With friend at top table, governors eager to dig in Even if portions are small, Clinton seen as advocate ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

January 30, 1993|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHIINGTON — WASHINGTON -- If there's any group in America that should have President Clinton's ear, it is surely the National Governors' Association, which meets here today with high hopes for help from its former colleague.

The issues at the top of the association's agenda -- such as health care reform -- coincide with Mr. Clinton's priorities. But more than that, the governors know they have a real friend in the White House for the first time in 12 years.

"Bill Clinton understands our circumstances. He was one of us," said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat and chairman of the association. "I think this new president, together with the Democratic Congress, gives us a unique window of opportunity."

Mr. Clinton once served as chairman of the organization during his dozen years as governor of Arkansas, and he led the association's efforts to try to reform national education and welfare policies.

Acknowledging these ties, Mr. Clinton urged cooperation at an emotional reunion with current and former governors on the eve of his inauguration.

"We're going to open the door of the White House to you, but you've got to walk in. Telephones are two-way instruments," he said to vigorous applause.

Fulfilling his commitment, the president will attend a dinner with governors tomorrow night, play host to the governors at a White House meeting Monday and then speak about health care to the organization Tuesday as it concludes the four-day event.

The theme of the meeting is "Strategic Investment: Tough Choices for America's Future," which echoes Mr. Clinton's campaign cry for greater investment in education and infrastructure.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- who endorsed President Bush for re-election but has since tried to make amends by promising Mr. Clinton vigorous support -- will attend events from tomorrow night through Tuesday morning, including the visit to the White House.

As Mr. Romer suggested, the governors expect a great deal of Mr. Clinton, their appetites sharpened by years of resistance to domestic initiatives under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

"They've really been years of ignorance," said Andy Schoettle, an expert on state and local finances and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. "The federal government has been dedicated to decreasing expenditures and to not focusing too heavily on major domestic problems."

Although the governors will have an "active, outspoken advocate" in Mr. Clinton, Mr. Schoettle said, that may not translate into more federal aid.

"Very clearly, there's not a lot of meat on the table. I think it would be very unrealistic for the states to hope that the federal government would make more money available to them, or at least large amounts of money on a continuing basis," he said.

What the states can realistically demand is help improving the poor economy, which has drained state tax revenues while driving up welfare and other costs, and reform of health care. The fastest-rising cost for state governments is Medicaid, the medical program for the poor, which is funded jointly with the federal government.

"I have good expectation about some progress being made in health care reform," Mr. Romer said. "We have to do it. . . . We can't continue to balance our budgets as they are spiraling upward on Medicaid."

"This issue and the reduction of the national deficit are high on the priorities of the governors' agenda," he added. "My position is we must move early on to make the tough decisions, the tough choices, because it will be more difficult the longer we wait."

The governors' organization will vote Tuesday on a set of principles for health care reform and cost containment. A draft proposal endorses universal access to health care as "both a moral imperative and an invaluable cost-containment tool," but it does not specify how the 35 million Americans without health insurance will be covered.

The draft also endorses the concept of managed competition, using market forces to control costs by having consumers and employers band into large groups to negotiate with insurers and providers. But the proposal stops short of recommending a national budget for health care expenditures, which some experts say will be needed to achieve savings.

el,.3l Mr. Schaefer will be particularly interested in the discussion of health care, says his press secretary, because his administration is supporting two reform bills in the General Assembly: One bill would prohibit insurers from denying coverage to a person because of a pre-existing medical condition; the other bill would help small businesses in their efforts to buy more affordable insurance for workers.

Mr. Schaefer also wants to hear more about Mr. Clinton's pledge, made at the luncheon with governors Jan. 19, to help states that want to experiment with new ideas obtain waivers from federal regulations.

Maryland received a welfare waiver last year allowing the state to require that welfare recipients obtain preventive health care as a condition of receiving benefits. According to his spokeswoman, the governor would like to reduce the time it takes to obtain a waiver.

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