Governors to Washington: Don't balance the budget at expense of states

National Governors Association Chairman Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, left, with Vice Chariman Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma speaks during a news conference at the NGA Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013. The nation's governors say their states are threatened if the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester take effect March 1.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The National Governors Association, a bipartisan collection of state executives meeting this weekend in Washington for their annual winter conference, delivered a timely message to lawmakers working on a deficit reduction package: balance the budget, by all means - but not at our expense.

"Deficit reduction should not shift costs from the federal government to the states," said NGA chairman Gov. Jack Markell, D-Del. "We know the cuts are coming, but we don't want to suffer disproportionately, and we want to have some input in terms of what that looks like."

"We understand that the federal government needs to make cuts," said NGA vice-chair Gov. Mary Fallin, R-Okla. "We're all concerned about our federal debt. We're just saying, as you identify federal cuts and savings, allow the states to realize those savings too."

Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., explained that debate is not about the imperative of deficit reduction, but about what form it takes: "I haven't heard a single governor not recognize that the deficit and the level of indebtedness is a serious risk," he said, adding that states are willing to "share the pain" caused by cutbacks.

"We think it's very important that governors have a seat at the table," Markell said. "We are partners."

Several governors bemoaned the automatic spending cuts in the so-called "sequester" that are due to land on March 1.

"The uncertainty of sequestration is really harming our states and our national economy," said Fallin, arguing that "we can lessen the effect of sequestration if the states are given flexibility" in terms of how they spend federal money.

The sequester, said Hickenlooper, was originally designed to be "so odious, so repellent" that it couldn't possibly take effect. "This is something nobody wants. It's not a balanced, thoughtful compromise."

And Markell argued that the White House's repeated warning about the dire impact of sequestration is "really important," saying it makes the cuts "more real for people."

The governors also addressed the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, noting a "divergence of opinions" among different states about how to approach the expansion.

"We believe the expansion of medicaid in [Oklahoma] would be unaffordable," said Fallin, noting that, despite her judgment on the issue, "We respect eachother's opinion."

Fallin repeatedly stressed the theme of flexibility, arguing that "more leeway" for states would produce better policy outcomes on a range of issues, from deficit reduction to health-care reform.

She also took aim at the nation's tax code, calling for federal tax reform and labeling the current U.S. tax structure "unwieldy."

Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who came all the way from Hawaii to attend the bipartisan executives' confab, admitted, "I can't really say I'm delighted to be here."

But as Abercrombie, a former House member from the Aloha State, stepped onstage, he greeted his former GOP House colleague Fallin with a smile and a handshake, later taking the opportunity to admonish an often-fractious Washington.

"It is possible," he said, "to set aside these Democratic and Republican and ideological points of view and concentrate on the object, which is to serve our people."