Top States for Business

Do any of these governors deserve to be president?

Who are the most pro-business Republican candidates?
Who are the most pro-business Republican candidates?

Seventeen U.S. presidents — including three of the last five — were previously governors. In 2016, seven Republicans and one Democrat think they have what it takes to continue a tradition that dates back to former Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson.

We put their records and their claims to the test using our exclusive America's Top States for Business data and the watchful eyes of the CNBC Fact Patrol. Here's what we found.

Jeb Bush—Florida

David Orrell | CNBC

If nothing else, give Jeb Bush credit for impeccable timing. He took office as governor of Florida in 1999, just as the technology bubble was giving way to a real estate boom that would supercharge his state's economy.

Of course, that boom turned out to be another bubble. When it burst in 2007, Florida plunged into an even worse recession than the rest of the country. But Bush was already out of office, allowing him to claim credit for an economy that was firing on all cylinders under his watch.

"We left the state better off because I applied conservative principles in a purple state the right way," Bush declared during the first Republican debate on Aug. 6. "I cut taxes every year, totaling $19 billion," he said. "We balanced every budget. We went from $1 billion of reserves to $9 billion of reserves. We were one of two states that went to a AAA bond rating."

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It is at least technically true that Bush, in conjunction with the state legislature, cut taxes by about $19 billion, at least according to the annual fiscal analysis by Florida's Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the legislature's research arm. But that figure includes non-recurring tax breaks and fee reductions. And while taxes and fees did go down most years that Bush was governor, they did not drop every year as he claims.

In 2003 the state raked in an additional $74.5 million in revenue, mostly through taxes on unclaimed property during a wave of insurance industry restructuring and by raising 911 fees on prepaid wireless services.

Who are the most pro-business Republican candidates?
Who are the most pro-business Republican candidates?

Bush and the legislature did indeed balance every budget, but they had no choice under the Florida constitution, which, as in most states, requires it. Bush did leave the state with a $9 billion rainy-day fund, although a report last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts criticized the state for not socking away enough money during the construction boom. And the state did achieve a AAA bond rating from Standard and Poor's during Bush's second term, though it was not as unique as he claims. Florida joined eight states with that designation.

In our 2007 America's Top States for Business rankings, based largely on data from Bush's final year as governor, Florida tied with Minnesota for 8th place overall — a respectable performance, and a rank the state has not matched since (Florida finished 16th this year).

The real estate boom certainly helped Florida's 2007 ranking, which included a 4th-place finish in our Economy category. But the state also notched a first-place finish in our Infrastructure category. It may not be fashionable in the GOP primary to talk about spending, but Bush nearly doubled Florida's infrastructure budget as governor, funding one of his top priorities and, according to our rankings, getting results.

At the same time, despite the tax cuts, Jeb Bush also left behind one of the most expensive states in which to do business, with expensive rents and utility bills, and high worker compensation costs. And in Education, a perennial weak spot for the state, he left Florida in 37th place.

Chris Christie—New Jersey

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The 55th governor of New Jersey points with pride to his business record.

"After years of decline, New Jersey's economy has turned around," Chris Christie's official biography declares. But the numbers — including our America's Top States for Business rankings — tell a much different story.

New Jersey finished 39th overall this year, with the 40th ranked economy and the third worst infrastructure. The state has suffered nine credit downgrades during Christie's administration, most recently this year, when Moody's downgraded the state's bond rating to A2 from A1 and warned the worst may not be over.

"Without meaningful structural changes to the state's budget, such as pension reform that dramatically improves pension affordability, the state's structural imbalance will continue to grow and the state's rating will continue to fall," the agency wrote on April 16.

New Jersey has also suffered nearly nonstop downgrades in our Top States rankings since Christie took office in 2010. The year before, in 2009, the state had finished 24th overall.

When asked about his economic record by NBC's Chuck Todd during a Sept. 13 appearance on "Meet the Press," Christie claimed the state was in worse shape before he took office.

"There was no net private-sector job creation, Chuck, in the eight years before I became governor. Zero," Christie said. "We've created 198,000 new jobs in the last five and a half years. And the fact is that we spend $2.5 billion less than we used to."

In fact, New Jersey added about 180,000 private-sector jobs from January 2010 through August of this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a growth rate that is less than half the national average.

As for spending, Christie's fiscal 2016 budget is $4 billion dollars higher than the last budget, proposed by his predecessor, Jon Corzine. Even adjusted for inflation, the numbers are flat.

Christie has blamed the state's credit woes on the public pension system — a huge bone of contention over the years that he blames on the unions and legislative Democrats. But he said even that is on the road to recovery. "We took a pension system that was absolutely ready to go under, and we've now put it as a pension system that's paying its bills and, in fact, has done better over the course of the six years that I've been governor than it's done in the two decades before," he said.

Christie has made changes in the state's beleaguered pension system, including a huge cut in the state's contribution this year that state employee unions say is one of the bills that Christie claims to be paying. The state Supreme Court upheld the cut in a deeply controversial ruling early this year, but New Jersey's retirement systems remain in deep trouble.

According to a state commission Christie himself appointed, New Jersey faces $90 billion in unfunded retirement obligations — the fourth worst position in the nation.

In fairness, many of New Jersey's problems were not of Christie's doing. The state was still mired in the Great Recession when he took office, particularly tough on a state so closely tied to the financial services industry. The state's pension woes long predate the governor, as does New Jersey's crumbling infrastructure.

John Kasich—Ohio

John Kasich
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

No question, Ohio is in much better shape economically now than it was when Gov. John Kasich took office in January 2011, following the Great Recession.

During the first Republican presidential debate on Aug. 6, Kasich was happy to claim credit for Ohio's rebound. "We went from $8 billion in the hole to $2 billion in the black," he said. "We've cut $5 billion in taxes, and we've grown 350,000 jobs."

Did Kasich do all that? Let's take them one by one.

It is true that Kasich took the reins of state government at a low point for the state economy, and when he was putting together his first two-year budget in 2011, some projections suggested an $8 billion shortfall.

But those projections were based on an assumption there would be no increase in tax revenues, even though the economy was already rebounding. In other words, the forecast was unnecessarily grim and the hole wasn't quite so bad.

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Today, Ohio does have a $2 billion rainy day fund, according to the state budget office. Ohio's income taxes have fallen steadily over the years, though the state Division of Taxation notes that rates began falling in 2005, under legislation passed long before Kasich took office.

Kasich accelerated some of the cuts, but he paid for it by raising the state sales tax, the cigarette tax and the commercial activities tax.

And yes, Ohio has added some 340,000 nonfarm jobs under Kasich. But the state still has not recovered all the jobs it lost during the Great Recession, while the nation has, and then some.

Ohio finishes 23rd in our America's Top States for Business rankings this year, compared to 34th the year before Kasich took office. But the state still shows some notable weak spots, including 43rd-place rankings for Workforce and Quality of Life.

Bobby Jindal—Louisiana

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Louisiana may pride itself on its friendliness, but that hospitality did not extend to economic growth as Bobby Jindal was taking over as governor at the start of 2008. The year before, the state had finished 47th overall in our 2007 America's Top States for Business rankings.

In his inaugural address, Jindal vowed to change that. "If you want to grow your company, Louisiana wants to grow with you," he proclaimed.

Seven years later, as a candidate for president, Jindal claims he has kept his promises while keeping state finances sound. And he says he will bring the same discipline to the federal budget as president.

"We've got to cut the size of the government economy," he said in a debate on Sept. 16. "Nobody else running for president has done that. I'm the only candidate. I've cut my state budget 26 percent."

Jindal's 2015–16 Louisiana budget is indeed 26.5 percent smaller than the last one, passed by his predecessor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. But what Jindal doesn't mention is that virtually the entire $8.9 billion reduction is the result of federal disaster aid following hurricanes Katrina and Rita that has since run out.

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Taking the hurricane money out of the picture, Jindal has still managed to keep state spending flat. He also cut taxes, signing into law the largest income-tax cut in state history and championing a series of tax credits for things like film production.

But the strategy does not appear to have paid off for Louisiana, whose economic problems have been worsened lately by the sharp drop in the price of oil. Earlier this year, legislators struggled to close a $1.6 billion budget gap, even after deep budget cuts and drawdowns in the state's rainy day fund.

And while the governor's office is happy to tell anyone who will listen that "since 2008, the Jindal administration has secured projects that are resulting in more than 91,000 new direct and indirect jobs and $62 billion in new capital investment across Louisiana," the state's business climate has not improved, based on the hard data in our America's Top States for Business studies.

Louisiana finished 46th in our rankings this year. It has never finished higher than 40th under Bobby Jindal.

No question there has been improvement in some areas under Jindal, most notably in Cost of Doing Business and Cost of Living. But the state continues to struggle in other areas, including Quality of Life, Education and Access to Capital, keeping Louisiana stuck in the bottom tier.

Mike Huckabee—Arkansas

Mike Huckabee: 'I was right' on economy
Mike Huckabee: 'I was right' on economy

Mike Huckabee left office in January of 2007, so our Top States rankings capture only a parting snapshot of his administration. But by then, Huckabee had 11 years to put his mark on Arkansas, and the final picture of what he left behind is not flattering.

Huckabee's campaign website proclaims, "He left a legacy of tax cuts, job creation, the reconstruction of his state's road system [and] K-16 education reform." Our numbers tell a different story.

Arkansas finished 36th overall in 2007, with the 41st-ranked economy and a tie for 40th (with Alaska) for Education. The state's infrastructure ranked 44th, including one of the worst road systems in the country.

George Pataki—New York

Scott Olson | Getty Images

George Pataki left office on the last day of 2006. A few months later the state he left behind tied with Washington for 21st in our inaugural 2007 rankings.

New York was the most expensive state for business that year, and its heavily unionized labor force finished at the bottom of our Workforce category. But New York was tops in Education as Pataki left office, and with the global financial crisis still more than a year away, New York came in 2nd in Economy, just behind 2007's overall winner, Texas.

Jim Gilmore—Virginia

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Jim Gilmore was governor of Virginia from 1998 to 2002. On his campaign website, he claims his administration "laid the foundation for the state's leadership as a national technology center."

There is no question that Virginia is a technology hub, and Gilmore did appoint the nation's first cabinet-level state technology secretary soon after taking office.

But the foundations of Virginia's high-tech future were in place years before Gilmore was elected. In a 1994 article, Fortune magazine dubbed Northern Virginia "the Netplex," "the next Silicon Valley," and "the crossroads of the electronic superhighway," with big telecom players of the time, like MCI, UUNet and Northern Telecom, all setting up shop alongside the big satellite companies, like Hughes, GTE Spacenet and Intelsat, which were already well established there.

Martin O'Malley—Maryland

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Two-term former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a former governor running on the Democratic side, is the only candidate whose entire tenure as governor is measured by our Top States study. He took office at the start of 2007 and stepped down this past January.

Maryland tied with Kentucky for 36th place overall this year and averaged a 32nd-place ranking during O'Malley's eight years in office. Even when neighboring Virginia was leveraging its proximity to the nation's capital and an expanding federal government to capture our top honors in 2007, 2009 and 2011, Maryland finished near the middle of the pack.

With one of the heaviest tax burdens in the nation, the state was consistently among the most expensive for businesses and individuals under O'Malley. It also ranked in the bottom 10 for Business Friendliness, which deteriorated during O'Malley's administration, according to our data.

But there were some notable bright spots. In Education, Maryland is now a perennial top 10 finisher, including second place in 2013; the state had finished 26th in the category the year O'Malley took office. Maryland is also a leader year after year in our Technology & Innovation category, which plays into a central theme of his campaign.

And after years of lagging behind, Maryland has tied or outpaced Virginia for job creation three years in a row.

(UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect Lincoln Chafee's decision to drop out of the race.)