Health Care, Energy Top Governors' Meeting

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Governors meeting at this Great Lakes resort reiterated their call on Congress and the White House to renew a popular children's health program and leaned on the Bush administration to do more to help states develop technologies to promote clean, affordable energy.

A total of 33 governors converged in this resort town in northwestern Michigan July 20-23 for the 99 th annual meeting of the National Governors Association.

Much of the formal program centered on how states can create jobs and be more competitive under the  Innovation America initiative, spearhead by NGA Chair Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) of Arizona, whose one-year term ends July 23.

But behind closed doors, a top issue for governors was the stalemate in Washington, D.C., over the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which technically expires this fall unless Congress acts. NGA calls SCHIP reauthorization its No. 1 health care priority for the 110th Congress.

"Governors are unanimous in their support for the renewal of SCHIP," New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) told Stateline.org .

A measure moving in the Democratic-controlled Congress would authorize a $35 billion increase over five years for SCHIP, up from its current $5 billion a year. President Bush has proposed setting aside $10 billion - an amount critics say would be insufficient to maintain the current 6.6 million children in the program. Bush has threatened to veto the bill, arguing the bipartisan measure would too greatly expand a government program. The president also opposes the bill's reliance on a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes, to $1 a pack, to pay for the program's expansion.

NGA would neither support the Democratic proposal nor criticize the president's veto threat but restated the "urgent need" to renew and provide more money for SCHIP, according to July 22 letters to the White House and Congress. The governors declined to specify a dollar amount they would like Washington to set aside for SCHIP.

The only Bush Cabinet official to brief the governors during the meeting was Stephen L. Johnson, the administrator for the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, who got an earful from governors frustrated over what they see as EPA's foot-dragging on several energy issues.

Johnson told the governors EPA plans to issue a decision by the end of this year on California's bid to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from cars. Nearly a dozen states want to adopt the same standard as California's. The state has threatened to sue if it doesn't get the green light.

Johnson also told governors the agency plans to unveil by the end of 2008 auto-emission standards for new cars.

Governors also pressed the EPA official on when states might see more federal funding to develop technologies that burn coal in a more environmentally safe manner.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) lamented that "everyone says coal needs to be part of the mix, and someday we are going to do something about it. Someday needs to be today."

Other countries have taken notice of states' actions on global warming, governors said during the NGA's opening July 21 press conference. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) said he recently visited with the prime minister of Sweden on the issue. "I think in Europe they are watching the states and feeling some comfort that there is so much going on in the states with respect to climate change, hoping that they will push the national debate," he said.

Napolitano said a Mexico state has recently joined a Western state coalition created earlier this year to devise a cap-and-trade system that will allow companies to buy and sell greenhouse-gas pollution credits. The coalition consists of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington state and several Canadian provinces. "Things are moving at the state and regional level," she said.

The Republican governors of California and Florida - two of the country's most populous and powerful states - are in the vanguard of a dozen states slashing their greenhouse-gas emissions, although neither California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Florida Gov. Charlie Crist attended the NGA summer meeting.

Governors should expect to hear a lot more about clean energy because the incoming NGA chairman, Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is expected July 23 to announce that energy will be his signature NGA initiative over the next year.

"There's an urgent need to improve our energy policy in this country, not just better alternative energy, but climate-change issues, conservation, getting better results from our traditional energy sources and applying new technologies to old sources," Pawlenty told Stateline.org.