The United States Conference of Mayors: Celebrating 75 Years

Congress to Governors: We're Back to Work; Tobacco Settlement Governors' Top Priority

By Larry Jones

With the impeachment trial behind them, congressional leaders on February 23 told governors attending the closing session of the National Governors' Association Winter Meeting that they would strive to work together on a bipartisan basis to tackle issues important to the American people. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL) told governors that he and the other congressional leaders had just left a meeting at the White House with the President and they are ready "...to work with him in moving America forward."

In summarizing his key priorities, the Speaker said he would work with the President to save Social Security and Medicare, to improve education by ensuring that every child has "a good school and safe environment." Hastert also said a tax cut would be a high priority. With the federal government projecting huge budget surpluses over the next ten years, Hastert said he felt very strongly that "Americans should keep more of their money in their pockets."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) told governors that the projected budget surpluses must be used wisely to ensure continued economic growth. He explained that the nation has prospered from strong economic growth over the last 94 months. "The single most important thing for Congress to do is to keep it going for as long as it can," he said. To do this, Daschle feels it is critical that Congress work with the President to save Social Security and Medicare, and pay down the national debt.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt agreed, saying that using the surpluses to pay down the national debt will help to hold down interest rates and inflation and make more money available for loans. This would spur economic growth by making low interest loans available for buying homes, automobiles, new business and other purchases. Gephardt also named education as a priority, saying he would work with the Administration to increase funds for school modernization, to wire schools for the Internet and to train teachers. He also said he would work to pass a patient's bill of rights.

Speaking to the governors about federal efforts aimed at getting a portion of state tobacco settlement funds, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott received applause when he told the governors "It's your money. You ought to keep it. There should be no strings on it." The governors top priority is to prevent the federal government from taking 57 percent of state tobacco settlement funds to offset federal Medicaid expenditures. The nation's governors adopted policy expressing the view that states are entitled to all of the funds awarded to them in the tobacco settlement agreements. In a press release made available at the closing session, the National Governors' Association said "There is no legitimate federal claim on the settlement funds. Our states endured all of the risks and expenses during the arduous negotiations and litigation necessary to reach final agreement." Governors also announced that they are backing a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), Bob Graham (FL), Evan Bayh (IN) and George Voinovich (OH), that would prohibit federal recoupment of Medicaid-related funds from state tobacco settlement money.

Senator Lott also said he would continue to work to free governors from government mandates and regulations to provide states more flexibility in managing their affairs. He also mentioned education as another priority pledging to support giving more control and money to states for dealing with education. "I believe if we're going to be competitive in the world, we have to invest in education," he said. Lott also said he supported Ed-Flex (the Education Flexibility Demonstration Program), another bipartisan proposal strongly supported by the governors that would give states greater flexibility in using federal funds for student achievement. Tax relief was also mentioned as a priority. He said a variety of proposals would likely be considered, including the elimination of the marriage penalty tax and a tax cut for expenses related to long term health care.