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Governors press Bush for more highway funds, jobs

By Pamela M. Prah

State governors went to the White House Monday (Feb. 23) to register their concerns about jobs and highway dollars, and President Bush promised to put aside election-year politics and work with them. But no new funds or programs were offered.

Some of the participants at the National Governors Association winter meeting came away from the White House disappointed that the administration held the line on Bush's threat to veto any highway bill that would give the states substantially more federal money than the president wants.

Divisions between states and the federal government also persisted over Medicaid payments and the No Child Left Behind education law, despite recent moves by the administration to ease states’ concerns.

“This is going to be a year in which a lot of people are probably going to think nothing can (be) done right, because we're all out campaigning. Well, that's not my attitude,” Bush told the governors. “I fully understand it's going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue. But my pledge to you is we'll continue to work with you.”

Some governors, particularly Democrats, had hoped to elicit more sympathy from Bush about job losses in their states, especially those hard-hit by factory closings and manufacturing jobs moved overseas.

"On the issue of jobs and the economy, there is truly concern on both sides of the aisle about it," Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredeson (D) said.

“I do have concerns about jobs,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said. “We still have a lot of work to do. The president’s position is that the economy is improving; it’s not improving fast enough,” Pawlenty said. “We’re still not out of the woods yet.”

Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas credited the president’s tax cuts with stimulating the recent growth in the economy, although he conceded “the one area where the economic recovery is not catching up yet is in the area of jobs.”

In fact, governors used the lure of jobs creation to lobby for a more generous highway bill than the one proposed by Bush. West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise (D) said, “That’s the one clear jobs bill that everybody gets: Republicans, Democrats, federal, state. As somebody pointed out, that’s the one set of jobs that can’t be outsourced. You have to build it here.”

The highway bill, which serves as a blueprint for highway and transit projects, is a high priority for governors of both parties who want a six-year plan, not a one-year extension, and more federal dollars than the White House is willing to give. The administration’s highway plan would set aside $247 billion over six years while the House and Senate versions range from $318 billion to $375 billion.

“[Transportation] Secretary Norman Mineta made it clear that the president would not sign … a higher bill, and that’s a huge mistake from the standpoint of stimulating the economy and creating good-paying jobs, a huge mistake,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) told

"Transportation dollars are still the very best instant job producers," he said.

The governors welcomed with some skepticism the administration's agreement to back off, at least for now, a plan to crack down on states that use creative but questionable strategies to get more federal dollars for Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), vice chairman of NGA, conceded: "The states don't come with totally clean hands in this area. There have been some abuses, but we ought to sit down and address this in a full manner, rather than what many governors have thought was an arbitrary decision-making process."

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) told reporters that "states feel universally under siege” after federal officials unexpectedly proposed rules changes in January affecting their Medicaid dollars. Some governors are hopeful states can work out a solution with the newly nominated head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Mark McClellan, former head of the Food and Drug Administration.

Much of President Bush’s opening comments to the governors focused on the war on terror, but he also vigorously defended both the administration’s tax cuts as good for the economy and the federal No Child Left Behind education law as good for schools.