Those of us who follow the annual conferences of the National Governors Association from resort to resort are hopelessly addicted to the creation of dateline parables. When the governors were in Denver last year, they were, inevitably, on a "Rocky Mountain high," and when they met a few years ago in Hershey, Pa., it was all predictably "sweetness and light."
You get the picture.
It was, therefore, dictated in advance that the theme of last week's meeting in the Resorts International casino-hotel here would be "the governors' gamble." And this year, for a change, the cliche fit.
With fingers crossed, the governors offered their sometime-partners in the federal government a deal. You guys take over our share of the big income-support programs like Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now jointly financed by the federal and state governments, they said, and we will not squawk about your dropping federal aid to education, transportation and law enforcement.
On paper, such a deal would be good for the governors, because the welfare programs are more costly and less popular than the ones the states would assume. But it is still a gamble, because the history of this relationship is that the feds tend to give the governors half of what they propose -- the wrong half.
A year ago, for example, the governors adopted an "agenda for federalism" aimed at "sorting out" the appropriate roles of federal and state governments and cleaning out the overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities.
Last January, Ronald Reagan took them up on their invitation -- but with a twist. The governors said they could accept a 10 percent cutback in federal aid, in return for the flexibility that would come with a switch from narrow categorical grants to broad block grants. Reagan immediately upped the ante by proposing cuts averaging 25 percent on the programs ticketed for consolidation.
The governors swallowed hard, but stayed in the game. Their chairman, Georgia Gov. George D. Busbee, a Democrat, said he knew there were worries, "but our overall approach must be based not upon the sum total of these concerns," but on the great prize to be won if federalism could be revived. He did say, however, at the midwinter meeting last February, "The cuts are totally unacceptable if flexibility and relief from mandates do not arrive simultaneously. We cannot have the cuts today and the flexibility to adjust to them at some vague point in the future."
Well, Reagan cut the cards and Congress dealt them. And six months later, the governors had been handed all of the cuts and a good deal less than all the flexibility. By the administration's count, Congress approved 57 of the 88 categorical grant consolidations Reagan sought --egoricals remain on the books.
By the governors' count, $2.3 billion of federal aid was freed from some restraints, but more than $11 billion of federal aid was cut.
Nonetheless, Busbee, perhaps the strongest chairman the governors have had since ex-Gov. Daniel J. Evans, the Washington Republican, pushed and prodded his colleagues to take an even bigger flyer here.
The invitation to phase out federal aid to education, transportation and law-enforcement will be seized eagerly by an administration searching for $60 billion more in budget cuts in the next two years. But the call for federalization of welfare and Medicaid will run headlong into Reagan's long-held personal and philosophical objections.
Busbee told me the gamble was worth taking because "the proliferation of categorical grants has completely stripped the states of discretion. They not only tie us down on the use of their money, they leverage the use of our own money. So I don't see that we have anything to lose."
But doubts abound among other governors. The 30-5 vote approving the Big Gamble was more a sign of respect for Busbee as the retiring chairman than an expression of confidence that the states will collect on their bet.
Busbee himself acknowledged the risk when he described the intensity of the fight he led last month to defeat an administration proposal to cap federal Medicaid payments. This would have shifted an increasing share of that largest of all welfare programs from Washington to the states.
"You simply cannot save a buck by passing the buck," Busbee said. It is a message the governors will have to shout in unison at Washington, if the Atlantic City gamble is not to bankrupt them and their states.