PORTLAND — In a summer of rising tensions among U.S. states deeply divided over the rights of women, voters and gun owners, 19 of the nation’s governors have gathered in Maine to find common ground on less divisive issues, such as advancing computer science education in public schools and assisting the post-pandemic recovery of the tourism industry.

Gov. Janet Mills welcomed her counterparts to Portland for the semi-annual meeting of the National Governors Association, a nonpartisan entity representing the chief executives of the fifty-five states, territories, and commonwealths, with a pitch to bridge partisan divisions.

“(Mainers) are people of all political parties, bound by the shared belief that their government should work for them,” Mills said. “That belief is in our blood, bred by generations of Maine leaders like Margret Chase Smith, Edmund S. Muskie, Bill Cohen, George Mitchell, and Olympia Snowe, people who believed in putting their country before their political party.

“I continue to strongly believe that while we will disagree on many issues, we have more in common than what sets us apart; that there are opportunities for us to find common ground and consensus despite our disagreements,” Mills, a Democrat, added. “That’s what governors have to do every day to improve the lives of our citizens. May we find that common ground this week in Portland, Maine.”

Speaking to reporters after the first plenary, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said the bipartisan forum was valuable. “We’re a group that has the shared experience in terms of leading and there are opportunities for bipartisan cooperation,” the Republican said. “Some of the national issues affect us differently, but all of us have similar challenges even if we have different dynamics in terms of our legislatures and local politics. But it’s great comparing notes.”

Outgoing NGA Chair Asa Hutchinson, Republican governor of Arkansas, announced that 50 of the 55 states, territorial and commonwealth governors had signed a compact he has been promoting committing to expand computer science education in public schools. The pledge, endorsed by Mills, commits the governors to implementing at least one of 13 policy initiatives meant to increase the number and demographic diversity of students studying computer science.

“Governors must lead on this — there is no alternative,” Hutchinson told his colleagues at the opening plenary session in the Holiday Inn by the Bay ballroom, asserting that more than 650,000 computer science jobs remained unfilled across the country. “This is about our future.”

New Hampshire-based inventor Dean Kamen, whose engineering powerhouse DEKA is pioneering the rapid production of human organs grown from a patient’s own cells, urged governors to boost the supply of young people interested in science and technical fields by contributing to his ongoing effort to make robotics competitions into a sport as popular as scholastic football, basketball or baseball.

Kamen’s observation, back in the late 1980s, was that the emerging shortage of science, technology and engineering experts was a cultural problem: schools and their students didn’t celebrate STEM, they celebrated sports. “We know a model that works — sports. Let’s create a sport around science and engineering,” he recalled to the governors.

The result was FIRST, a robotics competition for K-12 students that’s grown from 23 teams in 1989 to some 50,000 teams fielding more than 700,000 student competitors in 113 countries. Maine alone has 633 teams. Backed by donations from tech giants, the nonprofit has dozens of employees and $70 million in assets.

Kamen wants the governors’ help — including Mills — to further expand the model and increase its profile in an effort to give the sport soccer-like visibility. Students who become passionate about STEM, he reasons, will transform their own prospects and that of the country.

“I’d say, Gov. Mills, you’re a tiny state, and I bet you don’t have 100 high schools, and if you put a line in your budget that said we’re going to have a FIRST team in every high school,” Kamen told the Press Herald. “And I want every other governor to say: no, I want to be the first one to claim that victory.”

The CEO of computer chip giant Intel, Pat Gelsinger, repeatedly urged the assembled governors to press their states’ congressional delegation to pass the core provisions of the CHIPS Act: $52 billion in incentives for firms like Intel to shift semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States. Gelsinger, who has been lobbying for action on the long-stalled bill for months, implied chipmakers would invest in overseas manufacturing instead if Congress didn’t act before the August recess.

“Call your senators — we need this done before the August recess,” Gelsinger said. “I and others will make decisions … to decide if meaningful portions (of future manufacturing) will be on American soil or not.”

Tourism’s recovery and problem

Thursday afternoon the governors heard city, regional, and national tourism marketing officials discuss the sector’s progress in recovering from the pandemic. In summary: leisure travel has already recovered to pre-pandemic levels but business travel and foreign tourism to the U.S. haven’t fully rebounded.

While the tourism sector officials — including a representative of the U.S. Travel Association — encouraged governors to help fund marketing efforts, Mills and two other New England governors — Republicans Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts — noted the enormous problem of tourism workforce housing, which has been exacerbated by the spread of short-term rentals via outlets like VRBO and Airbnb.

“This seems to be a major impediment to securing the workforce for the industry,” Mills said.

Baker said his government had started building worker housing on Cape Cod because short-term rentals had “sucked up all the housing” there. Sununu related how, as a resort operator in the Waterville Valley of New Hampshire in 2016, he had been forced to buy another hotel just to house his workers. This prompted Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, to observe that the country was absurdly “turning houses into hotels and hotels into housing.”

Earlier Thursday the governors held a closed-door session with officials from the Defense Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to foster more federal-state cooperation in dealing with wildfires and droughts, Cox said in a tweet.

At lunch — also closed to the media — L.L. Bean CEO Steve Smith spoke to the governors “about the health benefits of outdoor recreation,” according to a tweet by the NGA.

The governors convened again Friday to appoint new officers and to discuss boosting early childhood literacy (virtually) with Dolly Parton, who created a nonprofit around the issue.