Stateline Story

Governors to Meet With President Bush

The federal budget deficit, the Iraq war and al Qaeda terrorism may be federal - not state - issues, but their impact on the states colors what's on minds of governors as they gather in Washington, D.C., over the next several days.
 
The National Governors Association's annual winter meeting, which runs Feb. 25-28, will give the states' chief executives the chance to voice their top concerns to President Bush and other federal officials: budget-busting Medicaid costs, drains on National Guard troop strength and new federal orders to step up the security of state-issued driver's licenses.
 
The governors are scheduled to meet privately with Bush on Monday (Feb. 27) at the White House. Governors also will gain face time with former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Director Mark McClellan and several corporate executives, including Wal-Mart President and CEO Lee Scott.
 
Wal-Mart , the world's largest retailer, was singled out by a Maryland law this year amid claims that the company leaves many of its workers to turn to state-funded Medicaid for health coverage. The company is currently the target of a 30-state push led by the AFL-CIO to require large employers to expand worker health benefits or help subsidize taxpayer-funded health insurance.
 
Scott has been invited to deliver a keynote address during a session on developing a culture of wellness. Wal-Mart announced Feb. 23 that Scott plans to offer governors a sneak peek at a set of new initiatives the company is planning to expand employee health coverage.
 
Wal-Mart is based in Bentonville, Ark., home state of NGA's chairman this year, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).
 
By Huckabee's choice, the first two days of the meeting will focus on improving the health of Americans — his signature initiative during his time as chairman — and will open with a Saturday morning 5K race, which Huckabee, who completed two marathons last year, plans to run.
 
For Huckabee, 50, the importance of healthy living hits close to home. After being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, Huckabee embraced a healthier lifestyle that helped him shed more than 100 pounds. He has written a book titled "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork," chronicling his weight-loss efforts.
 
In June, Huckabee and then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) told Congress that expanding access to private health insurance is one key to easing the burden that swelling Medicaid costs are placing on state and federal budgets.
 
At a meeting with reporters earlier this month, Huckabee said Medicaid reform remains a top state concern. Congress on Feb. 1 voted to squeeze $6.9 billion in savings from the giant government health insurance program for the poor over the next five years, in part by getting poor patients to pay more for treatment.
 
The measure met many of the items on governors' wish lists for reining in the program's cost. Now one of the top reforms governors will be seeking is a way to speed up federal approval for changes - or waivers - in how states manage their Medicaid programs, Huckabee said. 
 
Huckabee, who recently traveled to Iraq to meet with U.S. troops, also emphasized the changing role of the National Guard and said governors were agitated by a recent proposal to decrease the part-time fighting force's numbers. The Bush administration has since backed off that proposal, and top military officials have announced plans to rely less heavily on citizen-soldiers from the Guard in fighting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year.
 
New requirements for state-issued driver's licenses, passed by Congress in the wake of the 9-11 Commission's recommendations, are a sore point with states because Bush's budget includes no money to help states revamp their motor vehicle departments to upgrade technology and do more document checks.
 
Bush's proposed 2007 budget, released Feb. 6, cuts an array of domestic spending programs, including a number that benefit state and local governments. It also proposes a $13.6 billion reduction in federal spending on Medicaid, the state-federal program that serves 53 million poor and disabled Americans ( Click here for related story ).
 
"Unlike Congress, we have to live within our budgets. We don't have the luxury of deficit spending," Huckabee said. Every state but Vermont is required to balance its budget.
 
Governors also will hear a keynote address on Tuesday (Feb. 28) from former President Clinton, who underwent open-heart bypass surgery in 2004 and recently partnered with Huckabee to launch a 10-year campaign against childhood obesity. Clinton, a former Arkansas governor who served as NGA chairman in 1986-87, will tell of his personal struggles to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
 
The meeting marks the last governors' gathering in Washington before the November elections, when 36 governors' seats will be up for grabs. NGA Vice-Chairwoman  Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) of Arizona, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R), California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R ) and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) are among incumbents seeking re-election who will take time out to attend the meeting.
 
Possible 2008 presidential aspirants among the governors' ranks, such as Huckabee, Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack (D), Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, also will make the trip to Washington.
 
While more than 45 governors are expected to attend, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) and New York Gov. George Pataki (R) will be absent. Both had planned to be in Washington this week but were forced to cancel for health reasons and remained hospitalized as of Feb. 22.  Pataki is facing complications after an emergency appendectomy, and Fletcher is recovering from a gall bladder operation.
 
NGA spokeswoman Jodi Omear said governors will use the meeting to compare notes on issues they face, such as health care, education and homeland security, in addition to meeting with federal officials.