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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie takes a cellphone photo with National Governors Association staffer Lily Kersh during the NGA's winter meeting in Washington. / Cliff Owen, AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ?? There will be a closed-door tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame and private concerts by Trace Adkins, Vince Gill and Amy Grant. Soirees are planned at the Tennessee governor's mansion and the Hermitage.

With all of that, can the governors actually get any work done?

The National Governors Association returns to Nashville for the first time in three decades, bringing to town a host of national figures, including Vice President Joe Biden, to schmooze and press the flesh.

But the NGA summer meeting that starts Thursday and runs through Sunday could turn out to be more than well-heeled entertainment. The meeting also might provide the quiet spark to some of the debates that will rock state capitals in future years.

Welfare reform, Common Core education standards and Internet taxation are ideas that have been seeded at past NGA conferences, years before they became the stuff of headlines and talk shows. This year's conference could do the same on a range of issues, including economic development, transportation and health care.

"These are not fun-and-games meetings," said Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. "I thought this was a very important part of my job, and I think it was really advantageous to my state if, as governor, we were fully engaged in these."

The gathering represents a chance for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to build his public policy credentials, particularly in the realm of health care. Haslam chairs the NGA's health and human services committee, a position from which he has tried to convince federal officials to sign off on his plan to expand the state's Medicaid program, TennCare, by offering private insurance.

More broadly, the conference will give governors a chance to discuss issues such as veterans affairs, interstate competition to recruit business and a looming financial crisis for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays states for road construction.

If they can arrive at a unified positions on any of those issues, the impact could be immediate and long-lasting.

"When governors find common ground, these meetings really do lead to initiatives," said Thad Kausser, a professor at the University of California-San Diego who studies gubernatorial power. "But there's a gulf between Republican and Democratic governors."

Dukakis, who attended the last NGA summer meeting to take place in Nashville in 1984, said the gatherings can be productive if governors have an aptitude for policy and are willing to work across party lines. He said colleagues such as Bill Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas at the time, and Lamar Alexander, then the governor of Tennessee, helped shape ideas on welfare and education that eventually were adopted nationally.

"We had an interesting group of governors at that time," Dukakis said. "There was a lot of that kind of really good work."

In the past decade, the NGA has helped create Common Core, the math and science standards that Tennessee adopted as part of the state's Race to the Top education reforms, and a proposal to collect taxes on Internet retail, an idea that Haslam has championed in Nashville and before Congress.

This year's conference includes open discussions on promoting small business, job training and modernizing the future of Main Street - broad topics that could plant the seeds for future policy initiatives.

Just as important could be the private meals and entertainment where governors can exchange ideas one on one. Kausser noted that leaders in Washington rarely have such exchanges.

"At the state level, people still do that," he said.

National leaders often pay attention when the NGA speaks, especially presidents - some of whom have come from that association's ranks.

That relationship between governors and presidents hints at one of the other purposes of the annual meeting: building the alliances needed to become the next governor to assume the Oval Office.

Among the dozens of state governors who will be here next week will be several who see themselves as the next Bill Clinton. And not just when it comes to being a policy wonk.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Governors meeting offers chance to work, schmooze

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