Governors Press Bush for More Highway Dollars, Jobs
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
State governors went to the White House Monday (Feb. 23) to register their concerns about jobs and highway dollars, and President Bush promised to put aside election-year politics and work with them. But no new funds or programs were offered.
Some of the participants at the National Governors Association winter meeting came away from the White House disappointed that the administration held the line on Bush's threat to veto any highway bill that would give the states substantially more federal money than the president wants.
Divisions between states and the federal government also persisted over Medicaid payments and the No Child Left Behind education law, despite recent moves by the administration to ease states' concerns.
"This is going to be a year in which a lot of people are probably going to think nothing can (be) done right, because we're all out campaigning. Well, that's not my attitude," Bush told the governors. "I fully understand it's going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue. But my pledge to you is we'll continue to work with you."
Some governors, particularly Democrats, had hoped to elicit more sympathy from Bush about job losses in their states, especially those hard-hit by factory closings and manufacturing jobs moved overseas. "On the issue of jobs and the economy, there is truly concern on both sides of the aisle about it," Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredeson (D) said.
"I do have concerns about jobs," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said. "We still have a lot of work to do. The president's position is that the economy is improving; it's not improving fast enough," Pawlenty said. "We're still not out of the woods yet."
Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas credited the president's tax cuts with stimulating the recent growth in the economy, although he conceded "the one area where the economic recovery is not catching up yet is in the area of jobs."
In fact, governors used the lure of jobs creation to lobby for a more generous highway bill than the one proposed by Bush. West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise (D) said, "That's the one clear jobs bill that everybody gets: Republicans, Democrats, federal, state. As somebody pointed out, that's the one set of jobs that can't be outsourced. You have to build it here."
The highway bill, which serves as a blueprint for highway and transit projects, is a high priority for governors of both parties who want a six-year plan, not a one-year extension, and more federal dollars than the White House is willing to give. The administration's highway plan would set aside $247 billion over six years while the House and Senate versions range from $318 billion to $375 billion.
"[Transportation] Secretary Norman Mineta made it clear that the president would not sign ... a higher bill, and that's a huge mistake from the standpoint of stimulating the economy and creating good-paying jobs, a huge mistake," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) told Stateline.org. "Transportation dollars are still the very best instant job producers," he said.
The governors welcomed with some skepticism the administration's agreement to back off, at least for now, a plan to crack down on states that use creative but questionable strategies to get more federal dollars for Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), vice chairman of NGA, conceded: "The states don't come with totally clean hands in this area. There have been some abuses, but we ought to sit down and address this in a full manner, rather than what many governors have thought was an arbitrary decision-making process."
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) told reporters that "states feel universally under siege" after federal officials unexpectedly proposed rules changes in January affecting their Medicaid dollars. Some governors are hopeful states can work out a solution with the newly nominated head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Mark McClellan, former head of the Food and Drug Administration.
Much of President Bush's opening comments to the governors focused on the war on terror, but he also vigorously defended both the administration's tax cuts as good for the economy and the federal No Child Left Behind education law as good for schools.
Education Secretary Rod Paige promised to work with governors to iron out problems with the 2002 education law, including possible revisions affecting teacher qualifications. The administration already has relaxed rules to make it easier for new immigrants and disabled students to pass state tests required by the new education law. Meanwhile, though, governors remained divided on whether recent changes are enough to make the law workable, and whether the federal government is providing enough money for the law's requirements.
Democrats characterized the changes as good first steps but said more should be done to allow states flexibility. "This law is going to be extremely difficult to implement," said Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) of Arizona.
In the meeting with governors, Paige lashed out at the nation's largest teachers' union, which is highly critical of the new education law. According to Napolitano and other governors present, Paige called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization." "I can't believe that the secretary was serious," Rendell of Pennsylvania said later. "I think he was making a joke, probably not a great joke."
Paige issued an apology of sorts Monday evening, saying that he made an "inappropriate choice of words." But he did not back down from criticisms of what he called the NEA's "obstructionist scare tactics."
Earlier in the day, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) stole the spotlight at a press conference on the White House lawn. A gaggle of reporters all but ignored other new governors from Utah, Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi who were standing beside the California Republican, a former Hollywood star. At one point, Schwarzenegger interrupted the rapid-fire questioning and told reporters to give other governors a chance to speak. "Each one of these governors is a star," he said.
Other governors seemed to take Schwarzenegger's stardom in stride. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), said: "He wears his celebrity well. We took our picture together, all the governors, and he was just like any other governor. But he isn't. He's Arnold."
Stateline.org's Erin Madigan and Eric Kelderman contributed to this report.