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Clinton Offers Governors Advice For Spending Welfare Windfall

By Peter Baker and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 29 1997; Page A04

A year after he signed legislation overhauling the welfare system, President Clinton today warned the nation's governors not to divert the savings from plummeting rolls to other programs and urged them instead to use it to help the poor find work.

Meeting with his former peers at the annual conference of the National Governors' Association here, Clinton suggested that states should use their multibillion-dollar windfall to provide job training, child care and transportation so more welfare recipients can make the difficult transition to the workplace.

"I know in some state capitals there are big debates about how to use extra money," Clinton said. "But I think if we were to revert these savings to other things away from welfare reform, it would be a big mistake that would come home to haunt the states the next time there is an economic downturn. Anybody who does it, I think, would really wind up regretting it."

Clinton also used his appearance here to defend his insistence on applying regular labor laws to welfare recipients placed in job programs and implored the governors to enlist in his drive to establish national educational standards. In both cases, some governors have resisted what they consider unwelcome federal dictates.

The encounter here between the president and an organization he once headed underscored the extent of the transfer of authority from Washington to the states in recent years. Where once such meetings were filled with requests from governors to the president, Clinton knows now that for his welfare or education initiatives to succeed he needs the help of his counterparts in the state capitals. Every bit the former governor, he spiced his speech with numerous references to individual projects and success stories from different states.

For the most part, his talk was received politely, though not enthusiastically. He was interrupted by applause just three times in 38 minutes – once when he mentioned his nomination of one of the governors, Republican William F. Weld of Massachusetts, to be ambassador to Mexico.

"The president gave another fairly good Republican speech," said South Carolina Gov. David M. Beasley (R). "He talked the right talk. . . . That he's come to this point in his midlife is exciting."

After meeting with the governors, Clinton skipped out to a local country club for an afternoon of golf with basketball star Michael Jordan, Nevada Gov. Bob Miller (D) and several former governors.

During his speech, Clinton hailed the governors for helping to move 3 million Americans off welfare since he took office but stressed the work still ahead. He singled out Maryland for praise for using its savings from falling caseloads to improve child care, transportation and training programs.

Aides said Clinton did not have any particular state in mind when he argued against diverting welfare savings. "It's just a warning signal," said senior adviser Rahm Emanuel. "It's a flashing yellow light to keep the welfare money for moving people from welfare to work."

However, the White House and the statehouses split sharply over whether welfare recipients should be treated the same as other workers in terms of minimum wage and other workplace laws. Many governors believe such requirements will make it too difficult to move indigent workers into starting jobs provided by churches and other nonprofit organizations.

Virginia Gov. George Allen (R) said employers may decide not to take a chance on welfare recipients because in addition to minimum wage they would also be forced to pay Social Security and unemployment taxes. "We ought to knock down the burdens, not put up burdens," Allen said.

Clinton seemed open to compromise. "When people go into the workplace . . . they ought to be able to earn the minimum wage," he said. "Whether we can work some resolution of some of the other issues, I don't know, but I feel very strongly about that."

He did not win any immediate converts to his education plan. Rather than impose federal school standards, Clinton has asked the states voluntarily to adopt a uniform national set of tests for reading and math beginning in 1999 to improve students' ability to compete in a global marketplace. However, only Maryland and five other states have signed into the plan.

"This is not a federal government power grab," said Clinton, referring to a major criticism of many conservative governors. Yet he acknowledged that they have "a legitimate concern" that new tests will only duplicate examinations already used in the states.

Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper (D) said he is considering the Clinton proposal, but some in his party fear national educational standards will veer into social policy.

"There is a paranoia that this involves more than academics," he said. "The paranoia is even greater when they hear people in Washington are developing the standards."

Added Beasley, "We don't have any desire to move into a system of federal standards. The last thing we want is federal encroachment on a school system."

Even Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, head of the Democratic Governors' Association, said he wants some adjustments to the Clinton administration proposal. "The dilemma Democrats have is, 'Gee, this is a great idea, but if we have to pay for it, we want some flexibility,' " he said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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