Budget woes dominate governors' meeting
By LIZ SIDOTI
WASHINGTON — On the recession's front lines, governors are struggling to chart the road ahead for states staggered by unrelenting joblessness and cut-to-the-bone budgets even as Washington reports signs of economic growth.
"The worst probably is yet to come," Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vt., chairman of the National Governors Association, warned at the group's meeting yesterday. He called the situation "fairly poor" in most states, adding that it "doesn't look too good."
Such uncertainty weighed heavily over the governors' weekend meeting even though health care — and how states can address skyrocketing costs — was the intended focus. That's recognized as one of the biggest issues affecting states' long-term solvency.
Hawai'i Gov. Linda Lingle is attending the meeting. The governor has talked with a number of Obama administration officials, including Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, with whom Lingle discussed the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting, which Honolulu will host.
Lingle also is scheduled to meet with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to discuss transportation issues that affect Hawai'i.
Yesterday's meeting opened with first lady Michelle Obama asking for the governors' help in her campaign to tackle childhood obesity, though she acknowledged, "I know that many of you are stretched thinner than ever in these times and don't actually have money to spare."
States face budget holes totaling $134 billion over the next three years, according to the governors, who noted that tax collections keep declining as Medicaid costs soar. High unemployment persists. States cut 18,000 jobs in January alone and more job losses are anticipated. Because states are required to balance their budgets, shortfalls will be made up by raising taxes or fees or cutting services.
Neither is easy in an election year in which 37 states are poised to vote for new chief executives.
While the national economy has grown in recent months, the situation is deteriorating in the states. Residents are feeling the fallout daily, from fewer services to higher fees.
States usually experience their worst budget years in the two years after a recession ends.
"A year ago we were facing an economic abyss. The president pulled us back from the brink. But we have more to do," said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, the head of the Democratic Governors Association.
There seemed to be unanimous agreement that job creation is the key to recovery in states.
"Our folks want to get back to work," said Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J.
Added Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md.: "It's the only way that we're going to get out of this recession."
Nationwide, governors are drawing up plans to boost jobs and address the financial crisis that has led to repeated budget cuts and raids on rainy day funds. States have put a big dent in the $135 billion in federal stimulus money they got last year to soften the blow.
Governors are hoping for an infusion of cash, perhaps $25 billion, in the latest jobs measure that Congress is debating. The national unemployment rate fell to 9.7 percent in January, but 17 states entered 2010 with double-digit joblessness.
"We need the administration and the Congress, members of both parties, to work to make sure a robust jobs bill is passed as quickly as possible so we can start seeing the benefits," Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said. He joined fellow Democrats at a news conference to call for an extension of soon-expiring unemployment benefits and more access to working capital.
The governors were holding sessions on the economy, energy, health care and education with Cabinet officials during the three-day gathering. Those issues, along with the jobs measure, are certain topics of discussion when governors head to the White House tomorrow for a meeting with President Obama. Democrats and Republicans alike said they hoped to press for more relief for states.