Governors Circle Wagons Around Tobacco Billions

Tobacco, not education, was the No. 1 priority to emerge from a four-day National Governors' Association winter meeting that ended Tuesday.

Specifically, 48 state chief executives vowed to block Uncle Sam from tapping into a $246 billion settlement promised to states by tobacco companies.

Governors were unified in their opposition to a federal plan to take 57 percent of the settlement as reimbursement for federal Medicaid funding.

"It is the nation's' governors position that states are entitled to all of the funds awarded to them in the tobacco settlement agreements," the governors said in a policy statement. "Our states endured all the risks and expenses during the arduous negotiations and litigation necessary to reach final agreements."

"There is no legitimate federal claim on the settlement funds," said Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the NGA chairman. "The federal government did not join in, or assist in the lawsuits, even though they were invited to do so."

Legislation that would prohibit Washington from claiming any of the tobacco money has been introduced in the U.S. Senate by a bipartisan group led by Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Florida Democrat Bob Graham. A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Florida Republican Congressman Michael Bilirakis.

The tobacco settlement was one of many policy issues examined during the NGA's winter meeting, which some news stories tended to characterize as the 'George and Jesse Show.' Texas Gov. George W. Bush, viewed as the GOP's presidential frontrunner, and free-spirited Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura were accorded rock star treatment by the press -- and other governors -- throughout the conference.

They joined 46 state governors, and five governors from U.S. territories, in looking at topics ranging from economic innovation, to the environment. The politicians worked convivially during sessions open to the public, with a minimum of yawns, along with high-powered experts from the worlds of education and business.

South Dakota and Louisiana were the only no-shows at one of the best-attended NGA meetings in recent memory, an organization spokesman said.

If tobacco was the winter meeting's top priority, education was a close second. Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles went so far as to say that raising student achievement is the top issue confronting the United States.

During a stop off at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, several governors pressed President Bill Clinton -- himself a former Arkansas governor -- for increased funding on special education programs. The group included Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman whose predecessor, Fob James, cancelled Alabama's NGA membership because he felt the $100,000 annual fee was a waste of money.

Transportation and infrastructure issues also were spotlighted at the meeting. North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer and Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton led a coalition of governors, businessmen and union leaders that focused on a $60 billion in unspent federal funds earmarked for highway and airport improvements.

"The federal government must invest all the transportation user taxes for their intended purpose to repair and improve our nation's transportation infrastructure," said Gov. Schafer.

Another initiative was a push by the governors to increase mentoring programs in their states, citing statistics that mentored youths are 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs and 53 percent less likely to skip school.

North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. chaired a mentoring committee, with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee acting as vice chair.

Before flying home to their respective states Tuesday, the governors:

* Passed a resolution calling for joint industry/government development of a simplified sales tax system. The resolution was vigorously opposed by California Gov. Gray Davis, who called it a push to tax Internet commerce.

* Passed a resolution calling on Congress to give states greater leeway in using federal funds to improve student performance.

* Met with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

"We will continue to focus on our goal of ensuring that the federal government keeps its commitments to the states," said Gov. Carper of Delaware.

Staff Writers Tiffany Danitz, Joe Giordono, Sunny Kaplan and Clare Nolan contributed to this story.

Tags: Justice