Southern governors' concerns mirror problems of US

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A phalanx of state troopers made the Marriott Hotel on this resort island look like an armed camp. Personal bodyguards with tiny radio receivers in one ear followed the governors from room to room, from pool to beach. Everyone attending the sessions had to pass through an airport-type metal detector.

Once inside, the atmosphere was relaxed as a dozen Southern governors sat in cushioned rocking chairs (only Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee did much rocking) at the annual meeting of the Southern Governors' Association.

For the most part it could have been a meeting of governors from any group of states. The topics were those that affect most Americans, ranging from how to give children a better education to the price of fuel.

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The discussions and hallway comments by governors revealed how, at a time of diminishing federal funds, states are grappling with needs that are not diminishing - and in some cases increasing.

The backdrop to their discussions was the economy. Yet there was almost an acceptance that states can do little to change what is a national problem. So talks focused on tackling local issues.

The man who helped save New York City from almost certain bankruptcy several years ago, Felix G. Rohatyn, reminded the governors that no one part of the nation can operate on its own, ignoring the good of the nation as a whole. The economy is in too much trouble for that, he said.

''I've never heard of regional arguments in a life boat,'' he counseled the group.

Nevertheless, there were some strains of regional loyalty playing here.

Florida Gov. Bob Graham (D) announced plans for a Southern common market. The plan includes cutting interstate trade barriers (such as differing state truck regulations), pooling money to promote regional tourism, and encouraging the sale of products abroad.

And the decision to move the Southern Governors' Association office from Atlanta to Washington is a clear attempt to counterbalance what is seen as a growing influence of Northeastern and Midwestern states through their Washington offices.

But for the most part there was unity along nonregional lines - around issues that are truly national, such as slowing the massive erosion of soil from farms; improving harbors and railroads for, among other things, the larger future sale of coal abroad; and raising the quality - and the salaries - of teachers.

Education. In tough economic times, ''it's tempting to do less'' in education , said South Carolina Gov. Richard W. Riley. But spending to improve teacher quality is ''like putting money in a savings account,'' he said.

Earlier this year the Southern governors called for a halt to federal cuts in aid to schools to provide extra instruction to students doing poorly (the so-called Title I funds).

Education ranks high on the priority list of most of the governors interviewed here. There was general support for better early childhood education as a means of cutting crime later on.

Tennessee Governor Alexander said his state is likely to adopt an eighth-grade competency test. And he wants to see higher standards for teachers. Mississippi Gov. William Winter (D) is pushing for a statewide compulsory attendance law and wants public schools to have kindergartens.

Fuel prices. Gov. David Treen (R) of Louisiana, whose state has large natural-gas supplies, wants a quick end to federal price controls on natural gas. Florida Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, does not. Neither does Missouri Gov. Christopher S. Bond (R), who says consumers in his state ''are really getting clobbered by the price of natural gas.''

Nuclear waste. South Carolina now accepts low-level nuclear waste from other states but wants to eventually end that practice and get other states to do accept some of the waste. So far no other states are volunteering.

Welfare. A report prepared for the Southern governors warns that changes being considered by Congress in how to distribute federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children and medicaid funds could cut the South's share. (The changes are being studied in an attempt to be certain states needing the most federal help get the most.)

How do governors tackle such diverse issues, especially with fewer federal funds? If Democratic Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia is an example, the answer seems to be: keep a close eye on issues in congressional races, and set priorities at home based on less money.

After conducting a lengthy analysis of who is running, how, and on what issues, in all 10 congressional districts in Virginia, Governor Robb told the Monitor about his own list of priorities and strategies in some detail. Top on his agenda: help students doing poorly to finish school and get jobs; aid port development; reduce prison overcrowding by locking up only the dangerous; trim state payrolls (he has eliminated some 1,600 jobs since he took office in January); and cut out unnecessary services.

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