It was fitting that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell brought his colleagues from the National Governor’s Association to the “City of Brotherly Love” for a bipartisan conversation with President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden to discuss the issues impacting states in the current economic downturn. With historic Congress Hall as a backdrop the nation’s governors met with the incoming administration to essentially plead their case for federal support as they struggle to stem red ink in their budgets. For the President-elect it was an opportunity to set the tone for his relationship with the states while also demonstrating that he is out front aggressively confronting the nation’s economic woes.
For all of the governors the primary need is to stop the loss of revenue in their states while avoiding massive spending cuts and the politically unpalatable option of raising taxes. With layoffs rampant and unemployment high, states are looking for ways to create jobs and find ways to re-train workers who have been displaced. It is becoming the focal point of President-elect Obama’s proposed recovery package that will be at the top of his agenda immediately after he is sworn-in.
On Monday Governor Ed Rendell (D-PA) and Governor Jim Douglas (R-VT) traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to plead their case on behalf of the governor’s group. Both men stressed the need for federal aid to states as part of the economic recovery package that is currently in the works. They expressed the need for $40 billion to help cover health care costs for the poor and disabled in the states. Governor Rendell, who with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have formed a new infrastructure advocacy group, also suggested that there are some $136 billion in transportation projects already in the pipeline among the states, with others necessary but requiring a little longer to queue up. It was a message they repeated Tuesday when the group met with Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden in Philadelphia.
For most of the governors in the room good news has been difficult to come by over the last three business quarters, and for some, longer than that. In California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been proposing deep cuts and even raising taxes to address a $28 billion deficit. On Monday he declared a fiscal emergency in the Golden State. New York Governor David Paterson has already imposed one round of cuts and is challenging the state legislature to make even further reductions. One of the hardest hit by the downturn has been Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. With Detroit automakers floundering Granholm has been leading the call for Congress to come to the aid of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Granholm is well aware of the consequences to her state should the automobile industry completely implode. In reality, the breadth of the auto industry’s reach in the labor market means that its failure will have implications beyond the Motor City and the state of Michigan.
One of several issues that were brought to the table by the governors was the status of transportation, schools and utilities infrastructure. Since the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis in November 2007, the condition of roads, bridges and tunnels have been attracting much attention from the media, public and elected officials. There appears to be a growing consensus in Congress that support for infrastructure should be included in the next stimulus package that is being considered as well as in President-elect Obama’s economic recovery package that he has indicated will be his priority immediately after being sworn-in next month. Vice President-elect Joe Biden spoke extensively about the need for such spending and indicated that the Obama administration was committed to moving in that direction.
President-elect Obama struck a very positive tone in the meeting and made a special effort to extend an olive branch to the Republican governors in the room. Mr. Obama declared, “I offer you the hand of friendship, the same commitment to partnership as I do my Democratic colleagues. There is a time for campaigning, and there is a time for governing. And one of the messages that Joe and I want to continually send is that we are not going to be hampered by ideology in trying to get this country back on track.” The words were met with applause in the room; perhaps just as a polite gesture or more likely the realization that we are living in precarious times that forces partisan bickering to be left for another date.