Governors to the fore Welfare, Medicaid: They seek to break Washington impasse through compromise.

February 07, 1996

THANKS TO THE TIMELY and unanimous intervention of the nation's governor's, there may yet be a chance to break the Washington budget impasse through sensible compromise on reform of the welfare and Medicaid programs.

For what do governors know that Washington politicians sometimes forget? They know how hard it is to balance a state budget when the flow of federal funds, a key factor, is subject to the whim of Congress and the White House. They know how irritating it is, in the words of Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, "to go to Washington on bended knee and kiss somebody's ring in order to get a waiver" from federal rules so a program can be adapted to a state's needs. Maryland has experienced these frustrations as much as any state.

Given the practical problems caused by the waiver system and the standoff between President Clinton and Congress, it is fitting that the governors should step in to untie a knot that still baffles Potomac politicians. They cannot afford the ideological battles that delight federal lawmakers. By law, they have to balance budgets without benefit of printing money.

So the first element of the governors' plan is to shelve the buzz words that have paralyzed Washington. In place of "entitlements," the welfare and health protections Democrats consider essential to the social safety net, they talk about "guarantees." Instead of allotting "block grants" of money to the states to spend as they like, a preoccupation of Republicans, the governors would make present funding a "cap" and then add umbrella funds to deal with population growth and/or economic downturn.

In trying to move welfare recipients into the work force, the

governors favor incentives rather than penalties -- including child care provisions. Federal guarantees of health care for Medicaid recipients would be combined with greater state flexibility "in defining the amount, duration and scope of services." States would have enhanced powers to channel medical-care recipients into health maintenance organizations.

If the nation's governors actually succeed where Congress and the White House have failed, there could be political fallout -- especially in Republican ranks. The present crop of presidential hopefuls does not include a single governor. If no one emerges to lock up the presidential nomination, perhaps the GOP National Convention might turn to Governor Thompson or Michigan's John Engler. They have been instrumental in working out the new NGA plan and are widely admired in the party.

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