Nations' Governors Get Together In Divided Times

Saturday, the National Governor's Association begins its winter meeting in Washington, D.C. NPR National Political Correspondent Don Gonyea joins host Scott Simon to talk about the pressing issues and the politics facing the nation's governors.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

These are taxing times to be a governor. There's a choice of words. States face huge budget shortfalls. Money from the economic stimulus that helped states get by for two years has run out, and now, even with the slowly improving economy, deep spending cuts are needed as governors prepare to unveil new budgets in the coming months

It is against that backdrop that the National Governors' Association holds its annual winter meeting. It's gets underway in Washington, D.C. today. NPR's Don Gonyea will be there. He spent some time recently in Ohio and Wisconsin, and joins us in the studio.

Don, thanks so much for being with us.

DON GONYEA: Pleasure.

SIMON: Now, it looks like there's a fairly long agenda for this gathering, but the protests in Wisconsin, and Ohio, and elsewhere, and the story of the state budget battles would suggest that it's gonna be hard to talk about much of anything else for awhile.

GONYEA: Indeed. They do say they are going to talk about other things. Ways to increase trade with China for individual states to help sell products and this and that. But ultimately, the budget hangs over everything. It's become the huge political story this year, and it rivals, Scott, even the big story of the GOP takeover of the United States House.

Certainly there's a lot of action going on there, but governors with their executive powers, and a lot of them with state legislatures newly controlled by Republicans are really shaking things up. Look no further than Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker has used his budget battles to take an opportunity to really go after the public sector unions.

SIMON: I mean, let's understand. Governors - the state budgets can't run a deficit.

GONYEA: Exactly.

SIMON: They can't raise the debt limit the way the U.S. government can. And as you note, all the Republican governors this year are among the most prominent voices. And let's hear some of the things we've heard recently from Republican governors, beginning with Governor Walker from Wisconsin.

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Wisconsin): We're broke. Like nearly every state across the country, we don't have any more money.

Governor ROBERT McDONNELL (Virginia): Unlike the federal government, we've got to balance our budgets.

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (New Jersey): We have to fund that which we really need, and to do that, we have to cut that which is just what we'd like.

GONYEA: It's almost like they're finishing each other's sentences there. We also heard Bob McDonnell of Virginia, and Chris Christie of New Jersey. Both again, newly prominent as these budget battles have come to the floor.

Again though, this event, the National Governors' Association, is for all of the governors, Democrats, Republicans alike. Though Republicans hold a 29-20 advantage. There's one Independent.

You will see a lot of talk about kind of the nature of the problem they face, how to deal with health care costs, this and that. But even so, those stark differences will be on display.

SIMON: Now, some of these Republican governors have joined lawsuits that are trying to prevent the implementation of the new health care reform law. Let's talk about some of the Democrats and hear from them. They met with President Obama at the White House yesterday.

We have a pinwheel of comments from - they made after that meeting beginning with Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley, followed by Bev Purdue in North Carolina, then Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

Governor MARTIN O'MALLEY (Maryland): The most important priority we have right now as a country is to create jobs.

Governor BEV PURDUE (North Carolina): And then we focused on what the job creator is, and long term you all know that's education.

Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Massachusetts): And that a strategy based on education, on innovation and infrastructure is a winning strategy.

GONYEA: They too are working from the same script, and it happens to be President Obama's script. It sounds like his State of the Union address.

SIMON: But these different messages from Republican and Democratic governors, how do they really talk about these problems this weekend if their language is so different?

GONYEA: Well, that is what we will see over the next couple of days. Again, they will step back and talk about how they got here, and about ways forward. But again, more so than in any time in recent memories when these meetings have taken place, they are at odds in terms of how to move forward.

SIMON: Big dinner at the White House though, right?

GONYEA: Indeed. That is Sunday night. The President and Mrs. Obama will host, maybe they'll have to limit conversation to the Super Bowl or the upcoming March Madness. Gladys Knight will be singing, so maybe she can find some...

SIMON: Just sit back and listen.

GONYEA: Exactly.

SIMON: It sounds like a great time. NPR's Don Gonyea, another citizen of the Motor City, thanks so much for being with us.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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