Governors try to
find common ground

Election-year politics threatens
a consensus at their yearly meeting

WASHINGTON >> Governors beginning an annual meeting in the capital hope to find common ground on education, health care, roads and other policy issues caught up in the contentious politics of a presidential campaign.

Some state leaders described that mission as near impossible yesterday.

On the most prominent challenges before them on the National Governors Association's annual four-day pilgrimage -- roads, President Bush's education law and Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor -- Democrats and Republicans came down on sharply differing sides on what is needed.

Republicans talked mostly about flexibility; Democrats said sweeping changes are needed in policy, backed with more federal money.

"It's a fine line," said Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina. "Some of the governors who are Democratic peers of mine see a legitimately different perspective. Others are going to try to grandstand."

For Democrats, in the midst of a competitive primary race and encouraged as Bush's national poll numbers drop, it's no time to cut short the criticism, and they hammered the president over lost jobs.

"The federal government and the Bush administration are saying to the states on Medicaid, on education and on homeland security -- you're on your own," said New Mexico Democrat Bill Richardson. The only consensus will be if GOP governors join with Democrats' criticism, he said.

Presidential election year or not, it's always difficult for governors, usually their party's state leaders and deeply involved in this year's campaign, to balance politics and policy.

They try to mark the boundaries with separate meetings of their political wings, the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association.

Republicans also spoke out against gay marriages and applauded Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's opposition to San Francisco officials' move to allow same-sex marriages.

Last year, when state economies were in deep deficit because of the downturn in the economy, Republicans refused to back Democratic efforts to press for a federal bailout. Bush didn't like the idea, although ultimately $20 billion was added by Congress to help out the states.

This year, states are doing better but still face long-term structural problems, according to recent national surveys. None of the governors said they expected another bailout to be considered this year.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle is representing Hawaii at the meeting.


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