Governors to Bush: Fund Mandates

 

After a tense weekend marked by partisan politics and power plays, the nation's governors came together Monday and crafted a joint statement on their priorities for Congress and the Bush administration, highlighting what the governors say is a proliferation of unfunded mandates.

The governors, many of whom manage states in severe fiscal crises, are requesting full funding of three federal programs the states must implement special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), elementary and secondary education under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and various homeland security measures.

"Governors believe that addressing these safety and education needs would help close the gap in current fiscal challenges and prevent the loss of vital services and programs," the governors said in a statement released Monday at the National Governors Association's Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Estimates for what it would cost to fully fund these programs vary widely. But some analysts say full funding for NCLB could mean upwards of an additional $7-$8 billion, homeland security might entail an additional $1.5-$2 billion, and IDEA would represent an $11 billion increase.

The governors' proposal attaches no price tags to its funding request, and will be voted on by all the governors at Tuesday's closing session.

State governments are facing an estimated $30 billion in deficits this fiscal year, which closes June 30 for all but four states, and another $82 billion in deficits next fiscal year. These shortfalls are leading to widespread and significant tax increases and program cuts in many states.

During the NGA meeting, which began Saturday and closes Tuesday, the governors have been meeting with senators and congressmen in an effort to whip up support for state priorities, including some form of fiscal relief.

Early on Monday, the governors met with President Bush to discuss homeland security, war with Iraq, economic stimulus, Medicaid reform and education.

Bush, a former governor, emphasized the key role states play in educating America's children.

"It's the most important thing a state does," he said to the governors. Bush was unbowed, however, when pressed on some governors' funding concerns, saying he would stand by the budgeted amounts he submitted to Congress.

This left at least one governor feeling flat.

"I think several of my colleagues will probably agree that while we appreciated the president's time we did not really receive a great deal of encouragement when it came to some of the issues relative to education funding for the states," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

Many governors are frustrated by the president's education program, which mandates significant testing programs and achievement levels and severe penalties for schools that fail to meet them. The governors, for the most part, like the tests and penalties. What has them nervous are how much these measures will cost.

The governors' decision to focus lobbying efforts on unfunded mandates represents a departure from an earlier emphasis on fiscal relief for states above and beyond federal mandates.

Republican governors have been concerned that the NGA's fiscal relief proposals were the work of liberals not interested in conservative ideas such as limited government. On Sunday, Republican governors on the NGA executive committee jettisoned a proposal seeking "substantial funds to every state and territory" on a party-line 5 to 4 vote.

"I don't think any of us would turn down additional assistance from the federal government. If they send us a check, we're not going to send it back and say, 'Thanks, gosh, we really don't want it.' But the fact is we can't expect the federal government to provide for us all the resources we need," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).

After the executive committee meeting, the governors agreed to put aside partisan differences and focus on their shared concerns before Congress, in particular, unfunded mandates.

The new emphasis might appear to be a setback for the governors' fiscal relief efforts, but Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D), chairman of the NGA, said he'd be ecstatic if the federal government would only heed the governors' latest proposal.

"By gosh, if they went anywhere close to the mandates, we'd be in deep cotton," said Patton. 

 
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