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Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2004

Governors squabble in election year

February 22, 2004

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— Governors beginning an annual meeting in the capital hope to find common ground on education, health care, roads and other policy issues caught up in the contentious politics of a presidential campaign.

Some state leaders on Saturday described that mission as near impossible.

On the most prominent challenges before them on the National Governors Assn.'s annual four-day pilgrimage, Democrats and Republicans came down on sharply differing sides on what is needed.

Republicans talked mostly about flexibility; Democrats said sweeping changes are needed in policy, backed with more federal money.

"It's a fine line," said Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina. "Some of the governors who are Democratic peers of mine see a legitimately different perspective. Others are going to try to grandstand."

For Democrats, in the midst of a competitive primary race and encouraged as Bush's national poll numbers drop, it's no time to cut short the criticism, and they hammered the president over lost jobs.

"The federal government and the Bush administration are saying to the states on Medicaid, on education and on homeland security -- you're on your own," said New Mexico Democrat Bill Richardson. The only consensus will be if GOP governors join with Democrats' criticism, he said.

Presidential election year or not, it's always difficult for governors, usually their party's state leaders and deeply involved in this year's campaign, to balance politics and policy.

Kathleen Sebelius, Democrat from Kansas, said she would rather her fellow governors speak honestly, regardless of politics.

"There will be a concerted effort by a number of Republican colleagues to not appear critical of the White House, given that we're going into an election cycle," she said. "In the candid conversations I had with governors behind closed doors, there was outstanding openness about how many of these programs really don't work for us. How much of that will be said to the press?"

The states' leaders try to mark boundaries with separate meetings of their political wings, the Democratic Governors' Assn. and the Republican Governors Assn.

"My state of the state was about jobs. That's the issue," said Republican Bob Taft of Ohio, a manufacturing state hard hit along with others in the Midwest. "I truly believe the president's plan is taking hold. I truly believe the economy is turning around."

Republicans also spoke out against gay marriages and applauded Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's opposition to San Francisco officials' move to allow same-sex marriages.

On education, Republican-controlled state legislative bodies in Utah, Virginia and New Hampshire have gone on record criticizing lack of funding for the education law. But the differences among governors probably will leave the argument over dollars out of discussions, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia said.

The administration has toughened its position on Medicaid, pushing to crack down on the way states leverage federal funds for their state programs. The program provides health care to 50 million people and has ranked among the fastest growing elements in state budgets for several years.

The financing of highways and mass transit is before Congress now, with a dispute over the size of the spending and how many years the legislation would cover. Governors also are watching closely the reauthorization of the federal welfare law.

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