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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Governor Decision Making: Expansion of Medicaid Under the Affordable Care Act

  • Author(s): Flagg, Robin Louise
  • Advisor(s): Keller, Ann C
  • et al.


Governor Decision-making: Expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act


Robin Flagg

Doctor of Philosophy in Health Services and Policy Analysis

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Ann C. Keller, Chair

This is a study of factors that influence gubernatorial decision making. In particular, I ask why some governors decided to expand Medicaid under the Accountable Care Act (ACA) while others opted against it. Governors, like all chief executives, are subject to cross-pressures that make their jobs challenging. Budgetary pressures may differ from personal ideology and administrative infrastructures may not allow for decisive moves. Add to the equation political pressures - in particular the pressure to align with partisan positions - and a governor is faced with a myriad of opposing and interrelated factors, each requiring attention, when taking a particular position. The calculation required of a governor when deciding upon a salient issue is thus extremely complicated and nuanced.

Although interesting in its own right, governor decision making is of additional significance because it may shed light on how the effects of increasing party strength and polarization are playing out at the state level. Partisan gridlock has dominated Congressional decision-making for much of the last decade. In Washington today partisan ideology dominates decision making. In particular, Republican elected officials increasingly espouse conservative policies and vociferously denounce any attempt at compromise. This study asks whether this ideology driven decision-making also exists at the state level. Specifically, I assess whether Governors are susceptible to the same partisan influences as elected officials in Washington and whether partisan politics and/or ideological polarization dominate governor decision-making as they do congressional actions. In particular, I study the factors involved in the decision-making process of each governor when deciding whether or not to support Medicaid expansion in his state. The focus of this study is the governor's calculations and considerations prior to "going public" with his position, irrespective of his success in getting his position adopted by the legislature. Specifically I explore the role the governor's party, the governor's personal ideology, the electoral results from the 2012 presidential election, the state's policy heritage, advocacy by state stakeholders, and the state economy played in the governor's calculations.

A mixed method research design is used, with each component (the quantitative and the qualitative) addressing a different level of question. The first part of this study is a descriptive and statistical quantitative review of all governors, assessing the various weights the 50 governors appear to give each of the seven factors discussed above. This in turn provides a context for the second part of the research, an in-depth case study providing a comprehensive analysis of how two governors made this politically salient decision

There are two main findings from this study: First, Mayhew's conclusion that congressmen legislate in a manner that promotes their reelection appears to apply in this case of governor decision-making. The partisan salience of the Medicaid expansion decision is a particularly strong test of this idea given that electoral pressures may influence less nationally prominent decisions, but weaken when partisan pressures are present and decisions are highly visible. And secondly, when studying variation across states, a mixed methods approach offers enhanced and nuanced findings as compared to a more quantitative model.

This study has found that many factors influence governors' decision-making. However, electoral pressure was not only the most significant in the general model but also appeared central to the case study portion of this research. While other factors (e.g., economics, existing institutions, the role of stakeholders, and the governor's religion) were found to be statistically significant in the general model, data from the qualitative portion of this research suggests that many of these factors may have played a role not in taking a position, but rather as justification for the position taken. In both cases, the underlying driver for the decision appears to be electoral interest: both governors studied were primarily concerned with ensuring that their decision on this highly salient issue was consistent with what they believed the majority of their electorate would support. As necessary, they used other factors to help frame their final decision in a manner that they believed would appease their electorate.

This study also highlights the power of a mixed method approach. While many of the findings of the general model are upheld by the case studies, without the rich information gleaned from the qualitative data augmenting the general model, the conclusions would have been too simplistic. The case study data portrays a number of examples in which the macro model over simplified the outcome and ultimately led to an incomplete or even erroneous conclusion. First, existing state political institutions (i.e., commissions, ballot initiative processes) and previous policy decisions render each governor's decision unique despite the fact that each maintains the same ultimate goal of political survival. Specifically, in Ohio the entire process of moving the decision out of the budgetary process and to the Controlling Board in Columbus was an attempt to avoid a polarizing vote and to allow otherwise ideologically opposed legislators to remain silent on expansion and ultimately retain party cohesion. This was clearly spearheaded by party leaders in support of their governor and instead of the internal party division projected by the general model.

Overall, this study affirms that small "d" democracy is alive and well. Because governors, like congressmen, are profoundly concerned with how their position presents to their constituents and thus their political futures, they ensure that their position on salient and visibly issues is either consistent with that of their voters or at least can be explained to their voters in a manner that neutralizes any divergence from the majority position. In the end, all politics is local and politicians must maneuver a frame to address their situation. In order to accurately assess how a governor manages the sometimes opposing pressures of ideology and politics, an in-depth case study is called for.

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