Governors to Press Their Issues with Federal Officials

 

The nation's governors converge on Washington, D.C., this weekend (Feb. 21-24) to plead their case for more federal dollars for transportation, education and health care, but also to vent frustrations over too much federal meddling.

The official agenda of the National Governors Association winter meeting calls for a discussion of such topics as how to provide long-term care for the elderly, create manufacturing jobs and move stalled legislation. However, several other hot-button issues are lurking and could spice up the four-day meeting.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) are so irked at the Bush administration's ban on buying prescription drugs from Canada they're hosting their own unofficial summit on re-importation on the closing day (Feb. 24). At least five governors and several mayors are slated to hear from members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson have been invited, but at press time, no one from the administration had committed to attend.

Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, also is expected to figure prominently in behind-the-scene talks as spiraling Medicaid bills consume a fifth of states' budgets. Last year, the Bush administration proposed giving states the option of taking two-thirds of their Medicaid funds in the form of block grants. Many skeptical governors thought they'd wind up with less money in the long run. A bipartisan task force of governors failed to agree on an alternative plan, and the proposal never gained traction in Congress.

Another potentially explosive issue is the federal No Child Left Behind education law and its new testing and reporting requirements. At last year's NGA winter meeting, several Democratic governors complained that the administration was not funding the new law adequately. Republican governors have been relatively mum publicly, but state GOP lawmakers in several states have threatened either to opt out of complying with the law or to ask for waivers.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige is scheduled to be on hand to explain a new rule change released Feb. 19 making it easier for students with limited English skills to pass state tests required under the No Child Left Behind Act. States have been pressing for more flexibility from the administration to help schools with large numbers of students who don't speak English well.

Welfare reform, homeland security, and federal transportation dollars are among other topics governors are expected to broach when they meet with Bush at the White House Monday (Feb. 23). Governors will lobby Congress on key tax issues that states fear could cost them up to $13 billion in revenues.

Governors could use the meeting to pat themselves on their backs for surviving three consecutive years of red ink. But a new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 31 states will have budget gaps totaling $35.6 billion for fiscal 2005, about half as much as the $68.7 billion gap that states had to close in writing their current budgets.

Another unofficial topic that will grip governors' attention is the upcoming elections for president and state offices. Eleven states will elect new governors this November. Republicans will try to add to their cadre of 28 governors, and Democrats hope to increase their ranks of 22.

Six new governors are to attend the NGA meeting for the first time as state chief executives including media magnet California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

The meeting will be a homecoming of sorts for two newly elected Republican governors: Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher was in the middle of his third term in the U.S House of Representatives when he moved to the governor's mansion. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) was a GOP Washington insider since the 1980s, serving in the Reagan White House, as a top lobbyist and the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Other new faces at the NGA are:

  • Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), who became the first woman governor in the Bayou State.
  • Indiana Gov. Joseph Kernan (D), who took over as the state's executive last fall after Gov. Frank O'Bannon died of a stroke. 
  • Utah Gov. Olene Walker (R), who was appointed after Bush tapped Gov. Michael Leavitt to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
 
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