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July 19, 2011

TRANSCRIPT: Johanns Leads Colloquy of Former Governors to Advocate for a Balanced Budget

Presiding Officer: The Senator from Nebraska.

Mr. Johanns: Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that I be permitted to enter into a colloquy with my Republican colleagues for up to 30 minutes. Senator Alexander of Tennessee, Senator Hoeven of North Dakota, and Senator Risch of Idaho will participate with me in this colloquy.

Presiding Officer: Without objection.

Mr. Johanns: I would like today to speak to an issue that I believe has all the potential in the world to define the future this have great country, and it's an issue that all of us who are participating in this colloquy are very familiar with, and that is a balanced budget. All of us are former governors of the states where we come from. In my state, the state of Nebraska, our Nebraska constitution requires a balanced budget. I believe 49 out of 50 states have this requirement in their constitution. It's not theater. It's the way we do business at the state level.

In addition to that provision, however, our state constitution also says that the total amount of money that the state of Nebraska can borrow is $100,000. $100,000. So what does that mean? We must balance the budget on an annual basis, and we can't go out to the debt market and burden our children and grandchildren by fulfilling promises that, honestly, we have no idea how we'd pay for it. We can't do that. Does that sound familiar? That's what the federal government does every single year, and the federal government has been doing it for decades and decades.

You see, in Nebraska, Madam President, we are forced to prioritize and live within our means. We have a very simple straightforward philosophy. We don't promise something that we can't pay for and we don't buy something that we can't pay for. Now, is that unusual? Is that radical? Every working family in America understands that, and they live by that simple concept. The simple concept that you shouldn't be buying things that you can't pay for. If you do, it gets you in trouble. Sadly, the federal government just doesn't think that applies. I think it's kind of a rational notion to apply that to what happens here in Washington.

Let's look at the results of this kind of policy in my state of Nebraska. The unemployment rate in Nebraska today is 4.1%. 4.1%. During one of the most difficult times since the Great Depression, the unemployment rate in Nebraska never exceeded 5%. As I said before on this floor, let me state that a different way. That means that about 96% of Nebraskans have worked. You see, our state believes in the philosophy of less government. I've said many times government doesn't create the jobs. The private sector creates the jobs. It's small businesses and businesses willing to take the risk that will get us out of the tough times we are in now.

When I was Governor, Nebraska went through some very difficult times. I was Governor on 9/11. I was Governor when dot-com bubble burst. Well, I didn't have the option of walking into my State of the State address and standing there and saying, gee, folks, this is tough times. We're kind of divided out here. We won't be passing the budget. Had I said that, I would have been looking for another state to live in. I would have been laughed out of the Governor's office. There were no easy decisions but there were necessary and important decisions to be made. Nebraska pragmatism would go a long way here in Washington.

But you know what? My state is not unique in terms of this balanced budget requirement. In fact, I have other Governors with me today. I'd like to start out by recognizing Senator Lamar Alexander of the state of Tennessee.

Senator Alexander, when you became Governor, I know that you had a lot of priorities but you created an environment in which job creators could thrive. You created that environment with the spending requirements of your constitution. I would like you to tell us how you did it. How you took your state forward even though you had to balance your budget?…

Mr. Johanns: Senator Alexander, you raise such a valid point. In the state of Nebraska, we don't have any road debt either. If we wanted to pave a mile of highway, we had to have the money in the bank or it did not get done. The other advantage of that is when the economy started to lift, you didn't have to pay back all that money that you had borrowed. You were ready to take off. And so I would just have to imagine in Tennessee, like Nebraska, our economic recovery was easier to achieve.

I had the pleasure of serving as Governor of Nebraska when Senator Hoeven was Governor of the state of North Dakota is most often recognized as one of the best managed states in the country, runs a surplus with some of the lowest unemployment rates of any state in the country. Yet, you suffered through some of the same problems we had after the dot-com collapse.

Senator Hoeven, could you talk to us a little bit about how the balanced budget provisions in your constitution required you and the legislators to manage the state. …

Mr. Johanns: I notice we are joined by another former Governor. This former Governor is part of the class -- we were both elected to the Senate at the same time, so we're both part of the same class. But Senator Risch, at one point in your career, you served as Governor of the state of Idaho. You had financial restrictions just like we did in terms of a balanced budget. How were you able to deal with important priorities while balancing the budget and bringing your legislative process along in accomplishing that? Could you talk us to a little bit about that today. …

Mr. Johanns: Let me wrap up this colloquy this morning by thanking my colleagues, each one of them, for their comments.

Governors are practical people. We have to be. We have no choice. If jobs are going to be created in our states, we must lead that effort. Not by jaw boning and indicting the business community but by creating the atmosphere that creates those jobs. If we are going to have a balanced budget, we must lead that effort at the state level. And every Governor that has had an opportunity to speak this morning in this colloquy has made that point.

At the end of the day, when our legislative sessions were over, we had to be able to tell the people of our great states we passed a budget, that the budget was, in fact, balanced, and for some of us, that we did not borrow any money whatsoever to get that job done. We could learn something in Washington from that. This is not a radical idea. All of the rhetoric that we have heard about what a radical, crazy idea this is, well, how could it be so radical if 49 out of 50 states have decided that this is the right course and the right direction for their state government? I can't imagine that the American people want anything less of their federal go government, and as Senator Risch has just pointed out, why would we not give the American people the opportunity to cast their vote on how best to manage their government?

With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor and I notice the absence of a quorum.       

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