If you want the realists' view of the "state of the union," unadorned by rhetoric, talk to governors of the 50 states. This year, their winter meeting here was dominated by three little words: shortfalls, cutbacks and taxes.
The recession may look short and shallow to the "rosy scenario" economic gurus of Washington and Wall Street. But it already has played havoc with state budgets, not just in the Frost Belt and Rust Belt but in the supposedly healthier Sun Belt as well.
Lawton Chiles (D) took over as Florida governor last month and found himself facing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. His first Cabinet meeting was devoted to finding $270 million in quick spending cuts.
Ann Richards (D) inherited a $6 billion headache when she was sworn in as governor of Texas. She has called for a state lottery and is weighing a statewide property tax to finance added spending required by a court order to equalize school resources in poor districts.
Pete Wilson (R) must plug a $7 billion gap in California's budget. That's a tough way to start out in a state also plagued by severe drought and by all the challenges that come with an unending wave of new immigrants.
It should be noted that all three of these governors took over last month from conservative Republican state executives who had struggled to hold the line on spending and taxes. What put the new governors behind the eight ball was not the profligacy of their predecessors but the combination of economic recession and the unrelenting demand for health, education, transportation and law-enforcement services.
Add to that the cumulative effect of more than a decade of federal retrenchment. Measured in real dollars, federal grants to state and local government peaked in the middle of Jimmy Carter's administration. In the last 10 years, they have declined 27 percent in real terms.
What is true of these three Sun Belt governors is also true, to greater or lesser degree, of at least 30 of their colleagues. A few states such as Alaska and Washington are relatively flush. A few more are scraping by. But most are cutting programs, furloughing or firing state employees and/or raising taxes -- not because they want to but because they have no choice.
Unlike the federal government, which can congratulate itself on a budget that adds close to $1 billion a day to the nation's debt, the governors have to balance their books each year. So it was understandable that they reacted a bit skeptically at first when President Bush greeted them with the news that he had a grand new proposal for them to consider. It is a plan to "turn back" perhaps as much as $22 billion of federal programs to be run, with much broader discretion, by the states.
Chiles, a former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he recalled vividly a similar-sounding proposal from President Reagan in 1982. It proved to be little more than an effort to unload onto the states the cost and grief of the biggest federal welfare program. "Once burned, twice cautious," Chiles said.
But after poking and prodding at the Bush proposal for a couple of days, the governors decided that their former colleague, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, was telling them the truth when he said the plan "was not designed to save one cent" in federal spending.
Instead, Sununu said, the idea was to select several federal grant programs (mainly those in which the states already pay most of the bills), take the money that would be budgeted for the next five years, convert it to a single block grant and give it to the states to use as they see fit.
The governors can pick the programs to be included in the block, with a hold-harmless guarantee that no state would lose money in the deal. After Sununu's description, Chiles pronounced himself "reassured," and the chairman of the National Governors Association, Washington Gov. Booth Gardner (D), said that was the nearly universal reaction.
That sets up an interesting political equation. Bush, who relied heavily on the help of Sununu and other key Republican governors in winning nomination and election in 1988, has wooed governors of both parties since he came to the White House. He made allies of many Democrats at the 1989 "education summit," and a number say publicly that he and his staff have been unusually responsive to their suggestions and requests.
Now that he and Sununu have persuaded most governors that the "turnback" proposal is on the level, the question is whether the Democratic Congress will look with favor on the idea. It may not. Senators and representatives like to direct the spending of federal dollars themselves. They say they want to make certain that the money is used for its intended purpose. But they also want the beneficiary groups to know where their gratitude -- and political support -- should go.
It will be interesting to see if a Congress that loves to borrow and spend will yield a bit of control over domestic spending to governors who have to pay the bills -- and deliver services -- without putting their states into debt.