve invested so much in initiatives like expanding walking and biking trails, upgrading libraries, and preserving our natural resources.”

What emerging challenges or opportunities do you see for Delaware and its
relationship with the federal government in the next 5–10 years? For states in general?

“I’ve talked a great deal about our relationship with the federal government, but a strong relationship must be a means to an end. That end is effective governance. The most important responsibility of government leaders today is to have an understanding of how the world is changing and a plan to address those changes. Our biggest challenges are related to a new economy in which businesses have more choices of where to locate around the world and new technology has replaced tasks previously done by workers. We must change how we prepare our people for successful careers, while engaging with the world to support investment by foreign companies and improve our businesses’ ability to export to new markets around the world.”

How can CSG assist the states in navigating the highest priority federalism
concerns in 2016?

“CSG’s most important role is as a convener of state leaders to share ideas, advocate for shared priorities and provide a forum for better understanding of the impact of national policy changes. The role of states as laboratories of democracy does not only involve informing the federal government, but also helping each other identify the most effective solutions to our challenges and I look forward to building on CSG’s phenomenal work in strengthening the lines of communication among leaders across the country."