Obama’s vow to governors: I will listen

Parsons is a writer in our Washington bureau.

The nation’s governors came to tell tales of financial woe, but President-elect Barack Obama was already sold on them playing a role in the national economic recovery plan.

After convening almost a complete set of state chief executives Tuesday, Obama pledged “action, and action now” to address the budget shortfalls expected in no less than 41 states in the coming year.

“As president, I will not simply ask our nation’s governors to help implement our economic recovery plan,” Obama told an assembly of 48 governors gathered in historic Congress Hall. “I will ask you to help design that plan. Because, if we’re listening to our governors, we’ll not only be doing what’s right for our states, we’ll be doing what’s right for our country.”

The pledge is easier said than done. Twenty states have together cut $7.6 billion from their fiscal 2009 budgets, the National Governors Assn. reports. Thirty states say they are expecting additional shortfalls totaling more than $30 billion.


After tenuous relationships with the Bush administration, several governors -- most of them Democrats -- said they were hopeful the incoming president would take their counsel as he crafts his economic recovery plan.

They, in turn, promised to help Obama promote his proposal to the American people.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity you’re affording the nation’s governors to have input on something that we believe is crucial to beginning the process of turning this country’s economy around,” Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell told Obama, a fellow Democrat.

The meeting, which included governors of the U.S. territories, came as Obama continued to send warm signals to state and local officials. In introducing Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano on Monday as his choice to head the Department of Homeland Security, Obama said she knows “firsthand the need to have a partner in Washington that works well with state and local governments.”


Obama is expected today to name another governor, New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, to serve as Commerce secretary.

Obama had requested the meeting with the governors, which Rendell arranged and sited in the historic hall where Congress used to meet before Washington was the nation’s capital.

In a private meeting with Obama, there was general agreement among Democratic and Republican governors about the need for investments in infrastructure, said sources who were present.

The Obama team agreed.

“We need to rebuild America . . . and an Economic Recovery Act has to do that,” said Rahm Emanuel, who will serve as Obama’s chief of staff and who attended the meeting. “You have Democratic and Republican governors who see that as essential to . . . economic recovery in their states, and we see it as essential to the economic recovery for the country.”

The faster Congress provides money, the better, Emanuel argued. Still, he stopped short of offering support for any of the figures floated this week, some exceeding $130 billion.

Governors also asked for help to expand children’s healthcare, to continue unemployment benefits and for continued support of food stamps and Medicaid.

Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, was among those arguing that money should go directly to people bearing the brunt of the worsening economy. Facing an estimated $2-billion deficit, Blagojevich has already made budget cuts that closed state parks and historic sites.


“The more help we can give to the average American, the better the economy will be,” Blagojevich said. “And it’s a far better way than bailing out a few corporate, well-connected entities that have powerful lobbyists.”

A day after declaring a fiscal emergency in his state, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said the state would not take federal money until it got its own fiscal house in order.

Schwarzenegger has proposed increasing taxes and fees and cutting spending to close a shortfall of $11 billion.

“I’m an optimist,” Schwarzenegger said. “We cannot ask the federal government for help until we get our act together in California.”

Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden renewed their call for cooperation without regard for political affiliation.

Obama said he never forgets that his political career started in state government, and that he believes governors are those most in touch with the nation’s problems.

Biden specifically recognized Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, his former rival for the vice presidency on the Republican ticket. “The whole country can see the metaphor,” he said. “This election is over, and here we are. We’re all together. We’re all dealing with a common problem.”

Before she left, Palin gave the incoming administration credit for summoning the group together.


“Governors do know best,” she said, “when you talk about some of these issues.”