Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) opened the summer meeting of the National Governors Association with a stark assessment of where the states stand.
"Last year was pretty trying for the nation's governors," said Engler, who also chairs the NGA. "Most states. . .were facing budget deficits and financial situations much more challenging than we've experienced in recent years. . . .At the same time there's been an explosion in healthcare costs."
None of this is news for the governors meeting here in Boise, as most of them know firsthand the problems declining tax revenues and exploding healthcare costs can bring to a state. But Engler's comments do underscore one issue that can get Democratic, Republican and Independent governors to nod their heads knowingly money problems.
Nonetheless, governors will not find a silver bullet for their fiscal woes during their meetings. Not unless they can convince President George W. Bush to bring them a multi-billion dollar check from the federal treasury, an event that appears unlikely despite consistent lobbying by the governors for federal fiscal relief.
The governors do expect, however, to come away from their time together with a more informed perspective on a wide range of issues, from economic development to Medicaid reform to international trade.
Underscoring the importance of trade for his state, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, painted a graphic picture of the amount of food Idahoans would have to consume if they didn't ship a portion of their agricultural largess elsewhere.
"If we did not export potatoes, for example, then every man, woman and child in the state of Idaho everyday would have to eat sixty-five potatoes, two-hundred eighty-six slices of bread, twenty-nine glass of milk, and eight quarter-pounders everyday," said Kempthorne.
Thirty or so governors have joined Kempthorne, the host governor, in Boise. Most flew in for the meeting, although Michigan's Engler drove the 2,200 mile distance to Boise with his wife and seven-year-old triplet daughters, stopping along the way for a little sightseeing.
Notable absentees include Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) and California Gov. Gray Davis (D).
A handful of protesters, including a man dressed as the Grim Reaper and a guitar strumming folk singer, braved 108-degree temperatures Saturday to voice their complaints. Most were Idahoans protesting what they considered to be permissive regulation of farm waste.
Heavy security kept the protesters in a designated area across the street from the hall in which the governors are meeting.
On Sunday, the governors heard from Cisco Systems President and CEO John Chambers, who said states need to improve education if they want to attract and create good jobs in a globally competitive economy.
Chambers stressed the economic importance of solid math and science training, and said that technology could be used by states to improve everything from education to the delivery of basic services, such as providing drivers licenses and answering tax questions.
Many of the governors' most important discussions this week are taking place at governors-only lunch sessions, away from the peering eyes of the press. Event organizers say the closed-door sessions will give the governors a chance to candidly share policy ideas without having to worry about political ramifications.
A little fun will be had too. Engler and other governors played golf Saturday morning. And major festivities include a Sunday night ice-skating exhibition featuring Brian Boitano and a Monday evening rodeo.
"Frankly, coming here governor [Kempthorne] is just exactly what we needed after some of the budget sessions that most of us have been concluding," said Engler. "A little bit of a break."