Governors defend National Guard

After all 50 protested National Guard cuts, governors won assurances from the White House and Pentagon this week.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Broccoli, ports, and the National Guard played big at this year's winter meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) here.

With healthcare costs set to soar again this year by double digits, the nation's governors called on Americans to exercise and turn down jelly doughnuts for leafy greens - lifestyle changes that could cut health costs for states by a third, says NGA chairman Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas.

Governors also asked President Bush to drop plans to cut the National Guard, to review the decision to turn over management of six US ports to a company owned by the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and to pick up more of the tab for securing the nation's borders.

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This annual meeting two blocks from the White House is a showcase for rising stars among state chief executives - now far more likely a recruiting ground for the presidency than any office on Capitol Hill. Governor Huckabee, who headed to presidential proving ground New Hampshire after this week's meetings, plans to run his next marathon bearing the number 2008. Conversations with President Bush were "very respectful," says Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) of Iowa, another presidential prospect.

All 50 governors signed a letter opposing cuts in troop strength for the National Guard in the president's FY 2007 budget. With tens of thousands of National Guard members in Iraq, governors worry that they will come up short should they face hurricanes, forest fires, floods, terrorist attacks, or other domestic emergencies. They also want Washington to replace the equipment that guard units took overseas - but did not bring home.

In meetings on Monday, President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told governors that they would find the money to support higher troop levels, if higher numbers are recruited, according to several at the meeting. Congress has authorized an increase from 333,000 to 350,000 for the National Guard.

"The president, the Secretary of Defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that if we sign up more than 333,000, we will reprogram the money to pay for it," says Gov. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi, whose state welcomed an outpouring of help from every other state in the Katrina recovery.

"I trust General [Peter] Pace and the president of the United States. They said they would find the money, and I think you could take it to the bank," said Gov. Jeb Bush (R) of Florida, after the White House meeting.

Citing National Guard cuts and port security, other governors say it will take more than "trust me" to reassure states that their needs will be met.

"Until there is a serious dialogue with state, local, and Port Authority officials, I don't think we can say that New Jersey's interests are being protected, which is our primary responsibility," says Gov. Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey. His state, along with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has filed a lawsuit to block the Dubai Ports World deal. Echoing national concerns, governors say they should have been consulted before the deal was approved.

Still, the greatest threat to state budgets is the explosion in health costs, especially the ongoing shift of Medicaid costs to the states. In meetings with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt on Saturday, governors won assurances that they would be reimbursed for costs in the transition to a new prescription drug plan. But they made little headway in challenging the larger shift of burdens to the states.

"You look at the relationship between 50 state sovereigns and the federal government, and the states always come out on the short end of the stick," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation. "They've consistently traded autonomy for cash, and they've consistently wound up with neither."

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