Clinton talks friendly, but governors wonder



WASHINGTON -- Whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, the president's relationship with the nation's governors has been pretty much the same in recent years. The president pledges to work with them and the governors complain that the president's idea of working with them is to shunt responsibilities onto their states without the money to pay for them.

The governors who have been holding their winter meeting here, and conferring at length with President Clinton on crime and other mutual problems, are raising the same concern in spite of the fact that Clinton likes to remind them that he was one of their number for more than a decade and one-time leader of their association, and identifies with their point of view.

They remember all too well that another of their alumni, Ronald Reagan, spent a good deal of his time and rhetoric not simply condemning the federal government over which he presided but trying to palm off federal programs and functions he didn't like onto the states -- and leaving them to worry about the price tag. But Clinton is supposed to be a believer in an activist federal establishment and many of the governors had hoped things would be different.

The dirty word to gubernatorial ears is "mandating" -- the federal government legislating costly programs and then requiring the states to participate, either without accompanying resources or under penalty of loss of federal funds for failure to comply with the specifics stipulated to receive them.

When Clinton urged the governors to back his crime bill that would, among other things, add 100,000 police for street patrol and create new regional prisons to incarcerate hardened criminals under his proposed life sentencing without parole for third-time violent offenders, Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina had a ready answer.

"We do not need Congress to legislate and to mandate to the state," he said. "We need the assistance, but we can't take more expense out of Washington and more rules out of Washington, because our budgets can't take it."

The governors likewise are casting a wary eye on the president's welfare proposals. They are fearful that the two-year limit he would impose on federally supported welfare recipients would dump a host of unemployed men and women onto the job market in their states without sufficient opportunities in the private sector to absorb them. Democratic Gov. David Walters of Oklahoma warned that while the governors, like Clinton, wanted to move people from welfare to work, the feds should not "make it a precondition that we guarantee a job, because we can't."

For years now, the state governors have grown accustomed to being used as a safety valve by presidents, to off-load expensive programs on the states without relinquishing, as many governors of both parties have urged, specific taxing powers to them to bankroll the expensive tasks dumped on them.

Occasional proposals to reverse the practice, such as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's pleas in the late 1960s and early 1970s to have the feds take over all public welfare from the states, have never gotten off the ground. On such occasions, presidents -- especially Republicans -- are likely to fall back on the old philosophy that government programs are best run at the local level, "closest to the people."

Some governors like Republican Pete Wilson of California are also up in arms over federal inability to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into their states. In his latest state budget, Wilson claims there are more than 2 million illegals in California, or 52 percent of the national total, costing the state's taxpayers $2.5 billion to pay for federally mandated services. He wants the mandates for certain medical treatment ended so that he can drop such services for the illegals in order to meet the needs of legal residents.

Most of the governors labor under state constitutional requirements to balance their budgets. Feeling the squeeze, they look with suspicion at talk from this president as from his predecessors about "working with you" on admittedly worthwhile programs bearing imposing price tags.

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