WHEN the nation's governors talk about budget cuts, as they have been doing the past several days in Washington, they know whereof they speak: The states have become almost political-science textbook examples in showing how to eliminate waste or unnecessary programs, balance budgets, and still meet citizen demands. Congress and the Reagan administration should give serious attention to what the governors are saying about budget balancing.
The message emanating out of the National Governors' Association meeting is clear cut: Cutbacks in federal programs to help reduce massive federal budget deficits are necessary, provided the cutbacks are fair -- and they affect virtually every aspect of the federal program. That means that such cuts must encompass defense spending. The only exception to this type of genuine, across-the-board freeze would be programs specifically directed at the poor.
Such a comprehensive freeze -- which was endorsed by the executive committee of the governors' association over the past weekend -- makes far better sense than the current budget plan for fiscal year 1986 put forth by the White House. The administration budget makes deep cuts in a broad range of social programs, most of them directed at the middle class. But the White House budget exempts defense from such cuts. Indeed, defense spending actually rises under the White House plan, while social programs are held to nominal growth, if that, and, in some instances, are totally eliminated.
What is encouraging in all of the current give-and-take on the budget is that virtually all the players involved now recognize that the rate of increase in federal expenditures must be slowed, if projected deficits in the range of $200 billion and more are to be curbed. Where the governors can make a special contribution in this discussion is that they have already traveled the ``budget cut'' highway and can point out the pitfalls, as well as the best way to go about such an unhappy task.
In most states, budgets are required by law to be balanced. During the recent recession, when tax receipts were first dwindling at the state level, the governors were forced to submit austerity budgets.
They did that. Entire departments and programs were reorganized at the state level. Nonessentials were scrubbed. Hiring limits were imposed. And at the same time, new taxes were sought -- and won.
Today, most states are posting surpluses, although, in some 35 states, by modest amounts. Still, the states have shown that with better budgeting, government can make a significant fiscal turnaround.
The governors are correct in their essential analysis: Cutbacks are necessary. But such reductions must be fair. As noted by Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield in a meeting with the governors: ``We have to look at what happens if we exempt the military'' from a comprehensive budget freeze. By not cutting defense, the senator said, ``we aren't going to come close'' to reaching the savings that will be necessary to reduce deficits substantially.
Defense spending must be part of any truly comprehensive across-the-board freeze on federal spending.