Governors Demand Information on Guard Changes
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
The nation's governors, skeptical of a move to reshape the National Guard, have asked the Pentagon to furnish a state-by-state account of the plan's impact and are insisting on a chance to sign off on any changes in the Guard's structure.
Friction over how states and the federal government share the Guard emerged as the biggest flashpoint during the four-day winter meeting of the National Governors Association , which concluded in Washington, D.C., Tuesday (Feb. 28). Governors of both parties used the gathering to press the federal government to help provide practical solutions to some of states' biggest problems, including controlling the cost of health care for the poor and disabled and stemming the tide of illegal immigration.
While governors presented a bipartisan front in their dealings with the federal government, the year ahead will be one of intense competition between Republicans and Democrats for the 36 governors' seats on the November ballot.
Republicans, who now fill governors' seats in 28 states, will be playing defense as 22 of those offices are in contention this year, including in key states such as California, Florida, New York and Ohio. Democrats are hoping to increase their seats from 22 and possibly win a majority of governorships.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the NGA's chairman, and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), the group's vice chairwoman, led the way in putting partisan politics aside to focus on issues around which governors have formed consensus.
Governors of both parties flagged the changing role of the National Guard as a top concern. Huckabee said Tuesday (Feb. 28) that governors were encouraged after recent meetings with President Bush, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and top military officials that troop reductions were off the table, that equipment left overseas would be replenished and that state's concerns would be taken into account as the Pentagon begins to reconfigure the part-time fighting force.
Military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have relied heavily on the Guard, catapulting soldiers once known as "weekend warriors" into war zones and raising concerns that heavy deployments could strip certain states of the troops and equipment needed to combat crises at home. Governors, who share command of the Guard with the president, have seen more than 80 percent of the Army National Guard deployed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Governors are wary of the military's plan to cut the number of National Guard brigades trained for combat from 34 to 28, reassigning troops to light infantry or other support roles. They worry the change could concentrate more soldiers in certain states, shortchanging others.
Huckabee said governors are waiting for details about how individual states would fare if the Pentagon significantly alters the Guard's structure.
"We have the legal right to say no," he said.
Huckabee who spoke Tuesday at the National Guard Bureau shortly after the conclusion of the NGA meeting, said he hoped governors and the Pentagon could reach a solution that satisfied everyone. But he said governors would need to sign off on any Guard reduction in their states.
Some governors said they were encouraged by the Bush administration's response earlier this year to an outcry over a Defense Department proposal to cut funding for National Guard troop levels.
The Bush administration had proposed capping the number of Army National Guard members at 330,000, rather than the congressionally approved level of 350,000. But after the governors revolted — s ending a letter in early February — the Pentagon reneged and since has agreed to the higher figure.
"As long as the Guard can recruit up to 350,000, they (the Pentagon and Bush administration) will make sure the funding is there," said North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R), following the meeting with Rumsfeld.
Governors also received assurances that their home Guard bases would be restocked with equipment, such as trucks and satellite phones, that troops had to leave behind in Iraq or elsewhere.
"My sense is that (the governors) are more comfortable with the commitment that the National Guard will be fully equipped, fully manned and fully resourced," said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
Going forward, Huckabee said he expected governors to work as a group through the NGA to make states' concerns heard on the Guard issue and on other problems facing states.
Immigration, specifically illegal border crossings, also was a topic of discussion among governors. Fourteen Western governors banded together Tuesday (Feb. 28) in support of wide-ranging immigration reforms, including a guest-worker program similar to a plan Bush has put forth. (See related Stateline.org story.)
On the health care front, Huckabee said governors were pleased with news that the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would take a second look at an accounting method used by states to maximize federal Medicaid matching funds rather than summarily outlawing it.
The Bush administration previously said it would prohibit states from using intergovernmental transfers, a process by which states make it appear they are spending additional state dollars on publicly funded health care programs when some of the money actually is borrowed temporarily from or later returned to local governments. The technique generates larger federal matching payments.
Governors also touted their role in recently enacted federal changes to Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor and disabled, as an example of how governors can work across party lines to spur change at the federal level.
"The National Governors Association worked diligently for about a year and a half on specific reforms that we took to Congress ... and we essentially got what we wanted," Huckabee said.
Former President Bill Clinton, who once served as Arkansas governor and as NGA chairman, capped off the governors' meeting with a pitch for governors to sign on to his 10-year campaign to combat childhood obesity.
Clinton, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2004, stressed the importance of teaching children to develop healthy diet and exercise habits. He said governors could promote health education in schools and assure students have access to healthy school lunches as well as low-calorie snacks in vending machines.
Promoting healthy lifestyles is Huckabee's focus as NGA chairman, and the first two days of the meeting were spent examining states' role in that issue.
Staff Writer Mark K. Matthews contributed to this report.