The nation's governors staked out children's health care and the National Guard as top concerns for a Democratic-controlled Congress that is preoccupied with the war in Iraq, a daunting federal deficit and the problem of uninsured Americans.
In their first gathering since Democrats took control of Congress last November, governors made it clear that they want to play a major role on issues that the White House and Capitol Hill will tackle in the coming year, namely:
- The State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), a popular children's health program that technically expires this fall.
- The federal No Child Left Behind education law, which imposes testing requirements and sanctions on schools that fail to make yearly improvement and is up for renewal this year.
- The U.S. military's heavy reliance on National Guard units to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan leaving some states stretched in terms of manpower and equipment.
- REAL ID, a federal sweeping mandate that states revamp driver's licenses by May 2008 to help keep licenses out of the hands of terrorists and illegal aliens.
"We are committed to working together, to the extent that we can, with the administration, with the Congress on [these] important federal legislative priorities," Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), the chair of the NGA, said in a closing news conference with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), the NGA vice chair.
NGA is hoping its record of bipartisanship and consensus-building will mean a bigger role for governors at a time of divided government in Washington.
Much of the discussion during the National Governors Association winter meeting centered on S-CHIP, which provides health insurance to 6.1 million children and adults in families who earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid program for the poor. For at least 14 states, the most pressing need is that their programs could run out of money by this spring if Congress doesn't allocate more dollars soon.
Health and Human Service Secretary Mike Leavitt, a former Utah governor, pledged to governors that the Bush administration would work with Congress to prevent any states from running out of money for their S-CHIP programs this spring, which could force children to lose coverage. "Governors across the country are opposed to removing children from this very successful program," Napolitano said.
The emergency infusion of cash would address only part of states' concerns over S-CHIP. Many governors and the White House are still at odds over President Bush's budget proposal to scale back the 10-year-old program when Congress reauthorizes it later this year. While the president has proposed adding $5 billion to the program, various analysts say states need up to $16 billion more just to keep covering the same number of families.
"I can speak with some passion about the difficulties of 'disenrolling' someone, how much more difficult it is to take something away from someone than not to give it to them in the first place," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who i n 2005 had to cut 170,000 enrollees from the TennCare program because of perennial budget overruns.
On the National Guard front, governors vowed to press Congress and the White House to replenish missing equipment supplies and to rescind a new law giving the president authority to go over governors' heads to call up Guard units in time of natural disasters.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Democratic Governors Association, said her state's National Guard has only about 20 percent of the equipment it needs because so much of it has been left or destroyed in Iraq. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) said his state has fared better than others regarding equipment, although his Guard unit's large trucks were new when sent to Iraq and came back with more than 600,000 miles of use.
Sebelius said that U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, told governors that the president's budget proposal would provide enough funds to replace just 50 percent of the missing equipment over the next five years. "We can't wait five years," she said at a DGA press conference on Guard issues.
The governors also will continue to press Congress to roll back a change in federal law passed last year that gives the White House expanded new powers to call up National Guard troops in time of natural disasters or other public emergencies. Up to now, it was solely a governor's job to activate Guard units for state emergencies.
On No Child Left Behind, the governors support the education law but have concerns about how the U.S. Department of Education determines whether a school has failed to make adequate progress, Napolitano said. Of particular concern is that a school might meet the law's benchmarks except for a single group, such as students who require special education and those learning English as a second language. Pawlenty of Minnesota said he was heartened by the governors' discussions with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. He said the secretary showed a willingness to take a more "nuanced approach to some of the subgroups."
On REAL ID, governors want, at a minimum, a one year delay in the May 2008 deadline for revamping driver's licenses and more help paying the estimated $11 billion that states figure it will take to revamp their driver's license. " Are we getting $11 billion worth in real improvement in identifying citizens or is this just yet another feel-good piece of legislation at enormous cost to the states that, in the end, all it's going to do is raise the price of the average driver's license for the average American?" Napolitano said during a question and answer session at the National Press Club.
Measures have been introduced in at least 21 state legislatures protesting Real ID or threatening to ignore its requirements. The Montana House voted overwhelmingly Jan. 30 to reject the Real ID Act and refuse to comply. Both chambers of the Maine Legislature Jan. 25 passed a non-binding resolution protesting the law and urging Congress to repeal it.
Capitol Hill also may act on this: U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has legislation that would delay implementing Real ID for two years after the regulations are finalized. In addition, U.S. Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) has a bill to replace the act with a negotiated rulemaking process, an arrangement that states and the Department of Homeland Security were engaged in before the Real ID Act was passed.
On the broader issue of relations between states and the federal government, Pawlenty called for change. "The almost comical dance is, they'll give us money if we'll do certain things. We'll say, we'll take your money but we want flexibility. It permeates all these policies, whether it's S-CHIP or Medicaid. It's the money vs. flexibility dance. That's what federalism has devolved into."
A large portion of the NGA meeting focused on how states can create jobs, spur innovation and be more competitive, the pet project of Napolitano as the NGA chair. The aim is to create new businesses through better science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Intel Corp. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are providing some $3 million for the effort.
Apart from NGA functions, governors also spent time schmoozing with partisan colleagues, lobbying Congress for state projects and fund raising:
- The Republican Governors Association held their most successful fund-raiser ever Monday evening, raking in $10.2 million at an event featuring President Bush — the former governor of Texas.
- California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) not only addressed global warming and health care in remarks to the National Press Club, but also advised federal lawmakers that they should erect a smoking tent as he had in Sacramento in order to build bipartisan bonds while sharing a stogie.
- Democratic governors, through the Democratic Governors Association, promised to push for alternative and renewable energy as a way to clean up the environment and create new high-paying jobs.