The nation's governors are finding that trying to debate the "new federalism" this year is like trying to rearrange the furniture while the house is burning down.

Every day, the fires get hotter. Interest rates and unemployment rates chase each other to higher double-digit levels. The recession deepens, and the much-promised recovery recedes farther from sight.

>It is a difficult time to find cool heads to debate the shape of the nation's federal system for decades to come, to ask the fundamental question: what does each level of government do best?

No amount of rhetoric can hide the fact that the new federalism, in whatever form, would not put a single person to work, reduce the federal deficit by a single dollar or increase the nation's productive capacity by a single decimal point.

>I submit that this nation's top priority must be putting its economic house in order. Then we can start rearranging the furniture among local, state and federal governments.

We governors believe the federal budget must be brought into balance. The deficits are driving up interest rates paid by businesses, farmers and consumers. The deficits stifle our ability to break out of the recession.

But we also believe the budget must be brought into balance with great care, with fairness and with equity, and with a very clear idea of what is involved and who is affected.

Instead, the Reagan administration's budget would force states and local governments to bear a disproportionate share of the budget cuts. And this would come at a time when the local economic infrastructure is decaying from age or is under great stress from growth, when the ability of state and local governments to borrow is withering and when state and local revenues are shrinking.

All of this will make it extremely difficult for state and local governments to fill their traditional role of providing the basic support system for growth--roads, bridges, water and sewer systems and schools.

* Last year, Congress made substantial cuts in those programs, and much of that needed to be done. But much deeper cuts are proposed this year.

* We face the end of the Economic Development Administration, regional commissions like the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Farmers Home Business and Industry Loan Program and major housing programs.

* On top of that, we face cutbacks in skill training and vocational education programs that enable people to qualify for the jobs listed in the want ads. Dramatic reductions also are proposed in energy programs, in science research and development and high-technology fields.

>All of these cuts would hamper our ability, both in my state and in our nation, to create jobs, to upgrade jobs skills and to give people opportunities to work, earn and prosper.

If our primary concern is to get our economy moving again, these cuts are counterproductive.

>So, instead of contributing to a constructive debate over the new federalism, the Reagan administration gives that valuable concept a bad name by accompanying its plan with huge deficits and budget priorities that make it harder to create jobs.

* The administration proposes a swap of responsibilities that would cost the states $9 billion. Unlike the federal government, we could not pay that with deficit dollars; we would have to raise our state taxes and local property taxes. North Carolina alone would have to raise an additional $1 billion a year after 1991, the year the proposed "trust fund" would expire.

* These concerns do not mean that we governors are not interested in defining the proper role of government. We are tired of Washington looking upon us as branch offices of the federal government. We know the capacity for creative, innovative and progressive leadership in our state capitols, town halls and county courthouses.

>Times have changed. Thirty years ago, North Carolina might not have put state money into child day care, reading aides and juvenile justice programs. But we do today, and similar examples abound throughout the 50 states.

Democrats and Republicans alike, we governors believe the time has come to restore the proper balance between the various levels of government. We believe that elected leadership in the states, cities and counties is well equipped to make decisions about schools, law enforcement, transportation and health care.

I want the debate on the new federalism to proceed. I hope substantial progress can be made on it this year.

But the message many governors are sending the president and Congress is that we want the nation's economic problems addressed first.