WASHINGTON – The nation’s governors, battered by plunging tax revenues and growing budget deficits in their states, converged on Washington Saturday and outlined their plans to spend billions of federal dollars coming their way from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus legislation.
The governors said the money will be only a down payment toward fixing the country’s crumbling infrastructure, with some predicting that the economies in their states will worsen.
The economy was at the forefront as the three-day National Governors Association meeting got under way, but an apparent rift in Republican ranks over the stimulus threatened to dominate Saturday’s opening sessions.
Some prominent Republican governors, including Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour and South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, said they will reject portions of the stimulus funding, putting them at odds with their GOP counterparts from such large states as California and Florida.
Asked about Jindal’s and Barbour’s pledges to turn away stimulus funds aimed at expanding state unemployment insurance, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quipped, “You just tell them that anyone that doesn’t want to take the money, I’m ready to take their money and rebuild California.”
The governors are gathering as many are laying off state workers and making difficult cuts to services to help balance their budgets. They met with some of Obama’s Cabinet secretaries Saturday and were to attend a black-tie dinner at the White House, where the band Earth, Wind & Fire was due to perform. Monday they will meet with Obama.
Most governors made the trip, but two were notably absent: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose office said she was busy with the state legislative session, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who withdrew in January as Obama’s commerce secretary nominee amid a federal “pay to play” investigation.
Others generated attention in the hallways between meetings. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was hounded with questions about her prospects of becoming Obama’s health secretary nominee. She demurred, repeatedly telling reporters, “I don’t have any comments.”
The governors are pushing an ambitious agenda to rebuild ailing roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell said the stimulus is just one step toward that goal and that a long-term commitment to infrastructure spending is needed.
“This doesn’t get us off the hook,” said Rendell, chairman of the governors association. “This helps us; it stops us from having massive layoffs, incredible reductions in services that would expose our citizens to tremendous personal risks. We understand that we have to use this money quickly.”