February 28, 2006
Governors Wary of Plans for National Guard
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer; Mark Matthews, Staff Writer
Fears that the Pentagon's plans to reshape the National Guard could harm emergency preparedness on the home front headlined the list of concerns governors voiced to President Bush on Monday (Feb. 27) at the White House.
Following their private White House meeting, governors said they also petitioned Bush for help in stemming illegal border crossings and in fixing the federal government's troubled new prescription drug program for seniors.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) , chairman of the National Governors Association, described the tone of the governors' meeting with Bush as "frank."
After a separate closed-door meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, governors attending the NGA's winter meeting fretted about how their states would fare under Defense Department plans to reconfigure the National Guard.
|Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), attending his first NGA meeting, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) return from meeting President Bush Monday. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) is pictured in the background.|
They stressed that governors, who share command of the part-time fighting force, should have a seat at the table in discussions involving changes in the Guard, which has been heavily relied upon to help fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 80 percent of the Army National Guard has been deployed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Some governors said they appreciated assurances that the Defense Department would not cut funding for National Guard troop levels as state officials had feared.
Previously, the Bush administration 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 — sending 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.
With that concern seemingly averted, the governors turned their attention to the emerging issue of Guard reconfiguration. Every four years, the military reviews its forces to ensure it can meet the latest global threats.
In the latest installment, the military recommended reducing the number of National Guard brigades trained for combat from 34 to 28, reassigning the others to support or other roles. Governors warn the change could sap some states of soldiers in emergencies such as hurricanes, wildfires and terrorist attacks, concentrating more soldiers in certain states but leaving others with fewer Guard troops.
"General Pace said some states will be winners and some states will be losers as they reconfigure the combat brigades. We're very worried because of the 34 combat brigades, Pennsylvania has four," said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell (D).
One of the problems for governors is that "not all brigades are created equally," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association, a nonpartisan advocacy group for guardsmen. "The governors know this. They know they would lose a lot of capability if they go from a 3,500-member combat brigade to a 200-member support brigade."
Governors also complained that National Guard equipment from trucks to satellite phones has been left behind when troops dispatched to Iraq or elsewhere returned home. As of July 2005, the Army National Guard had left more than 64,000 pieces of equipment overseas, according to the Government Accountability Office .
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Rumsfeld assured the governors that the states' armories would be properly restocked. "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."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said he is confident states would be reimbursed for the equipment costs. At the same time, Barbour said that the Bush administration admitted governors should have been consulted earlier on changes affecting the National Guard and that he hopes the administration would involve states more in the future.
In addition to concerns about the future of the Guard, governors also spoke with Bush and other federal officials Monday about the cost to states of swelling government health insurance programs.
Several governors said they called on federal officials to make good on their promise to fully repay the states that stepped in to pay seniors' drug bills when the new federal prescription drug benefit - known as Medicare Part D — hit snags during its launch.
Low-income seniors across the country encountered problems in January when Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly, began paying for the first time for prescriptions that previously had been paid by Medicaid, the state-federal program that services the poor and disabled.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) said he is concerned about the effect the new drug benefit will have on rural pharmacies, which might get reimbursed at a lower rate by the federal government than they did when states were paying part of low-income seniors' drug costs through Medicaid.
Easley said he would like to see the federal government develop a tiered reimbursement system that takes into account the increased cost of delivering drugs in rural areas that often are still served by mom-and-pop operations rather than large chains.
"Out in rural areas, a little downtown pharmacy is really just a pharmacy," he said.
Governors met Monday with Mark McClellan, director of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and on Saturday with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt.
Besides problems with the new Medicare prescription drug plan, the growing burden that Medicaid is placing on state budgets weighed heavily on governors' minds. Medicaid, which serves 53 million Americans, now constitutes the largest single portion of state budgets in terms of total federal and state dollars.
Earlier this month, Congress authorized several cost-saving changes sought by governors to help them control Medicaid cost. But the Bush administration has proposed cutting an additional $13.6 billion from Medicaid over the next five years.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), NGA's vice-chairwoman, said governors discussed with Bush the possibility of federal legislation to help beef up security along the nation's southern border. Napolitano in August declared a state of emergency in four counties because of the huge influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
The NGA meeting, which centered on Huckabee's year-long plan to promote healthy lifestyles, will wrap up Tuesday (Feb. 28), shortly after governors hear from former President Bill Clinton, who will tell of his own health struggles.
Clinton, a former Arkansas governor who served as NGA chairman in 1986-87, underwent open-heart bypass surgery in 2004 and recently partnered with Huckabee to launch a 10-year campaign against childhood obesity.