WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation's governors Saturday welcomed money heading their way from President Obama's economic stimulus plan, but said it was only a down payment on improving dire fiscal
conditions in their states.
Most also downplayed criticism of the plan by a handful of Republicans, who have said they may reject some of the stimulus
Leaders of most of the 50 states and U.S. territories were attending the three-day winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington. The meeting focused on the need for infrastructure improvement, which is expected to absorb much of the stimulus funding directed to states.
Several of the governors were escaping drama in their own states, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who signed the state's overdue budget last week after a bruising battle with lawmakers over how to plug the state's mammoth $41 billion budget hole.
Another was newly minted Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, the former lieutenant governor promoted after his predecessor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed for trying to sell Obama's former Senate seat for cash and favors. Friday, Quinn called on Obama's successor, Roland Burris, to resign after Burris acknowledged he had tried to raise money for Blagojevich, who appointed Burris to the seat.
Yet another, Democrat David Paterson of New York, was trying to beat back criticism for his handling of the choice of a successor for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who resigned her New York Senate seat last month to become Obama's secretary of state. Paterson chose former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, a conservative Democrat, after appearing to snub Caroline Kennedy, another leading contender.
Paterson's popularity has dropped since the flap, prompting speculation that he could face a primary challenge when he runs for re-election in 2010.
But the federal stimulus money remained the central focus for most governors. Most said it was hardly a bailout and that they were still facing painful cuts to state services.
"We're not just getting a handout here - we're doing the heavy lifting," Vermont GOP Gov. Jim Douglas said. "We're still making tough cuts in budgets, we're making changes in some of our programs. We're doing what we can to live within our means."
For the most part, governors here downplayed an apparent split in Republican ranks over the stimulus plan, which will send billions to states for education, health care and transportation.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a likely 2012 presidential contender, has said he would reject a portion of the money aimed at expanding state unemployment insurance. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has said he may do so as well.
Other Republicans believed to be eyeing a 2012 presidential bid have also criticized the stimulus plan as too big and wasteful, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Alaska's Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee.
Florida GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, a potential 2012 contender and strong supporter of the stimulus plan, said the criticism leveled by other Republicans wasn't rooted in politics.
"I don't know that it's a partisan issue. It's different people, different CEOs - governors - who have a different perspective on how it would impact their states," Crist said in an interview. "I know it has a positive impact on Florida. A lot of that money has been paid to the federal treasury by my fellow Floridians and they deserve to get it back."
At issue for Jindal and Barbour is a provision in the stimulus bill that could allow people ineligible for unemployment benefits to receive them anyway. That could eventually force a tax increase on employers, both governors have said.
Some Democrats took a harder line at a press conference arranged
by the Democratic Governors Association to praise Obama for his
leadership on the stimulus. DGA Chairman Brian Schweitzer of
Montana and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley dismissed GOP detractors
as "fringe" Republicans eager to score political points.
"All of us are committed to working with President Obama to pull our nation's ecoomy out of the ditch that George W. Bush ran it into," O'Malley said. "If some of the fringe governors don't want to do that, they need to step aside and not stand in the way of the nation's interests."
The president and first lady Michelle Obama were hosting a black-tie dinner for governors Sunday, and they were scheduled to return to the White House Monday for a policy briefing.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)