By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009
The nation's governors, battered by plunging tax revenue and growing budget deficits in their states, converged on Washington yesterday and outlined their plans to spend billions of federal dollars coming their way from President Obama's economic stimulus legislation.
The governors said the money will be only a down payment toward fixing the country's crumbling infrastructure, with some predicting that the economies in their states will worsen.
The economy was at the forefront as the three-day National Governors Association meeting got underway, but an apparent rift in Republican ranks over the stimulus threatened to dominate yesterday's opening sessions.
Some prominent Republican governors, including Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and South Carolina's Mark Sanford, said they will reject portions of the stimulus funding, putting them at odds with their GOP counterparts from such large states as California and Florida.
Asked about Jindal's and Barbour's pledges to turn away stimulus funds aimed at expanding state unemployment insurance, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quipped, "You just tell them that anyone that doesn't want to take the money: I'm ready to take their money and rebuild California."
The governors are gathering as many are laying off state workers and making difficult cuts to services to help balance their budgets. They met with some of Obama's Cabinet secretaries yesterday and will attend a black-tie dinner tonight at the White House, where the band Earth Wind & Fire will perform. Tomorrow morning, they will meet with Obama.
Most governors made the trip, but two were notably absent: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), whose office said she was busy with the state legislative session, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who withdrew in January as Obama's commerce secretary nominee amid a federal "pay to play" investigation.
Others generated attention in the hallways between meetings. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) was hounded with questions about her prospects to become Obama's health secretary nominee. She demurred, repeatedly telling reporters, "I don't have any comments."
The governors are pushing an ambitious agenda to rebuild ailing roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) said that the stimulus is just one step toward that goal and that a long-term commitment to infrastructure spending is needed.
"This doesn't get us off the hook," said Rendell, chairman of the governors association. "This helps us; it stops us from having massive layoffs, incredible reductions in services that would expose our citizens to tremendous personal risks. We understand that we have to use this money quickly."
Leaders of the association stressed that the federal funds are hardly a bailout and that their states are still taking great pains to slash spending and balance their budgets.
"We're not just getting a handout here. We're doing the heavy lifting," said Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R), vice chairman of the association. "We're still making tough cuts in budgets. We're making changes in some of our programs. We're doing what we can to live within our means."
After Jindal announced Friday that Louisiana will decline funding in the stimulus to expand state unemployment insurance, Barbour told reporters yesterday that Mississippi will do the same, a move that he estimated would cost his state about $50 million in federal funds.
Sanford, asked about the stimulus, said he would probably reject some of the funds. "I think it's a bad idea," he said of the package. "Period. Exclamation point."
"Good medicine to the wrong patient ultimately makes the patient sicker," Sanford continued. "What we're dealing with here is a fundamental misdiagnosis of the problem."
But other Republicans said that despite disagreements with the legislation, they will use the funds. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) criticized the stimulus as "a meandering spending buffet" but said his state is "going to accept the money."
"For many Republicans, it's not our bill, but it is now the law, so we have an opportunity and responsibility to try to implement it as best as possible," Pawlenty said.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) said his state needs as much federal help as available for education, infrastructure, health care and transportation. "We plan to utilize it for the people of our state as much as possible," he said. "I'm thinking about people, not politics."
Democratic governors warned that rejecting federal funds is politically risky. "I think people will read though that and understand that it's political posturing and you're playing with people's lives, and that's a very, very dangerous game," said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D).
Rendell called the spat "overblown," adding that "if the money's there and it will help your citizens get jobs, it will bring your citizens some extra health care or extra food stamps dollars, of course you're going to accept that money."
The stimulus's infrastructure funds are poised to put people to work in a matter of weeks.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said, road crews will begin work in three weeks on an initial round of infrastructure projects that are "locked, loaded and ready to go" and will cost about $365 million in stimulus funds.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) said her hard-hit state has "$4 billion worth of projects that are ready to fit into $700 million in allocations, so you better believe people will be put to work immediately."
Many governors said they are bracing for the economy to decline further. "Nobody knows quite where this economic storm is going, but chances are [fiscal year] 2011 is going to be a bad year, too," Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) said.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) was more blunt: "I don't think there's any master plan. I think we're kind of flying by the seat of our pants in this economy and hoping for the best."