Governors Set Winter Meeting
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
As most states wrestle to close mounting budget deficits, their governors will gather in Washington, D.C., this weekend for four days of meetings focusing on implementing new federal education legislation and reforming Medicaid to shift the burden of spiraling healthcare costs.
The National Governors Association (NGA) annual winter meeting February 22-25 is the only time each year governors can meet collectively with the president and his cabinet, members of Congress and federal policy experts to share ideas and discuss agendas. Almost every state chief executive plans to attend, including 24 new governors sworn into office this past month, an NGA spokesperson said.
Some of the issues the governors will address are how to reform Medicaid, the state/federal healthcare program for the poor, elderly and disabled; how to overcome challenges in meeting the requirements of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act; and how to adequately defend states from terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
But the issue that will dominate the gathering will be the states' continued budget crisis. On average, states still have to close collective budget gap of more than $25 billion by July 1, the end of fiscal year 2003, and as their financial situations continue to decline, states face an estimated $80 billion deficit for 2004.
"The budget crisis that most states are facing is going to be the underlying theme of the entire meeting," said Chistine LaPaille, spokesperson for the NGA. "When you talk about homeland security, when you talk about reforming Medicaid or funding the No Child Left Behind Act, they're all overshadowed by the fact that states are still facing a nearly $30 billion shortfall this year."
Medicaid - which serves an estimated 43 million Americans - is one of the chief culprits of states' fiscal problems. The governors will hold a special session to discuss federal reform of the Medicaid program with Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and former governor of Wisconsin, and U.S. Sen. John Breaux (D-La), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees the program.
The governors will also hear from U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who will speak about the No Child Left Behind Act. States scrambled to submit plans by January 31 that outline how their schools will fulfill strict new federal education standards. Governors will likely discuss challenges they've experienced implementing the new education law and ask for increased federal funding to meet the stricter requirements.
A highlight of the winter meeting -- which will be held under extremely tight security measures, NGA officials said -- is the traditional gathering of governors with President Bush and members of his cabinet. At this meeting, governors get to question the administration on any topic, from national security to forest fire management and drought relief.
Foremost in the discussion at this meeting will be state financial difficulties, LaPaille said, and the need for a state fiscal relief package from the federal government.
"We are going to be presenting the latest data we have on the impact federal fiscal relief could have on states, and we will be discussing the need of fiscal relief for states when we meet with the president and his cabinet (next) Monday," LaPaille said.
Governors are expected to urge Bush to fulfill his promise to provide states $3.5 billion to help prepare "first responders" in the state and local agencies that would likely respond to a terrorist attack. Congress appropriated $3.5 billion last week for state anti-terrorism efforts, but $1.1 billion will go directly to local governments and states will receive less than 24 percent of the remaining $2.4 billion, which goes to the U.S. Justice Department.
"The governors believe this money should all be passed through the states," LaPaille said.
Beyond those issues, governors and their aides are scheduled to hold meetings on drought relief and energy development legislation, healthcare for the uninsured and transportation policy.
The governors will also try out the latest technology in meeting management - each will have a hi-tech electronic tablet provided by Microsoft containing conference information like Power Point presentations and transcripts. The devices will also allow governors to check email from their offices and keep up on news from home. The tablets are about the size of a fat legal pad and can be written on with a special stylus.