ST. LOUIS, Missouri -- A golden era reigns for America's 50 state governors, most of whom are in St. Louis this week to share ideas and do some politicking at the 91st annual meeting of the National Governors' Association. The four-day meeting, which opened Saturday, comes at a time when state budget surpluses are at record levels.
This has allowed the governors to enjoy the best of all political worlds, a world of expanding services and shrinking taxes. For example, Utah Republican Governor Mike Leavitt, the incoming chairman of the NGA, presides over a state whose budget has nearly doubled in the last six years. But even as spending has risen in Utah, taxes have been cut by $1 billion.
The fantastic fiscal picture is only part of the story. At the same time, the political power of the governors is on the rise because of the current emphasis on devolution, which gives states more control of government programs, and the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.
If the governors needed any more reason for celebration, they got it at their first plenary session on Sunday, when both President Clinton and Oklahoma Senator Don Nickles promised to oppose any Congressional effort to reduce the amount of federal money available to the states for welfare benefits and child health care.
Largely because of the booming economy, unspent block grant funds for these programs total billions of dollars, and some members of Congress, including powerful Texas Republican Tom Delay, have been making noises about reclaiming some of the money.
"I can tell you at least from one senator, and I believe I speak for all Republicans, that's not going to happen," said Nickles, a member of the U.S. Senate Republican leadership.
Democrat Clinton, who was himself a governor (of Arkansas) for 12 years, said he too was against a federal raid on the unspent block grant money. But during a whirlwind visit with his former colleagues, the President coupled his statement with a thinly veiled warning that the governors should join him in opposing a 10 year, $792 billion Congressional Republican tax cut plan if they want to avoid the kind of federal budget pressure that would make a raid on state treasuries more likely.
Bipartisan assurances from Clinton and Nickles on the funding issue notwithstanding, the governors planned to adopt a resolution before leaving here Tuesday that puts them firmly on record against a welfare or child health care funding giveback.
They were also spending a great deal of time comparing notes on how to raise student achievement levels in public schools. Improving education is the centerpiece issue of the governors' conference.
President Clinton was mildly critical of the pace at which children of the working poor are being enrolled in CHIPs, a health insurance program for kids whose families are just above the poverty level and thus ineligible for Medicaid. About 1.3 million children have been enrolled in the program so far.
"There's money out there for 4 to 5 times that many children to get health insurance," Clinton said. "I think we need to do more to support the outreach."
Governor Leavitt, who will lead the NGA for the next year, took exception to Clinton's criticism of the outreach efforts.
"It has been a resounding success and for the President to suggest otherwise I think would be more political than substance," he said.
The governors of Texas and Florida, brothers George and Jeb Bush, were among the absentees at the NGA meeting, making Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura the only megawatt political celebrity at the gathering.
Several celebrities from the world of sports were joining the governors Monday morning to honor athletes age 7-12 from 34 states who are taking part in the inaugural State Games of America. The competition took place over the weekend and concludes Monday.
The sports stars scheduled to help honor the youngsters included baseball greats Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock and Stan Musial, and football star Jackie Smith.