Budget Crises Hurt Governor's Meeting Attendance

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The biggest story at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association isn't who showed up, but who didn't. Guy Raz gets a view of the conference through the eyes of someone who did make it: NPR's Debbie Elliott.

GUY RAZ, host:

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is not among the crowd at the National Governors Association's annual conference this weekend. And he's not the only no show.

NPR's Debbie Elliott did make the scene in Biloxi, Mississippi. And she's with us.

Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Hi, Guy.

RAZ: So, who's there?

ELLIOTT: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. The interesting part of this conference is who's not here. Only about half of the governors are here, in part, because several of them are back home dealing with some pretty serious budget issues.

Even the chairman of the National Governors Association, Pennsylvania Democrat Ed Rendell is not here. He's back in a fiscal crisis back home. He sent in videotaped remarks to open the meeting today that he couldn't even make the trip.

Neither could California Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. As you well know, he is also dealing with a pretty serious budget crisis.

RAZ: So, Debbie, what are the governors who did make this meeting talking about? I would imagine the economy is at the top of the list.

ELLIOTT: Certainly it is, Guy. And the meeting comes right on the heels of a study out this week from the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government that indicates state tax revenues have taken their deepest plunge on record.

Today, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin talked a little bit about that. And he warned that collectively states could be facing something like a $200 billion shortfall in the coming years. He called for a correction.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): We'll have to find the adjustments that need to be made, looking at our past policies, looking at our benefit packages, looking at how we operate our states to be able to live within our means. We understand that, and this is where the rubber hits the road. And governors are CEOs. They make those decisions, and they make them for the best interest, not just today but for future generations.

ELLIOTT: And Guy, another big issue here, of course, has been the economic stimulus. Most of the governors say that money has been helpful. Some governors are a little frustrated with the restraints that are put on how they can spend it. No one here however, seems to have an appetite for another infusion of cash from the federal government.

RAZ: Debbie, this is the first time since the 1930s that Mississippi has hosted this governor's conference and it's in Biloxi, a town devastated by Hurricane Katrina, a symbolic statement there.

ELLIOTT: Right. I think Governor Haley Barbour really is trying to showoff the progress that's been made here on the Coast. And he welcomed everyone here at a news conference this morning very near the water, overlooking the Mississippi Sound where the hurricane basically came ashore.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): Virtually everything that you see from here was devastated by Katrina.

ELLIOTT: Now, while you can still see some of the effects of the storm, there are still slabs where antebellum homes once stood. The governors are being held to places where commerce is back. They're staying at this sprawling resort and casino called the Beau Rivage. Clearly, they're in a place where business is getting back to normal on the Coast.

RAZ: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott from the National Governors Association in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Debbie, thanks.

ELLIOTT: Thanks so much, Guy.

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